Wednesday, 16 September 2009 | Tags: ,

Often labeled buffalo at your butcher shop or grocery store, bison is an indigenous mammal to North America that is a healthy, lean alternative to beef and other common meats. Buffalo, on the other hand, are a distantly-related Asian and African species. We find out more about what makes bison so appealing, and so different, from your regular bovine steak.

The Basics

  • Bison is becoming more popular thanks to many chefs including it as a flavourful menu item. Plus, nutritionists agree it’s a healthier alternative to beef, and environmentalists are in favour since raising bison is gentler on the environment than raising cattle.

  • American bison tastes similar to beef. It’s not strong and gamey, but slightly sweeter and richer-tasting than beef.

  • According to the Canadian Bison Association, ranch animals do not receive growth hormones, stimulants, or antibiotics. They are never fed animal by-products, and are pasture-grazed for the majority of their lives. During drought or winter, they may have their diet supplemented with hay or alfalfa.

  • According to the National Bison Association, bison is an incredibly good source of protein, iron, and vitamin B12. It’s also relatively low in fat, calories, and cholesterol. Also, 100% grass-fed bison is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids.

  • There are a few different cuts to consider when buying bison for a particular recipe:

    • The most tender cuts are rib and boneless rib steak, prime rib roast, tenderloin, New York steak, T-bone steak.

    • Medium tender cuts include sirloin steak and roasts, cross rib roast, inside round and outside round roasts, round steak.

    • The least tender cuts are ground meat, chuck and blade steak, chuck and blade roasts, short rib roast, short ribs, and stew meat.

  • Bison meat should be deep red and free of any brown spots. Since this specialty meat is often sold frozen, make sure it’s well-wrapped and completely free of freezer burn.

Cooking Tips

  • Since bison is much less fatty than regular beef, it takes much shorter to cook. It can be done in about 1/2-2/3 the time of beef.

  • It can taste tough if cooked too much. Try not to cook more than medium doneness. Most experts recommend cooking it to rare or medium rare to bring out the flavour and keep it tender.

  • For bison steaks ¾ to 1” thick, grill, broil, or pan-fry them for just a few minutes on each side. The internal temperature should be about 10ºF less than that of beef, to a maximum of 160ºF (which borders on well-done).

  • For bison rib, loin, and tenderloin roasts, season, then roast uncovered @ 275ºF to a max internal temperature of 155ºF.

  • For bison sirloin tip and inside round roasts, sear, season, then roast at 325ºF in a covered pan or slow cooker with some liquid until the internal temperature reaches 145ºF.

  • For ground bison and bison burgers, the USDA recommends ground bison meat reach an internal temperature of 160ºF. For bison burgers, that’s medium-well, with no pink in the middle. Since burgers cooked this long can be dry and rubbery, some chefs recommend mixing in moisture-added ingredients like cooked whole grains (oats), diced vegetables, or cheese.

Other Considerations

  • Store bison wrapped in its original packaging in the coldest part of your refrigerator. Steaks and roasts can store for 3 to 5 days; ground or cuts for only 2 days. Bison can be frozen in its original packaging for up to 2 months, or heavy-duty packaging for longer.

  • Before it is slaughtered, bison can be grass-finished or grain-finished, meaning referring to the diet they’re fed in their final days. Two different taste tests (one reported in the New York Times, the other in Eating Well magazine) found no difference between the flavours of grass-finished and grain-finished bison, but grass-finished bison is significantly higher in omega-3 fatty acids than grain-finished. Grass-finishing is also better for a bison’s digestive system and stress level, which can affect the quality of the meat. Grass-finished bison also requires less natural resources than grain-fed bison.

  • If your local butcher doesn’t stock bison, ask anyway, so that they know there’s a demand. They may be able to order special for you, or to give you the name of specialty ranchers you can order directly from. Keep an eye out for it in freezer cases at local farmers’ markets too. You may also be able t o order it online, but there’s often a minimum purchase.

Be Aware

  • The more tender the cut, the lower amount of marbling, which means the more susceptible it is to overcooking. You can always cook it longer, but you can’t undo over-doneness!

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