A long time ago, in a land not so far away, bison ruled the central plains. In great herds they roamed, grazing the prairie grasses in a web of interdependence between plant and mammal. The native tribes hunted them, and from their bodies came food, clothing, shelter, medicine, tools and household items. They were a gift from the Creator to the tribes, they were brothers, and a spirit in the form of White Buffalo Woman came to humanity and gave the sacred pipe ceremony as a means of communication between the Creator and humans.
And then, they were wiped out. Exterminated. Killed by white hunters with repeating rifles. Whole herds were felled, like clearcut forests, and the thunder of the plains went silent, and the grasses were plowed under and paved over and all was lost forever.
Or was it?
Bison were driven to the brink of extinction, but they have come back, helped along not only by environmentalists, but farmers.
Farmers who raise them, not as tame cattle, but as wild animals, and who sell thier meat, hides and horns to a steadily growing market.
Current estimates place the number of American Bison in North America between 270,000 and 350,000–a far cry from the pathetic 1,500 individuals left by the late 19th century. Most of these animals live on private ranches, according to the National Bison Association, though there are quite a few in public herds on protected ranges, such as Yellowstone National Park, and on Native American held lands.
Why are farmers and ranchers raising wild bison?
Mostly for their meat, though there is a steady market for the hide, hooves and horns as well.
Bison meat is nutrient dense and surprisingly low in fat. In each 100 gram serving of bison meat there is 2.74 grams of fat, as compared to the 10.15 grams of fat in the same sized serving of commercial beef or the 7.41 grams of fat in the equivalent serving of skinless chicken meat. It is high in protein and iron (which accounts for its darker color) and essential fatty acids. It is lower in cholesterol than beef or pork.
It also happens to taste quite good. Bison are range fed on native grasses and other browse plants, with hay supplements in the winter, and this leads to a naturally sweet flavor which is similar to beef, but slightly more complex. The texture of the meat is very fine and tender, provided it is cooked carefully.
There are two ways to cook bison meat–low and slow or hot and fast. Anything in the middle will gain you a very dry, tough, unpalatable cut of meat.
The lack of fat marbling in the meat means that it is best cooked moist heat, slowly. However, if you have a steak and want to grill it–it can be done (we just did it last night)– provided that you cook it quickly and are careful not to overcook it. This means that you must know how to judge when a steak is done to your liking, or you can keep a good eye on the clock. I would suggest actually cooking a little less long than you would an equivalent beef steak–for example, the ribeyes we cooked last night were done after barely two minutes per side, when we cook beef ribeyes for at least three or four minutes per side.
I season bison similarly to beef; the seasonings I use for venison are too strong for bison, which, to my palate, does not have a characteristic “gamey” flavor at all. Last night, I simply rubbed the steaks with ground chipotle, salt, black pepper, dried thyme, a bit of cumin and garlic, and they turned out beautifully. The crust seared nicely and the interior was tender and well-flavored with just the rub. Nothing else was needed, though I can see that a bath in a dry sherry marinade would be a nice alternative.
My next mission is to stir fry bison and see what happens.
Maybe I will use ramps with it, too. Hrm…that could be very good.
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