Saturday, June 12, 2010
Bison: The Other Red Meat
The American Bison is a relatively new addition to grocery shelves that you may have come across when perusing the grass-fed beef and other specialty meat items. It is not, however, new to this continent. First things first, let's make one thing clear- bison and buffalo are not the same animal. Bison have a hump as a distinguishing feature and make their home in North and South America in rugged conditions such as the Great Plains, and can live up to 40 years as opposed to Buffalo who have no hump, live mainly in Asia and the Cape in Africa, and live both in water (water buffalo) and more rugged conditions (Cape). Buffalo is also used for it's milk which you may have come across if you've ever had fresh buffalo mozzarella- which I highly suggest you do. Bison, on the other hand, is used primarily for meat in modern times but for many Native Americans they were the back bone of life.
Many of the Plain's Native Americans and bison's lives were inextricably intertwined. The bison gave the Native Americans food, shelter, utensils, and through them, a spiritual connection to the land and the bison themselves. Around the same time settlers began encroaching on Native American land, they also began killing the bison which, coupled with unregulated hunting laws pertaining the bison, led to what had been herds containing upwards of 50 million bison prior to settlement to no more than 1,500 in the mid to late 1800s. Settlers killed the bison primarily because they saw them as an inexhaustible food source and as a way to essentially force the Native Americans into starvation by eliminating their primary food source. Today the bison are once again thriving although it has only been in the last 10-15 years that the herd has grown to an estimated 500,000 in North America thanks in a large part to the legal protection established in Yellowstone Park, the National Bison Refuge in Montana, and ranchers actively raising bison on their own land.
Raising bison is in most ways very different from raising cattle. They are not given hormone or antibiotics and spend most of their time grazing freely on grass and hay although, unfortunately, many producers still finish their herds on corn for the last 90-120 days. Because bison are allowed to roam most of their lives, they are nutritionally similar to grass-fed cows except for the influence of corn on their fatty acid make-up when finishing. They are generally leaner and lack the marbling seen in beef. This means that they are low in fat, high in protein, and can be treated like other lean game animals such as venison and elk when it comes to cooking. This usually means that you need to be very careful not to overcook bison. Medium well is probably the highest you would want to cook your meat unless you are braising it although surrounding in a juicier meat to hold in the moisture, like I did with bacon below, will help retain the moisture in higher heat cooking.
So the next time you find yourself confronted with a curious vacuum sealed packaged containing Bison next to your usual grass-fed ground beef- take the plunge to the wilder side of red meat!