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Bison: A Better Beef?

Aug 08, 2011 10:46PM ● By Anonymous

Amid the piles of tomatoes, stacks of string beans, and baskets of zucchini, something much more animal than vegetable or mineral is being sold at the Easton Farmers’ Market: bison meat from SB Farms, located in Hurlock, Maryland. The very presence of bison meat signifies a growing trend, both regionally and nationally—the consumption of alternative livestock.

Jeff and Martha Moran first stumbled across owner Bill Edwards and his products at the farmers’ market after they’d already tried bison meat in a local restaurant. Not only did they find the taste and nutritional benefits of bison appealing, they also had an interest in where the bison came from. “Bill invited us to tour the Edwards family farm and explained how their bison is raised,” Jeff says.

Edwards started SB Farms 15 years ago after reading an article about a man in Pennsylvania who raised alternative livestock. After visiting the man’s farm, Edwards decided to follow in his footsteps. “When I saw his herd, something came over me,” he says. “I knew I wanted to raise this animal.”

In 2005, Trey and Angela Lewis opened Gunpowder Bison and Trading Ranch, Maryland’s second bison farm, in Monkton, 25 miles north of Baltimore. They had considered raising livestock such as rodeo bulls, emus, and alpacas before deciding on bison and purchasing their first herd after seeing the animal at a farm show and speaking with a bison consultant.

SB and Gunpowder are the only two bison farms in Maryland right now, but the product is gaining in popularity. Bison can be purchased in both farms’ retail stores and at farmers’ markets throughout the region. You’ll find Gunpowder at the FARMFRESH Market in downtown Annapolis’ Donner Parking Lot from 8:30 a.m. until noon every Sunday through November 20th. SB Farms sells at the Cambridge Main Street Farmers’ Market from 3 to 6 p.m. every Thursday through mid-October and at Easton Farmers’ Market from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays through the month of December.

According to Edwards, consumption of bison meat has gone up 10 percent each year for the past five years. Gunpowder’s sales have increased 1,620 percent in its six years of operation.

“Demand has reached a critical point,” Edwards says. “The word is out.” By that he means the taste of bison meat, which is astonishingly lean and full of flavor. Though a bit sweeter than beef, it can be substituted for beef in nearly any recipe.

While a 100-gram serving of select beef has 10 grams of fat and 219 calories, bison has 2.4 grams fat and 143 calories. That’s less fat and calories than either skinless chicken (7.4 grams of fat and 190 calories) or salmon (11 grams of fat and 216 calories), both of which are typically considered the healthiest of animal protein choices. In addition, bison has higher iron and lower cholesterol contents than other types of animal proteins.

As an industry standard, bison are raised primarily on grass—and without the use of antibiotics, steroids, or added hormones. “The meat is healthy to start with,” Edwards says. “If you tinker with it, you change the nutritional information.”

But that healthfulness comes at a price. Edwards explains that the cost of special handling equipment makes raising bison an expensive proposition. As of press time, the price of one pound of ground bison meat varies between $6 and $8 per pound at local grocery stores, which could be slightly more than the flat $6-per-pound price when purchased directly from SB Farms.

Gunpowder charges a bit more ($8.50 per pound) but ships their meat nationwide. Aside from ground meat, both farms sell other cuts of bison, such as rib eyes and New York strips ($16 for 10-ounce cuts at SB Farms), and T-bone or porterhouse steaks ($24 per pound and $36 for 22 ounces, respectively, at Gunpowder).

When compared to the cost of a pound of factory-raised beef in your local grocery store, some consumers might suffer from sticker shock and forgo buying it.

Beth Brewster, director of Chesapeake Culinary Center (CCC) in Denton, has experienced this firsthand. A nonprofit organization that trains high-school students in the culinary arts, CCC occasionally uses bison in dishes when customers request it, but it’s too costly to justify keeping much in stock. “I buy the steaks for me, but it’s expensive,” she says. “You run into who your clientele is and what they’re willing to spend.”

And those who don’t pass it up due to expense may simply be hesitant to experience something not yet considered your standard protein. “In the beginning, we met many new customers who were apprehensive about trying bison meat,” says Gunpowder’s Angela Lewis. “It took some convincing before they gave in and bought their first product.” The farm first marketed the bison as a novelty item, targeting sales to people who wanted to try something new.

Once folks learned about the health benefits of bison, their marketing strategy changed—and consumer perception has changed along with it. “As bison becomes more available in stores, we find that people are no longer hesitant and are excited to try a variety of cuts as they grow more familiar with the cooking methods of bison,” Angela adds.

Something must be working. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans consume more than a million pounds of bison each month. Bison burgers are becoming more and more popular at local restaurants, which shows that consumers are not only willing, but happy to take a chance on eating something different than the usual dinner fare.



How to Cook Bison

Bison meat is full of flavor yet low in fat. While this is a good thing healthwise, it makes cooking the meat properly somewhat tricky. Without the fat to keep it moist, bison dries out quickly. Follow these tips to ensure a delicious steak or burger:

Use a grill, grill pan, or sauté pan rather than broiling the meat. Cook one-inch-thick steaks for four to five minutes on each side (a little longer for thicker cuts) for medium doneness. (For rare, cook three to four minutes on each side.) As they’re easily overcooked, resist making them well done.

If roasting, cook it slowly in the oven or in a slow-cooker on a low temperature. If your usual roast temperature is around 325 degrees, decrease it to 275 degrees for bison. To be sure you don’t overcook the meat, check the internal temperature frequently. It should be 145 degrees for medium rare and 155 degrees for medium.

Bison burgers cook much faster than beef burgers and, unlike beef burgers, don’t drip excess grease.

SB Farms:
Gunpowder Bison and Trading Ranch: