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Buffalo in the Grocery Stores

'The other red meat' can be a healthy addition to diet

By Holly Ebel

lifestyle@postbulletin.com

The buffalo, so much a part of the Old West, is making history again -- only this time it is in the kitchen. Not quite a stampede, but buffalo meat is getting a lot of attention from chefs who have added it to their menus, as well as home cooks who are curious and adventurous.

In response to the growing demand, the number of buffalo being raised in the United States has increased almost 20 percent every year the past several years. Though they once came inches from extinction, there are now more than 350,000 around the country. In fact, buffalo -- the correct name is "North American Bison" -- are being hailed as "the other red meat."

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What consumers are finding is a very delicious, dark red meat, easy and quick to prepare, as well as being a very healthy addition to their diets. But what does it taste like? Some would say the flavor is a little gamey, others that it is mild and slightly sweet and similar to beef. They all are right.

How it tastes depends on how the animal was raised, its age when slaughtered and how long the meat itself was aged. Bison eat mostly grass, preferably the flower part that grows overnight. Many ranchers also feed them grain for several weeks before they are slaughtered. Bison are brought to market at between 24 and 28 months, while the meat is still tender.

Members of the National Buffalo Association passed a resolution some time ago opposing the use of drugs, chemicals or hormones in the production of bison. All of this contributes to the meat being very lean with little or no marbling.

Because there is so little fat in the meat, bison must be cooked rare, or on the rare side of medium rare. It is also best to cook it quickly at a high temperature either on top of the stove or a hot grill. Cooked too long, the meat becomes tough. The best advice: Cook it as you would beef and for the cuts like chuck make stew or a pot roast. Long, slow cooking will tenderize it.

Worried about eating rare meat? With buffalo there is very little danger. In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture has no safety information for buffalo as it does for beef, poultry and pork because bison are not raised in crowded quarters and are processed in small numbers, reducing the chance of bacterial contamination.

For those concerned about saturated fat and cholesterol, this is your meat. One 3 1/2-ounce serving of cooked bison has 2.42 grams of fat and 143 calories, compared with 9.28 grams of fat and 211 calories for cooked beef.

Knowing the benefits of this meat, some consumers are still hesitant to give it a try. For one thing, it costs twice as much as beef. Ground bison can cost from $5 to $7 a pound, with cuts of steak selling for considerably more. There is also the psychological factor. Buffalo is not something we are used to eating, much like elk and ostrich.

Most markets in our area carry buffalo meat. The Hy-Vee store at Barlow Plaza has a very good selection in a special freezer unit by the meat counter.

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"Right now the bison we carry needs to be frozen to maintain its freshness," said Dustin Stewart, meat manager. "At this point it is selling well enough that we have had to restock twice in the six weeks we have had it in the store."

The best sellers are bison burgers, ground bison, wieners and sausage, he said. However, both the wieners and sausage contain ground beef and pork, so you are not getting the true bison product.

"To get the full flavor as well as the health benefits, you need to get the whole-muscle meats like the burgers, the roasts and the steaks," Stewart said.

Whenever bison meat is cooked in the store for customers to sample they buy it and then become repeat buyers, he added.

"Right now it is moving slowly because this is a slow time of year, but also consumers are not as aware of it as they are other meat products, but I predict that will change," he said.

Holly Ebel of Rochester is a free-lance writer.

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