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
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,
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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,”
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
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
“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
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
- 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.