The American bison is back, and not just on the Great Plains.
Thanks to two Teds — President Teddy Roosevelt and media mogul Ted Turner — the bison has traveled an unlikely path from ubiquity to near extinction to rising star of the culinary scene.
The problem now is that Americans — who last year bought 31 million pounds of bison meat, about double from five years earlier — have become so unfamiliar with the meat, most don't know how to prepare it.
"Bison meat is utterly delectable, similar to beef though more intense and not at all gamey," says chef John Ash, author of "American Game Cooking." But because it's so low in fat, bison also is easy to overcook and turn tough.
At its peak, the North American bison (also called buffalo) may have numbered close to 125 million. But by 1900, they had been hunted to near extinction. The population began a slow bounce back in 1905, when Roosevelt founded the American Bison Society, the United States' first effort to save the iconic animal.
Bruce Aidells, author of "The Complete Meat Book," also credits Turner with helping the bison's culinary comeback. Turner owns the world's largest herd of bison and has sought to make the meat a part of the American menu once again. It's working.
In recent years, bison has begun showing up on a growing number of restaurant menus and has become a staple at larger grocers and natural food stores. Even big-box retailer Costco began carrying it in 2007.
David Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association, says bison enjoys a "sweet spot" between interest in healthful foods, sustainable farming and a broadening American palate.
For the most part, bison are pasture-raised and healthy, meaning ranchers don't need hormones and antibiotics. It's also healthy to eat. The leanest cuts have just 143 calories and 2 grams of fat per 31/2-ounce serving, compared to 9 grams for the leanest cut of beef.
The flavor of bison is quite similar to beef, but perhaps a bit more intense and meaty.
Carter points out that there is some variation in flavor because unlike cattle, bison are still a relatively wild animal and most ranchers want to keep it that way to preserve the natural quality of their product.
But leanness comes with a price. While bison is interchangeable with beef in most recipes, it requires a little extra attention because the meat is so lean.
Tender cuts, such as steaks, have little fat marbling the way a good beef steak does. Which means they should be cooked to no more than medium-rare or the meat will come out dry and tasteless, says Ash.
On the other hand, tougher cuts, such as chuck, brisket and short ribs, need to be cooked at a low temperate for a long time in order to get tender results.
Ash says that a good introduction to bison is a steak or a burger. These also are the cuts most readily available grocers.
For steak, he prefers simple preparations that allow the unique flavor of the meat to come through, such as a simple rub of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper for steaks.
Using ground bison, which usually is more than 90 percent lean, presents a slightly different challenge. A bison burger, for example, will have the best flavor and texture if it is cooked to rare or medium-rare at the most. Federal guidelines recommend cooking ground beef (and bison) to at least 155 F, which amounts to medium-well to well done. But that will give you a dry and crumbly bison burger.
If you do plan to cook ground bison past medium-rare, Ash recommends adding some fattier ground beef or even pork to help keep it moist.
Aidells has a similar approach. He likes to add plain yogurt and fresh breadcrumbs to his bison burgers, meatloaves and meatball blends.
But if you prefer your meat well done, you can still enjoy bison, says Aidells. He feels that the tougher cuts, such as the brisket, chuck and short ribs, often are overlooked and can be the most enjoyable parts of the bison.
The tougher meat has much less fat than the same cut of beef, but has substantially more collagen, which the connective tissue in the muscle. When cooked at a low temperature over a long time, this collagen eventually melts, creating fall-apart tender meat.
Braising tougher cuts in a flavorful liquid, says Aidells, is an excellent way to go. The rich flavor of the bison meat stands up well to intense seasonings.
Though ground bison and some types of steak are widely available, to get some of the other cuts you may need to ask your butcher or even order from a purveyor of specialty meats. Go to bisoncentral.com for a list of sources for bison meat.