Just a decade ago buffalo (technically bison) meat sounded pretty exotic. Today, it’s fairly easy to find at natural foods stores, farmers’ markets and some supermarkets. There are even buffalo-themed restaurants and cookbooks. But is bison meat—America’s “original red meat”—really so much better than beef, as claimed?
At the ranch
Bison are raised on ranches or farms, where they graze for their food (that is, they’re grass-fed). Regulations and industry standards don’t allow the use of hormones or routine antibiotics, which are often given as growth promoters to cattle.
Environmentalists like grass-fed bison because this method of meat production is more sustainable and less polluting than conventional methods. As bison graze, they keep the ecosystem in check by preventing grasses from overgrowing, while their waste nourishes the soil, among other benefits. Properly grazed grasslands can, in fact, help stem global climate change because they trap the carbon from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and redistribute it in soil.
But as bison meat becomes more popular, many producers have turned to grain-finishing in feedlots for several months, similar to the way cattle are fed before slaughter. This makes the texture and flavor of the meat more consistent—and turns the yellow fat to white—which some people prefer. Though bison tend to spend less time in feedlots than cattle, being confined is still, as critics say, inhumane and unnatural for animals, particularly wild ones. Moreover, bison feedlots can have the same health and environmental problems as cattle feedlots. For example, 66,000 pounds of bison meat were recalled last year due to possible E. coli contamination.
Whether 100 percent grass-fed or grain-finished, bison meat is leaner than beef, though grain-finishing does increase the fat content somewhat. And like all meat, it’s rich in protein, iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and other nutrients. The National Bison Association promotes it as having only 2.4 grams of fat and 143 calories in 3.5 ounces cooked, compared to 8 grams of fat and 200 calories in a piece of “select” beef. That’s based on the leanest cuts, trimmed of all fat. Other bison cuts have 4 to 9 grams of fat and 165 to 190 calories, comparable to some lean beef cuts; ground bison meat can have 15 grams of fat and 240 calories in 3.5 ounces.
Bison meat is also promoted as a good source of omega-3 fats. Grass-fed cuts have more of these heart-healthy fats than conventional beef (the same is true for grass-fed beef), but the amount is minimal compared to salmon and other fatty fish. And grain-finishing causes a rapid decline in omega-3 levels.
In the kitchen
Because bison meat is so lean, it cooks quickly and becomes tough if you cook it too long or at too high a temperature. Chefs often recommend cooking steaks to no more than medium-done. To keep moisture in, sear with a little vegetable oil over high heat and then cook slowly at reduced heat. You can grill or broil chops and steaks because they’re more tender. Moist, slow cooking is best for less tender cuts such as chuck. Ground meat patties should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F—the point where the pink just starts to disappear. Buffalo is a good substitute for beef in most recipes—as long as you don’t overcook it.
Can’t find bison at your market? BisonCentral.com is a source for locally raised bison and online retailers. Several producers supply exclusively grass-fed products.
By the way: Buffalo milk and cheese (buffalo mozzarella) come from domestic water buffalo, an unrelated species (as wild animals, bison are not amenable to milking). Needless to say, buffalo wings don’t come from bison, either.