Bison is a meat that's mainly sourced from a large, North American mammal that once roamed the Great Plains region in abundance. Today, much of the bison that's consumed in North America comes from Montana, Colorado, Canada, and the Dakotas.
What Is Bison?
As part of the Bovidae family, which includes cattle, bison belong to a group of hoofed, four-foot mammals with iron-rich red meat. Bison look a lot like a furry ox. Like cattle, this animal's meat is available as steaks, chops, ground meat, roasts, and ribs. Think of the cut of meat from a cow and you're likey to find bison portioned in a similar manner.
The American bison and the European bison are the two types of bison roaming today, and they live on their respective continents. The American bison is smaller but more hearty, and the European has longer legs but less heft.
Before North America was settled, approximately 60 million bison roamed the continent, hunted by the Plains tribes of Native Americans for meat, the pelt, bones, and everything else the animal provided. The Europeans who arrived also hunted the animal and because of this, by 1900 the American bison population had dwindled almost to extinction. Efforts to rebuild the population have helped bison come back.
Those who have an interest in lean meats look for bison in the grocery store and butcher shops, but it's not quite as popular or available as cow's meat. Though farmed, the majority of bison roam free, eating natural grasses and hay, which adds to the flavor, texture, and fat content of the meat.
How to Cook Bison
Season bison as you would beef, with salt, pepper, steak dry rubs, and any other spices you like, and cook it in the same ways: broiling, frying, and grilling, for example. Keep in mind that because bison is lower in fat, it tends to dry out quicker. If you're making a roast it's not a bad idea to coat the bison with a fat source to keep it moist and cook low and slow. Bison burgers and steaks work well on the grill with high heat, though a well-done piece of bison tends to be tough, so it's best to cook medium-rare or medium at the most.
What Does Bison Taste Like?
Most eaters find bison to be a bit grassier than beef thanks to the hay and grass diet the free-range animals eat. It's also denser and lower in fat, so there's not the same juiciness one might get from a hamburger or ribeye. That doesn't mean it's not tasty. The rich, dark red meat offers flavors that are most similar to beef, though in some cases it tastes a bit stronger.
Bison vs. Beef
These two types of meat prove similar to each other in many ways, not surprising since bison and beef come from animals in the same family. Bison tends to be a bit denser due to the lack of fat, and that means it's drier and less forgiving when cooking. This meat also lends a grassy, earthy flavor that's not often found in run-of-the-mill beef, unless the steak comes from grass-fed cattle.
Beef's extra fat means it's great for items like meatballs and hamburgers, which utilize the fat to make the food juicy. However, bison can impart its unique flavor that's great on its own or mixed with a variety of foods such as peppers, cheese, corn, beans, and other hearty ingredients. Beef and bison both have a lot of iron and often look similar on the plate. In fact, some people may not even notice the difference between them, especially if it's mixed into a chili, for example.
You may sometimes see bison also referred to as buffalo, as it's a common misnomer, but they are two different animals. That said, the meat tastes great in stews, cooked like a steak, ground into burgers, and used any way beef is prepared.
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Where to Buy Bison
Ground bison is found in many grocery stores around the country. For more variety when it comes to cuts of the meat, look for bison at a local butcher shop. Sometimes items such as roasts and chops have to be ordered, but it's not hard to get. You can also find it online, frozen, too.
Store fresh bison in the refrigerator, or freeze until ready to use. Once cooked, bison will keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days, and up to 4 months in the freezer.