How to Cook Bison Meat, With a Side of History

Are you eating bison meat? There are plenty of good reasons to do so, from the rich flavor and leanness of the meat to the regenerative nature of bison ranching. Here’s a little history of this important animal and some tips on cooking bison properly.

What’s in a Name?

Buffalo versus bison. Is there a difference? While the names are used interchangeably in casual conversation, the American Bison (Bison bison) is a distinct mammal native to North America. The bison is only distantly related to the other true buffalo in the world: the Asian water buffalo and the African buffalo.

Water buffalo vs. bison.

However, the term “buffalo” was used by French trappers in the U.S. as early as 1635, probably from bœuf, meaning ox or beef.  So the name “buffalo” is something of a misnomer, but it has entered the vocabulary of American English. We prefer to use the more precise word “bison” to differentiate it from the water buffalo, which is also eaten in some parts of the world.

A Brief History of Bison

In the past, the bison population was mostly concentrated in the prairies, where Native American tribes such as the Lakota Sioux depended on them for survival. Bison roamed the Great Plains in such large numbers that a herd would sound like thunder as it galloped over the prairie. It is estimated that before Europeans arrived in North American there were more than 125 million of the massive, shaggy beasts.

1844 painting by George Catlin entitled, “Hunting Bison in USA.”

Sadly, within a few decades in the 19th century, this ox-like animal, standing 6 feet at the hump and weighing more than 2,000 pounds, went from one of the most populous animals in North America to near extinction. They were victims of mercenary desire for bison skin and tongue (a prized delicacy), the wars against Native Americans, westward expansion, and the callous sport of shooting bison from train cars, which left the landscape littered with spoiling carcasses. Sitting Bull, the Lakota Sioux chief, said: “A cold wind blew across the prairie when the last buffalo fell…a death wind for my people.” By 1889 only 600 bison remained in a couple of preserves, including Yellowstone Park.

However, the bison’s fortunes turned in 1894, when President Grover Cleveland signed a federal bill forbidding the slaughter of the animals. Soon after, the American Bison Society was created. Its honorary president was Theodore Roosevelt: under his aegis, Congress established wildlife preserves for bison. Today the calamity of the 19th century has been somewhat reversed. Bison herds are increasing across America and Canada, especially in the northern Plains states. It is estimated that there are half a million bison in the U.S. today.

Ranching Bison

Bison are not domesticated ruminants, however, there are many ranches raising them today because they have become commercially attractive. This proves the adage “We must eat them to save them.”  The large animals need a lot of room to graze and always remain a little wild, so great care is taken on the ranches. There is very little human interaction, and bison are left to graze as they have done for centuries, enriching the soil as they move across pastures.  

Bison Are Good for the Environment

Bison are roaming ruminants and natural grazers. They take the sweetest parts of the plant and leave the rest to replenish the soil. Their cloven hooves disturb the topsoil, incorporating organic matter and leaving cover to fertilize and encourage plant growth. The result is a beautiful, well-nourished, and healthy prairie consisting of grasses, sedges, and legumes that sequester carbon in the soil, reduce water usage and provide enhanced habitat for wildlife and livestock.

The wide-ranging herds of bison that once populated the west were the direct cause of the rich soil of the prairies, which is still a resource for our mid-western farms. Regenerative farms recreate that movement of ruminants over the earth because these animals are the key to replenishing the soil.

Cooking Bison Meat

The lean, red meat of the American bison has between 15 and 30 percent more protein and 25 percent less cholesterol than beef. In a 3 ½ –ounce serving of buffalo sirloin, there are only 3 grams of fat (compared with 14 grams in beef sirloin), and about half the calories (120 versus 210).

Since buffalo meat has less fat than other red meats it cannot stand up to intense heat. Fat is an insulator that melts before meat begins to cook. When that doesn’t take place, the meat starts cooking immediately. Since the cuts of beef and bison look the same, except that bison meat is darker in color—a brownish red—people mistakenly overcook it.  Generally, it is best to first rub it with a little oil to protect it.

Kalbi Style Grilled Buffalo Steak

It’s also important to moderate the heat. If you roast a piece of beef at 325 degrees F, lower the temperature to 275 degrees F for a similar cut of buffalo. For broiling, lower the broiler pan down a notch, at least 6 inches from the heat. And for grilling, use the cooler part of the grill. The meat will then cook in about the same length of time as beef. To be sure of the degree of doneness, an instant-read thermometer is the best tool. The ideal internal temperature is 125 degrees F to 130 degrees F, medium rare. Once you taste it you will be hooked on the sweet, rich meat.

Like the true native that it is, bison meat is a great partner with other indigenous American foods, like corn, tomatoes, peppers, chilies, and bourbon. While the meat can take strong spices, it’s best to season simply and enjoy the natural flavor. Try it and you will be hooked on the rich, sweet, and satisfying taste of bison meat.

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