What’s big and brown and roams around, and while it’s size distinct, it’s nearly extinct? Why, it’s the North American Bison, of course. This massive land mammal is known to have been a major part of the Native American diet and is re-gaining popularity as a beef-alternative here in Colorado. Nearly every good burger joint in the Denver area offers up a buffalo-burger … but aren’t bison endangered? The answer is, not really. There is no longer a wild-bison population in Colorado. However there is plenty of farm-raised bison to be purchased. In fact, the enormous success of controlled bison populations has officially removed the animal from the endangered species list, so there’s plenty for all of us!
Should we choose bison instead of beef? That can depend on many factors, including nutritional content, price, availability and taste. Bison is a very healthy choice. When compared to a same-size portion of 80% lean ground beef, using the USDA’s Super Tracker Food-A-Pedia, ground bison contains fewer calories by 40%, less total fat, and has more protein per serving. What’s even more exciting is that even when compared to chicken, bison is still the healthier option, containing less calories and total fat than a same-size portion of boneless skinless chicken breast (see nutrition data below). That’s great news for those of us who tend to get into a chicken-rut when planning meals around a lean protein. There are a few drawbacks, however, as bison is far more expensive than beef or chicken. It may not be readily available at one’s favorite grocery store, and when it is available, it’s likely frozen, not fresh. Another reason it is not a more common purchase is that a lot of us have a fear of the unknown (cue scary music). Many people have never had it before and may, understandably, fear that it is too gamy or that it tastes bad compared to beef.Having never cooked it myself, I decided to give it a try. I acquired a 2 pound portion of ground bison from a work acquaintance that had the unique opportunity to hunt buffalo in one of South Dakota’s national parks, where a large herd is maintained and hunting licenses are issued as a necessary population control measure within the ever-growing herd. I was excited to have the chance to cook with all-natural wild bison instead of farm raised because an animal’s environment plays a large role in the quality and flavor of the meat. While farm raised animals are often fed a regimented diet based on nutritional requirements and feed costs, wild animals graze freely, eating from instinct and availability. The bison I am using is entirely wild, not grain-fed or grain-finished. However, store-bought bison meat is a perfectly delicious choice as well.
Having the meat in my kitchen, I was met with the fun task of deciding how to prepare it. Wanting to do something more interesting than a burger, or a typical ground-meat dish, I considered a traditional meat loaf with mashed potatoes and gravy (I know, I know, I said something interesting, however I was pretty sure I could make a meatloaf). Not being one to serve meat as the centerpiece of every meal, I shifted toward a meatloaf sandwich on toasted dark rye with Muenster cheese and a tangy spread of mayonnaise, horseradish and dry mustard.
Meatloaf is pretty easy -- ground meat, eggs, breadcrumbs, a little creativity, and anybody can throw one together. For those who are afraid of the creativity aspect, I’ve included my original recipe for Rocky Mountain Buffa-loaf (see below). The bison meat was easy to work with, having a finer texture than ground beef. It is also much darker in color than beef, appearing more like a game meat (since it is a game meat I wasn’t surprised by this at all), and it is also very lean. Once mixed and placed in the oven, the meatloaf took much longer to cook than I anticipated.
For nearly two hours, I continually checked the buffa-loaf’s temperature awaiting the goal of 165 degrees. Finally after being plated and served to my family (who were about to turn cannibal) I realized it was 9 p.m. on a school night and I was left wondering if it would be worth the wait. Luckily, it turned out beautifully and there seemed to be no drawback to using the lean bison instead of beef. It was sweet and delicate, and paired nicely with the bitter rye, mild cheese and tangy sauce. With the success of this experiment, and undeniable health advantages, I will be incorporating more bison into my future meal planning. Give it a try.
Q: What did Mama Buffalo say when her youngest went off to college?
Rocky Mountain Buffa-loaf
2 lbs ground bison
1 medium onion (minced)
4 cloves garlic (minced)
1 tsp fresh dill (chopped)
1 1/2 tbs fresh parsley (chopped)
1 tsp fresh thyme (chopped)
3 eggs (beaten)
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp black ground pepper
1 cup bread crumbs
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp powdered mustard
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 tbs white vinegar
1 tsp liquid smoke
1/2 cup brown sugar (packed)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, beat eggs. Add all liquids, herbs, spices, onion and garlic. Mix well. Add meat and breadcrumbs. Begin mixing by hand (I recommend removing jewelry first, otherwise the result is quite icky) and continue until completely combined.
Line a standard bread loaf pan with parchment paper and drop meat into pan, smooth out surface, but do not pack the meat in. Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove cover and bake for an additional twenty minutes. Check temperature; remove once the internal temperature at the center of the meatloaf reaches 165 degrees. Allow to stand for 15 minutes, remove from pan, and place on cutting board and slice into desired width.