The Original Red Meat

Don’t call it a comeback—bison’s been here all along.

By Melanie Wolkoff Wachsman

Call it what you will—a demand for red meat, a search for something healthful or a craving for an alternative—but don’t call it a trend. Yet, as consumer demand for bison meat continues to increase, it would appear that the latter is true. According to the Westminster, Colo.-based National Bison Association, consumption of bison meat increased more than 20% in 2005, and reached record-level production in processing.

But this does not define bison as the hot protein-of-the-moment. It is, rather, a long-lasting alternative to other kinds of red meat. At least, that’s the message Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association, hopes is getting across to the masses.

“It’s very encouraging,” says Carter. “We had a huge boom in the 90s, followed by a bust. We want to increase demand, but know if it goes up too high it will be out of kilter. Plus, growth is limited, due to the animal’s biology.”

It takes two years to bring bison to market. Beef comes to market at 14 months.

But the main reason for the bust was because “we didn’t tell the whole story,” says Carter.

As chefs discovered bison, they gravitated to high-end cuts, such as the rib eye and tenderloin. Problem was, they ignored other cuts. Today tells a different story.

“Chefs are presenting bison short ribs and slow-simmered pot roasts,” says Carter. “They’re not just using high-end cuts or making burgers. It’s lots of in-between cuts.”

Will this keep bison in the spotlight? Carter’s optimistic.

But, a question remains: Is it bison or buffalo? “Call it whatever you want,” says Carter. “Technically, the animal is a bison.” He says that when French trappers came to the United States, they called it “boeuf,” French for “beef,” which sounded like “buff,” hence, buffalo.

The whole story

“Bison has a mystique about it,” Carter explains. Once on the brink of extinction 110 years ago, today there are 270,000 bison in the United States.

“There’s still a perception that bison are endangered, but as consumption grows, ranchers restore the herds,” says Carter.

Naturally raised, resistant to many diseases and given no growth hormones or antibiotics, bison also adapt well to many environments. For the most part, they graze on grass, not grain. “Since meat takes on characteristics from whatever it eats before processing, bison fed on high-country grass in Colorado and harvested in the fall will taste different from bison harvested on Kentucky bluegrass in the spring,” says Carter. “It dawned on us; we’re doing what the wine industry does.”

The bison industry also overcame what Carter calls “the misconception threshold.”

“People thought bison tasted gamey or tough, but it has a robust, what we call sweeter-than-beef taste, great texture and tenderness,” he says.

“Some describe bison as having a wild flavor profile, much like venison, but it doesn’t have a polarizing flavor,” adds Julie Reid, vice president of culinary at Maryville, Tenn.-based Ruby Tuesday.

Cheese (bison) burgers in paradise

Ruby Tuesday operates more than 800 “burger-centric” locations. While burgers never go out of vogue, Reid recognizes the importance of menu updates.

“We know we have great burgers, but we wanted to give diners alternatives,” she says.

A year ago, bison burgers became that option after her research showed that diners searched for beef alternatives for reasons ranging from issues with beef to cholesterol management to a desire for healthful eating.

The original idea was to make bison burgers a niche item, much like a veggie burger. “We did not anticipate the response we received,” Reid says. “It’s really taken off.”

Ruby Tuesday’s menu suggests slapping barbecue sauce on a bison burger. The smokehouse bison burger also adds cheddar, applewood-smoked bacon and onion straws. Or, order the bison burger peppercorn-seasoned and topped with blue-cheese crumbles.

“Those two flavors [bison and blue cheese] have a real affinity for one another. Bison holds up well to strong flavors,” says Reid.

While bison burgers don’t sell as well as beef burgers, Reid says sales are still significant. “Bison burgers sell more than veggie burgers. No distribution branch has said the bison burgers are not moving.”

She doesn’t foresee adding more bison items, however. “We don’t want to dilute the specialness,” she says. “We’re not going to have bison chili, or something like that. Ted’s is more known as a bison concept.”

Ted’s, as in Ted’s Montana Grill, based in Atlanta, is the brainchild of Ted Turner and George McKerrow Jr. The upscale casual concept opened in 2002, and highlights bison items that include pot roast, meatloaf, burgers and steaks. The concept spearheaded bison consumption in this country.

“That was the intention,” says McKerrow. “Ted’s vision was to save bison. The best way to do it was by making bison a commodity.”

With 40 restaurants already open and an additional eight to 10 scheduled for the end of 2006, Ted’s continues to expand. The operation plans to add 30 more locations by 2008.

McKerrow admits that the public’s perception of bison has improved since Ted’s Montana Grill first opened. “Research showed that people wouldn’t try bison,” he says. “We knew from our own experience that once people try it, they’ll realize it’s not a wild animal out of the woods.”

He says 75% of Ted’s diners come to try bison, and of that number, 8% regularly eat bison.

The reason for bison’s growing popularity is simple. “Green is in,” says McKerrow. “Bison are more environmentally friendly. They’re native to the United States, and have about half the fat of beef.”

Independents join the stampede

Chain restaurants aren’t the only operations placing bison on menus. When Sarah Nelson, chef of Fixture, Chicago, opened her restaurant in mid-April, she added buffalo sliders to the menu.

“We wanted upscale food that’s fun. Buffalo sliders are a version of hamburgers, but more interesting, with a nice twist,” says Nelson.

Her pair of sliders hosts caramelized onions, Maytag blue cheese and a foie-gras mayonnaise.

Johnny Vinczencz, chef/proprietor of Johnny V in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has served a buffalo surf ’n turf since opening in December 2003. The dish places grilled barbecue-spiced buffalo strip loin with half a Maine lobster, Yukon gold mashed potatoes, baby corn, asparagus, lobster pan gravy and a barbecue demi-glace.

“When buffalo stands alone, diners are leery,” says Vinczencz. “Adding lobster entices more people. They can say, ‘If I don’t like the buffalo, at least I have lobster.’ It’s been on the menu so long, I don’t think of it as exotic anymore. I can’t remember customers not enjoying it.”

Vinczencz likes bison for its beef-like flavor; however, he says it tastes richer and stronger than beef. “It works in every application that you’d use beef for,” he says.

Kevin Zink, CCC, chef/owner of The Kitchen Zink, Carlsbad, N.M., agrees. Zink prepared a roast bison hanger steak in homage of indigenous ingredients. “There were huge herds of buffalo in New Mexico,” he says. “I needed an inexpensive cut. The hanger steak is tender, but still considered a secondary cut.”

Zink marinated the steak, burned it over a pecan-wood fire and served it with a white-truffle sauce. “With game meat, the more simply prepared, the better,” he says.

While living in Colorado, Zink often worked with bison, and claims bison osso buco was less expensive to prepare than veal osso buco. He served bison carpaccio made with bison tenderloin and tacos stuffed with buffalo-tongue meat. “The tongue meat is a very rich meat, and tasted like brisket, with wonderful flavor,” he says.

Zink recommends bison newcomers experiment with secondary cuts. “That way, you’re won’t ruin a $30 piece of meat the first time out,” he says.

He also recommends patience. “When I first started braising bison, I timed it like a veal shank, but it takes about twice as long.”

“The secret to cooking bison meat is to cook it a little less than beef,” says Carter. “Since it does not have a high fat content, it cooks quicker. You need to keep an eye on it. We suggest cooking it medium-rare.”

Currently, Zink doesn’t menu bison, simply because it’s too expensive to source. “When we ordered the hanger steak, the shipping cost was more than the 20 pounds of meat we ordered,” he says.

It may be challenging to source, but some say it’s worth the effort. “Bison has a wonderful story to tell,” says Carter. “Bison is a way for independents to differentiate themselves.”

Bison Facts

  • More than 35,000 bison were processed under USDA inspection in 2005, more than double the number of animals processed in 2000.
  • Consumer demand for bison meat grew by 17% in 2005.
  • More than 4,000 ranchers raise bison in the United States.
  • Bison are raised in every state of the United States. There are herds in Hawaii and on Long Island, N.Y.
  • Bison meat contains 2.42 grams of fat; comparatively, beef (choice) contains 10.15 grams of fat, beef (select) contains 8.09 grams of fat, pork contains 9.66 grams of fat and chicken (skinless) contains 7.41 grams of fat.


Melanie Wolkoff Wachsman is based in Louisville, Ky.