At Home on the Range

No discouraging words here: Bison provides a more healthful alternative to beef.

May 12, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,Sun Staff

James Lee, who suffers from diabetes and heart disease, used to dodge his doctor's orders not to eat red meat.

He had always loved a good beefsteak and could not give it up.

Then the Howard County man found salvation in the form of a wild, shaggy-haired bison.

With his doctor's blessing, Lee became one of a growing number of Americans who eat bison as an alternative to beef. It's a red meat with one-third the fat of beef, less cholesterol and more iron.

"It keeps me in very good health," said Lee, 76. Once a week, he grills himself a bison steak, seasoned only with a little vinegar.

The amount of bison eaten in the United States still pales in comparison to beef -- a million pounds each month, compared to about 2 billion pounds of beef.

But bison consumption is on the rise, as more people become aware of the nutritional properties of the native North American bovine. Last year, meat from 34,000 bison went to market -- a 36-percent increase over the previous year and an industry record.

"More and more consumers ... are realizing that what they eat determines how good they feel and how long they live," said Dave Carter, executive director of the Colorado-based National Bison Association.

With 2.4 grams of fat per 100-gram serving, bison is lower in fat than even pork and skinless chicken, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And because it is grass-fed, bison is rich in heart-disease-preventing omega-3 fatty acids.

Although bison are popularly known as buffalo, they are closer relatives to domestic cattle than to the buffaloes of Asia and Africa. Before unregulated hunting led to their near-extinction in the 19th century, there were an estimated 60 million bison roaming the land from Canada to Mexico. Today, there are about 270,000 bison in parks and on farms in the United States.

At Whole Foods supermarkets in Maryland, sales of bison have doubled since fresh bison steaks and ground bison were added to meat counters in March. Before that, customers had to choose from frozen meat patties and some prepackaged cuts.

"It's catching on like crazy," said Theo Weening, meat coordinator for Mid-Atlantic Whole Foods stores. "I'm running out every week."

Store employees are being trained to help customers prepare bison, which needs to be cooked differently than beef because of its low-fat content.

Experts credit the wave of high-protein weight-loss diets sweeping the country with bison's increased popularity. Recent mad-cow disease scares also have caused more people to try bison, which are raised in more natural conditions than domestic cattle.

Most producers allow bison to graze freely for all or most of their lives, and shun the use of antibiotics, growth hormones or feed containing animal byproducts. A new USDA-approved label will soon be used to certify bison raised under natural conditions.

Although some people are eating bison for health reasons, for others, it's a matter of taste.

"Your worst cut of buffalo meat ... is sweeter and juicier than your best cut of Black Angus beef," says Gary Bloom, a bison farmer and broker in northern Harford County.

That's perhaps a slight exaggeration. Choice cuts of bison are tender, and have an intense flavor that's beefier than beef. But certain cuts of bison can be tough if cooked the same way as beef that is marbled with fat.

Because it is so lean, bison cooks rapidly. Chefs recommend cooking the dark-red meat at a lower temperature than is used for beef, and serving grilled or roasted bison medium-rare. Bison steaks benefit from an olive oil rub before cooking.

Carter Gooding, a classically trained chef who fell in love with bison eight years ago, says the meat tastes "the way beef used to, before we got into feed lots and growth hormones."

Gooding, who owns a ranch in Somerset, Va., has developed recipes for everything from bison forcemeat roulades to cumin-crusted bison tenderloin. But he recommends that novices start with grilled bison.

"The most fun and easiest to do are the grilled items," Gooding said. Before grilling, he advises, cover a bison steak overnight with a paste made from olive oil, kosher salt, fresh cracked pepper, fresh thyme and a small amount of chopped rosemary and garlic.

Cooking techniques aside, bison can be used wherever beef is used. A quick Internet search turns up recipes for bison burgers, bison chili and bison meatloaf.

The higher cost of the meat may be a consideration for some consumers. A recent surge in the price of beef, however, has made bison prices more comparable. At Whole Foods, bison New York strips currently cost about $15.99 a pound, compared to $13.99 a pound for beef. Ground bison and lean ground beef both are priced at $4.99 a pound.

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