Bison has been called America’s indigenous red meat. It’s also a great example of a fresh, locally grown food product available year around. (Those tend to be harder to come by in February in Minnesota, don’t they?)

Benefits of Bison

Though sometimes called buffalo, the scientific name for the bovine family member in question is bison. This meat is a source of healthy protein, with fewer calories per serving than other meat options. Bison is also a good source of iron and vitamin B-12. The animals are typically raised on the open range and eat hay or grass for most of their life, which is one reason raising bison is considered more environmentally friendly than producing beef, for example. Though some bison are entirely grass fed, others are moved to a feedlot and given grain during the last 90 to 120 days before slaughter.

Bison meat has grown in popularity because it is a lean source of protein. Ed Eichten, of Hidden Acres in Center City, Minnesota said this is his 27th year raising and selling bison, and every year the meat has been increasing in popularity. People are realizing the benefits of bison: it’s an all natural product (free range and no hormones used), a good source of protein, and “the flavor’s fabulous,” he said.

Bison is said to have a sweeter, nuttier flavor than beef. Bon Appétit recommends choosing 100 percent grass fed bison, if possible. Don’t let it bother you that the fat of grass-fed animals is yellow (rather than the white consumers tend to prefer). It just means the meat contains beta-carotene, an antioxidant that is believed to boost your immune system. Bison also contains omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs), which may boost the immune system as well — and perhaps help lower the risk of cancer.

Buying Bison

Bison meat is available in the specialty meats section of larger grocery stores, but much of it is produced in the Dakotas. Locally-produced bison is sold by a number of Minnesota farmers, the closest to the Twin Cities being Eichten’s Hidden Acres in Center City, Minnesota. They sell a full line of meat, including ground bison, steaks, roasts, sausage, hot dogs, bratwurst, snack sticks, and jerky. Ed Eichten says they butcher year around, but typically flash freeze all their meat, unless it’s a special order. Eichten’s is at the St. Paul Farmer’s Market and the Oakdale Farmer’s Market once a month in the winter, and weekly at those and a number of other markets throughout the summer months. They also sell locally grown bison on their website and at their retail store in Center City, Minnesota.

Cooking Bison

If you’re cooking tough cuts of meats, low and slow is always best. This is why braising is often recommended for bison. Alternatively, use the slow cooker, as Eichten recommends, in order to retain the moisture. Bison cooks faster than other meats and so the biggest problem tends to be overcooking, he said. It is easy to overcook it because the meat is rather lean, with no internal fat marbling. When checking whether bison is done, you shouldn’t go by color since bison meat may stay red in the middle even when fully cooked. The USDA recommends cooking bison steak or roast to 145 degrees Fahrenheit as measured by a food thermometer. If you’re cooking bison burgers or meatballs, however, note that ground bison should reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the USDA.

Last month, when I went in search of bison to purchase, I came home with a pound of ground bison. I ended up making meatballs. Full disclosure: I have strong opinions about meatballs. The most important thing to know about them is that you should never outsource their preparation because few people know how to make proper meatballs. Proper meatballs do not contain fillers such as breadcrumbs. That’s what my dad taught me. So that’s the kind of meatballs I grew up making, real meatballs that satisfy a farmer’s appetite. Below is the recipe I developed for bison meatballs. Considering every member of my family took seconds, it seems like a recipe worth sharing.

 

Bison Meatballs

1 pound ground bison (90 percent lean)

2 garlic cloves minced

½ teaspoon fennel seed

½ teaspoon onion powder

½ teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon ground paprika

¾ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

 

Heat a large cast iron skillet over medium heat. Add two teaspoons canola oil and swirl it around in the pan. Use a #70 scoop to shape meatballs or measure 1 tablespoon per meatball. Cook meatballs in skillet for about 15 minutes, turning occasionally to brown on all sides. Meatballs are cooked when they reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Avoid overcooking the meatballs, as this may cause them to become dry.

These meatballs are pretty versatile. You can add them to heated pasta sauce and serve them over spaghetti, stir them into a mushroom gravy (homemade, of course) or drench them in your favorite barbeque sauce.

 

By Anita Dualeh