A couple of years ago, while I was traveling through Pueblo, Colo., a friend invited me to join his family for a home-cooked meal. His wife rustled up a stir-fry of sorts, with thin strips of meat as the centerpiece, and they watched curiously as I dug in.
The meat was chewy and richly flavorful, with a black-pepper rub. But it clearly wasn’t beef. It was bison, they informed me. I’d eaten bison burgers before, and they were quite good. The stir-fry was a memorable meal. The bison meat had a richer taste than beef, with a hint of sweetness.
Grass-fed bison has less than a quarter of the total fats of grain-fed beef — and less fat even than grass-fed beef — with slightly more fat than skinless industrial chicken breast. Bison can also have as much as four times the level of omega-3 “good fats” as industrial beef.
These days, you can find bison meat almost anywhere. Try checking the meat and freezer sections of your local supermarket or a well-stocked health food store. Bison has become a staple at a wide range of restaurants, from the eco-minded Backwoods Cafe overlooking Mount St. Helens in Washington to the much-praised Graham Elliot restaurant in Chicago, where chef Brian Runge says bison still has exotic appeal for food adventurers.
Few foods are more indigenous to America than bison is. Early settlers referred to the animal as buffalo because French fur trappers called the animals boeuf, which means “ox” or “bullock,” and which sounds much like “buff.” Yet bison are not related to true buffalos such as the African water buffalo, and are instead closely related to domestic cows and European bison (also known as wisents). Still, the name buffalo stuck, and most people use bison and buffalo interchangeably.
For a time, it looked as if bison would go extinct. Before Europeans began moving westward onto the Great Plains, the bison was the dominant grazing mammal, numbering in the tens of millions and ranging from present-day northern Mexico into Canada. They were a staple of existence for Native American tribes of the Great Plains, but by the late 1800s the settlers had slaughtered the buffalo to near-extinction — down to only about 700 animals.
The survivors were moved to parks, zoos and private herds, and over time they split into essentially two different bison — pure-bred wild bison (about 5 percent), and those whose genome has been modified by inbreeding and crossbreeding with domesticated cattle. The latter now accounts for the majority of available meat.
Still, the bison comeback has been significant. Now there are more than 450,000 head on public lands and in private herds in the United States and Canada. Some 4,500 private farms and ranches raise the iconic animals. Most of those ranchers got their start after the mid-1960s, when Custer State Park in South Dakota auctioned some of its herd, says Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association.
“Some of the ranchers today can trace their stock back to that first auction,” Carter says. The industry grew slowly from there.
Media mogul Ted Turner was an early investor in bison, buying his first animal in 1976. He now owns herds that total more than 15,000 bison on 14 ranches, part of the 2 million acres of land he owns around the country. As his herd grew, so did the bison business. There were ups and downs — Carter says the business stumbled a bit in the 1990s when Turner’s buying drove up the price of individual animals — but the market rallied after consumers began to buy into the taste and health benefits of bison meat.
Managing a bison herd is not for the inexperienced. While bison thrive on grass, they can sustain themselves on hay and require about the same acreage per head as cattle. But bison have never been domesticated. They are big, strong and unpredictable, able to leap and turn as quickly as a football wide receiver does — and crash through conventional fences like a linebacker. They will attack humans if they feel threatened, which means they can be extremely dangerous.
Yet for all of that, bison ranching is simpler than cattle ranching in some ways, says Delaware buffalo rancher Bobby Collins, whose two herds total about 70 head. Collins got into the business in the early 1980s when he encountered a bison rancher during a business trip to Kansas City, Mo. Collins — already tending several head of Hereford cattle on his Delaware farm — was infatuated with the rugged animals.
He kills two or three animals each month, sending them for processing to nearby Maryland and selling the meat through his own store and online.
Bison grow to more than 6 feet in height, and Collins harvests them when they are between 1,050 and 1,150 pounds (the yield is about 62 percent of the live weight, or from about 650 to 713 pounds of meat per animal). But getting the bison from field to slaughter is trickier than simply herding cattle.
“A bison will go anywhere it wants to go — not where you want it to go, but where it wants to go,” Collins says. “You have to be tactful. You have to entice it to go.”
South Dakota holds the most bison — about 39,000 animals on 179 ranches, according to the five-year U.S. Department of Agriculture farm census. The rest of the largest herds are scattered around the bison’s natural terrain of the High Plains, in part because those are the states with the most open space available for herds of grazing animals.
Slaughterhouses and processors tend to gravitate to where the herds are, though there’s plenty of space in the supply chain to handle increased processing facilities.
Increased production of bison meat may be helping to support the development of mobile slaughterhouses — fully equipped trailers that travel from ranch to ranch to slaughter animals in the field. On-farm slaughter reduces the stress on the animal, which advocates argue is more humane, and many say improves the quality of the meat.
These days, ranchers can’t produce enough animals to supply the demand. In June, the Bison Association reported that marketers could sell 25 percent more buffalo meat if ranchers could produce it, even though production of harvested bison rose to 70,000 animals in 2009, double the production in 2002.
Bison meat prices tend to be higher than those for beef, a function of supply and demand, and of the longer amount of time it takes to raise a bison to harvest (three years) compared with cattle (two years).
At retail, a pound of Great Range brand grass-fed ground bison in a southern California supermarket costs about $9 in late August, compared with $4.59 for ground Angus chuck and $4.89 for ground beef sirloin. In Warner, N.H., the Yankee Farmer’s Market advertises ground bison for $9.29 a pound, and ground bison sells for $10 a pound on the website of Wild Idea Buffalo Company, based in Rapid City, S.D.
“There are bison in just about every state,” Carter says. “There’s even a herd on the Big Island of Hawaii, and one on Long Island in New York.”
Much of the industry’s growth is due to growing consumer recognition of the health benefits of grass-fed meat.
Lower in cholesterol than chicken, grass-fed bison has more of the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than meat from grain-fed, feedlot animals. Omega-3s help limit plaque buildup inside arteries and the heart, and reduce arterial inflammation and clotting. People who eat lots of omega-3s have a lower chance of having high blood pressure, and are as much as 50 percent less likely to suffer heart attacks. (For more information on how omega-3s keep you healthy, read The Fats You Need For a Healthy Diet. — MOTHER)
Some ranchers finish bison with grain, which adds fat. But in bison, the fat is right under the skin so it is easily trimmed away, not like the marbling that grain-finishing produces in many cattle breeds.
Grain-finishing evens out the flavor from region to region, Carter says, but consumers are beginning to understand the nuances of flavor, and that bison raised in different parts of the country at different times of year will have slightly different flavors.
The biggest hurdle new bison tasters face, Carter says, are their own expectations for its flavor.
Folks who understood those messages about diet and health, and that bison is sustainable, were a little suspicious about its taste, he says. “They thought it was going to be tough or gamey. Our biggest challenge was to get folks to take that first taste.”
Once mostly eaten in restaurants, bison is moving onto family tables. In 2004, some 80 percent of bison sales were through restaurants. In May 2011, an industry survey found the market about evenly split between restaurants and grocery stores.
That shows that people are getting more comfortable cooking bison, Carter says. The industry is picking up customers through the locavore movement, with consumers buying quarters and halves from local ranchers around the country.
The website Local Harvest lists about 30 bison vendors. The bison association also offers links on its website to local and regional sources — see the National Bison Association's website to find out more.
Remember that bison’s low fat content means it can easily dry out on the grill or on the stove. On the grill, cooking only five minutes a side for bison steaks is about right.
Bison roasts take particularly well to a slow cooker, the “low and slow” approach to cooking the meat while still keeping it moist.
Ground bison meat is a perfect ingredient in your favorite tomato-based pasta sauce or hearty chili recipe. You can even try a bison meatloaf!
Bison is so adaptable that it can stand in for beef in any recipe, as long as you pay attention and are sure to not overcook it.
Want a good recipe? Try making the National Bison Association’s Peruvian Lomo Saltado Recipe for a tasty take on bison meat.
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