Taste of Texas

By Melanie O'Neill

Bison is America's Original Red Meat

When you think of Texas several things come to mind, ten-gallon cowboy hats, sweltering Texas sun and thick, Big-As-Your-Plate-Ribeye steaks. Texans have enjoyed their huge flavorful steaks for generations — and while the taste is satisfying, the health ramifications of a fat-filled beef steak are weighing heavily on even stout-hearted Texans. Commercially produced, high-cholesterol, high-fat meats are now a staple on "do not eat" lists distributed by many doctors. Enter a new meat that is as old as the endless prairies of Texas —American Bison: America's Original Red Meat.

Lean, heart healthy and delicious, bison is becoming a more popular addition to Texans' diets, partially because it is easily substituted for beef in familiar dishes. Bison tastes like beef, but its flavor is more robust. Some folks describe the flavor as 'sweeter' than beef, some say that bison tastes "beefier than beef." However it is described, bison is a delicious and lean alternative.

The huge thundering herds of American bison served as pantry, refrigerator and general store for the Native Americans. Recently, modern Americans have begun to realize that bison meat brings the same incredible value in today's diet. But where to go to find your bison steak? The easiest answer it to visit Central Market, Whole Foods, HEB or your local specialty meat market. If you don't see it, ask for it and your market owner may be able to source fresh or frozen bison meat.

Another alternative is a bit more work, but infinitely more interesting: build a relationship with a Texas Bison Association Producer. This relationship is priceless and a good chest freezer will be your biggest asset. The boneless meat from one carcass should fit into your large chest freezer. Your producer can recommend a processor and the processor will ask how you want your meat cut.

Here are some recommendations to get you started working directly with a producer.

  • Bison carcasses are cut into the familiar beef cuts. Most people use lots of ground — and any meat that is not cut into something else will make ground. Since bison is so lean, your ground will most likely be 90/10 or 90 percent lean and 10 percent fat. Have steaks cut to your taste. You will want a good assortment of steaks, and remember that lean bison meat does not shrink when cooked, so have your bison steaks cut smaller than you have beef steaks cut. Bison ribeye steaks will not only be smaller than you are used to with beef steaks they also will less marbling, but the flavor will definitely make up for it.
  • Strip steaks and sirloin steaks are good to have on hand and bison round steaks (just like a beef round steak) is a tougher cut of steak with a beautiful flavor — so be sure you work in some marinade time and you will have a delicious meal. Tenderloin are best saved for special occasions, you will only see 10- 20 lbs of tenderloin per animal so you want to make these tender morsels count.
  • An interesting cut to try is the hanging tender. There are only 2 lbs of hanging tender on each animal, but since this interior muscle is rarely used by the animal, it is a very tender cut of meat. Called the "butcher's cut," the hanging tender was traditionally the part of a carcass that the butcher took home for his family. The taste is stronger and the texture, fork-tender. Ask your processor to save this cut for you.
  • Roasts should be cut small, 3-4 pounds and they will be easy to pop (frozen) into your crockpot. Add root veggies for a great pot roast, or cook your roasts alone, drain off the broth and add BBQ sauce - yum! BBQ with none of the guilt!
  • Flank steaks and the traditional skirt steaks make gourmet fajitas with hearty flavor and minimal fat. Bison fajitas are the perfect foundation for fresh-from-the- garden salsa and guacamole and hand made wheat tortillas.
  • The shining star of bison cuts is the tenderloin. Save this for special occasions, because the tenderloin will be a special centerpiece at your table. There are only about 20 lbs. of tenderloin on any given bison, and you would expect to pay a premium ($25/lb - $30/lb) for this delicacy. Take special care to cook bison tenderloin to as close to rare as your guests are comfortable with, and don't bother setting the table with steak knives - forks should be just fine. You won't eat tenderloin with fancy sauces because the flavor is so spectacular, so spend your time and efforts on some wonderful side dishes and your guests will be very appreciative!
  • Any cut of beef you enjoy has a counterpart in bison. Short ribs liver, heart, cheeks. Use your favorite recipe or hop online for inspiration. Contrary to what you may hear, there is no "hump roast" on a bison. The 'hump' on the shoulders of the animal is simply the huge pendulum bone that enables bison to move their gorgeous heads - nothing edible there.

Bison meat has a beef-like texture and flavor; after all, bison are bovine - the same family as cattle. However; there are some important differences. Because there are fewer bison in meat production, bison have a greater tendency to live on large pastures rather than feed lots. Bison are never injected with growth hormones, thus they take longer to reach a profitable meat weight.

As with other lean meats, bison requires special consideration in the kitchen. Beef has marbling that is very simply insulating fat. This means you can throw a beef ribeye on the grill and check back occasionally without burning it to a crisp. In contrast, lean bison meat requires supervision to protect it from the grill's flames. It is best to place the steak away from the hottest part of the grill and cook it low and slow until rare. Bison meat appears redder than beef, so you will want to be sure not to overcook your bison steaks — rare to medium rare is best.

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