Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Thursday

November 15, 2012

Learn to love the alternative red meat

Bison — or buffalo — is a healthier option

Nothing says "Yum!" like a bit of nomenclatural confusion... Especially with a side of near extinction.

But that's what you get once you venture down the culinary path with bison, an alternative red meat that is showing up at more and more grocers nationwide. And these massive shaggy creatures are such a delicious — and good for us — meat, it's worth sorting it all out.

So let's start with the name. The critter you know as the American buffalo (yes, of rolling plains and Native American fame) really isn't a buffalo at all. Turns out there are only a few types of buffalo in the world (including the Asian water buffalo and African Cape buffalo). The American buffalo (technically a bison) is more closely related to your run-of-the-mill cow.

Still, people tend to use the terms interchangeably and we're not going to get too bent out of shape over it.

Once, bison were hunted to near extinction. But they've made a pretty good turnaround and these days are raised primarily for consumption. Why do you care? Because bison meat (which is raised without hormones or antibiotics) can be incredibly tender and flavorful, with a sweet, rich beefy flavor.

It also happens to be amazingly lean, packing fewer calories and less fat than beef and even skinless chicken.

That low-fat profile comes with a price, however. Like any lean meat, bison has a tendency to cook quickly, so quickly that it's easy to overcook it. And that is why bison has a reputation for being tough. It isn't. If you have bison that is tough, that just means it was overcooked.

Though bison is available in most of the same cuts as traditional beef, the most common varieties at grocers are ground and steaks. We'll stick with those.

You can use bison much as you would beef. The trick is to modify the cooking method (rather than the flavors or other ingredients) to account for the leanness.

When cooking ground bison, it's best to work in some sort of liquid flavor to keep the meat moist. This might mean eggs or tomato paste for a meatloaf, or some sort of pan sauce or gravy if you are browning it in a skillet. That also makes it ideal for meatballs simmered in sauce or for using in chili.

For bison steaks, think fast and furious. Season them, then pop them under the broiler or on the grill for just a few minutes per side.

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