Bison: it's the other red meat.
The more expensive, but better-for-you red meat, to be exact.
After a slump in sales in recent years due to the lagging economy, bison meat is making its way back to dinner tables.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Shoulder roast and T-bone bison meat on sale at Darrow Bison Range in Schellsburg.
It's the perfect storm for buffalo, once a dying breed on the verge of extinction in the late 1800s. The economy is gradually recovering. Health is a concern for many. And eating local and organic is en vogue. All this means more people are willing to shell out $6 a pound or more for the leaner, more nutrient-dense bison meat.
"It's a good market for bison," Jim Matheson, assistant director of the National Bison Association said. "We're experiencing record high meat markets right now. There's simply not enough buffalo to meet demand."
Bison is still a fairly small market, with about 70,000 processed last year, compared with 125,000 cattle processed in one day, Matheson said.
Rub on bison steaks makes great flavor
During summer, I'm likely to grill as many as four or five nights a week. It just makes sense for the weeknight kitchen.
Grilling is fast, easy and leaves almost no cleanup. Especially when you do the entire meal on the grill.
The only downside of grilling with the frequency I do is that meals can start to feel repetitive. That's why I am constantly experimenting with new rubs, brines, marinades and seasoning mixes - all of which are near effortless and versatile ways to add tons of flavor.
Burgers, for example, can be spiked with different seasonings for fresh approaches each night. Perhaps an Asian-inspired blend of fresh ginger, garlic, chives and mustard powder one night, then a mix of diced jalapenos and Jack cheese the next.
Pork and chicken can be brined in a mix of cool water, sugar, salt and whichever seasonings appeal to you. Beef (or in the case of this recipe, bison) does particularly well with rubs, either wet or dry.
For this recipe, a base of balsamic vinegar and tamarind paste (widely available in the Asian aisle at most grocers) add tons of flavor, while also keeping the meat (bison dries out quickly) moist.
Bison Steaks with Balsamic-Tamarind Wet Rub
Start to finish: 30 minutes
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon tamarind paste
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
Four 6-ounce bison steaks
In a large bowl, mix together the oil, vinegar, tamarind paste, salt, pepper, cinnamon and smoked paprika.
Add the bison steaks and use your hands to slather the mixture evenly over all sides of the steaks. Set aside at room temperature for 15 minutes.
Heat the grill to medium-high. Oil the grates. Grill the steaks for five minutes per side, or until deep grill marks appear.
Transfer to a plate, cover and let rest for five minutes before serving.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 252 calories; 85 calories from fat; 10 grams fat (2 grams saturated; 0 grams trans fats); 65 milligrams cholesterol; 2 grams carbohydrate; 37 grams protein; 0 grams fiber; 317 milligrams sodium.
Garlic-Paprika Grilled Corn
Start to finish: 20 minutes
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, very soft
2 cloves garlic, finely diced or mashed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon smoked or sweet paprika
4 ears corn, husked
In a small bowl, mix together the butter, garlic, salt and paprika.
Rub a quarter of the mixture over each ear of corn, then wrap each tightly in foil.
Heat a grill to medium-high. Grill the corn for five minutes, then serve wrapped in the foil.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 254 calories; 128 calories from fat; 14 grams fat (8 grams saturated; 0 grams trans fats); 30 milligrams cholesterol; 27 grams carbohydrate; 5 grams protein; 7 grams fiber; 252 milligrams sodium.
This wasn't necessarily the case a few years ago, when the buffalo market, along with many other retail products around the country, felt the effect of the economic downturn. As the economy took a nosedive, bison meat was not as much of a priority to consumers. Local bison farms felt the squeeze.
At the Darrow Bison Range in Schellsburg, owners Richard and Ann Darrow noticed a decrease in sales a few years ago.
But this spring, the Darrows enjoyed a spike in sales once again. The Darrow Bison Range opened in Juniata County in 1988 and moved to Schellsburg in 1993. On the farm, there are about 150 buffalo, but at various times of the year the Darrows could have more than 300.
"We raise mainly for breeding stock, but we do sell meat in our gift shop," Ann Darrow said.
The animals are slaughtered at a federal inspected plant, Ann Darrow said, and the frozen meat is sold in the farm store.
One of their major customers is the Jean Bonnet Tavern just outside of Bedford, where they sell close to 300 bison burgers a month. Just like regular beef burgers, the bison burgers come topped with cheese, mushrooms, onions or any way customers like them.
"It always sells pretty well," owner Melissa Jacobs said. "It's great for people who are looking to try something that's a little bit different."
Bison meat, along with being lower in fat and cholesterol, has a sweeter taste, Ann Darrow said. Once people try the meat, they usually come back for more.
The Jacobs decided to serve bison on the menu about eight years ago because the Darrow Bison Range was so close to the restaurant. Many customers come to the restaurant after visiting the bison ranch.
"Having a bison farm in the local area generated some interest in it," Melissa Jacobs said. "Also more and more of our guests are looking for things that are raised locally, and there's been a huge trend with the whole organic and buying local."
Bison are raised without antibiotic or growth hormones and are not domesticated, meaning they are free to roam acres of land and do not have much interaction with people.
"Educated food consumers have turned to bison. They are committed to the product and find it's worth the extra cost for their health and everything else," Matheson said.
At the ABB Bison Farm in Bellefonte, sales have been good this year as well. The farm, which had its first bison in 1991, is relatively small, with just three bison raised for eating and one "pet" bison, 16-year-old Bentley.
Owners of the farm Ann Brooks and her boyfriend, Bill Leonard, raise the bison and sell the meat at their store. They buy their bison from Richard Curry, who has a relatively large bison farm in Duncansville. Most customers are repeat customers.
"It's worth the extra money. It's so healthy and it tastes so good," Brooks said.
"We're not trying to compete with beef. We're our own little niche market," Matheson said.