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By Jennifer Bain, author of Buffalo Girl Cooks Bison

When I eat bison, it tastes like the shortgrass prairie of the windswept Great Plains of Southern Alberta. That’s where we raise a couple of hundred Plains Bison on my husband’s 110-year-old family ranch not too far north of the Montana border. It’s a wild and magical landscape, nearly empty of people but teeming with deer, antelope, coyotes, gophers, owls and rattlesnakes.

There’s 12,000 acres to go around. Much of the land is flat and dry, but there are steep, eroded valleys called coulees, too, and some years there’s enough melted snow to form a makeshift lake that we can kayak on. The bison wander different seasonal pastures, grazing on native grasses, weeds and probably even a tender prairie rose or two while avoiding the sagebrush and prickly pear cacti.

Sometimes the fierce herbivores knock down fences to bust into the hay field. The winter snow doesn’t get too deep, but when it does, the bison simply dig through it with their powerful heads to eat what’s underneath — even what’s left of the harvested wheat and field peas. In the fall when we separate the 40 heaviest bulls from the herd for “finishing” in our corrals (that means bringing them up to a slaughter weight of about 1,200 pounds), we feed them our hay. If we run out, we buy more hay from other farmers.

A staggering 60 million bison (still better known as buffalo) once roamed the North American grasslands and prairies, until they were hunted to near extinction. A shocking 1,000 animals remained by 1900. To save certain animals, we truly must eat them — and that’s the case with bison and its lean, rich and slightly sweet meat. Thanks to ranchers, tribal nations and conservationists, there are now an estimated 400,000 bison in North America.

My husband’s family started ranching bison in 1992, taking a calculated risk about this emerging, niche red meat and leaving cattle (and before that, sheep) behind. You will now find bison on the Slow Food Ark of Taste, on restaurant menus, in butcher shops, and in more and more mainstream supermarkets. Most of our bison is sold to a French company that flies the meat to Europe, but you will always find meat in my chest freezer.

When we slaughter a bison for ourselves, I’m finally in charge. I work with our local abattoir/butcher to specify what steaks and roasts I want. The butchers have fun with my order, especially when I request less common cuts, like flat-iron, tri-tip and brisket. Some meat is ground up for burger, and another portion of meat and trim is reserved for sausages, jerky and pepperoni.

My favorite offals are marrow bones and liver, and I always walk away with a couple of bags of meaty soup bones. Occasionally, we have more offals and bones than we can possibly eat or store. That’s when we hop in the truck and drive out to one of the coyote dens to share the bounty.

{{ image(3095, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”: “200”, “height”: “300”}) }}Recipe for Bison Burgers
Makes 6 burgers

This is my all-time favorite “fancy” burger. It’s from executive chef John Butler, who fills the cafeteria at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto with all kinds of glorious meals. When I visited for a story, he made these burgers. I loved them so much that I put them in my first book, Toronto Star Cookbook: More Than 150 Diverse and Delicious Recipes Celebrating Ontario. Here they are again. I can’t get enough of them.

1 large egg
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 lb ground bison
1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 small red onion, finely diced
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 long red chili (about 4 inches), seeded and minced
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp grainy mustard
Finely grated zest from 1 lemon
6 thin slices smoked Gouda or other smoked cheese
6 buns, toasted or warmed if desired
6 leaves green leaf lettuce (optional)
6 slices tomato (optional)
Red Pepper Relish (optional, see below)

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the egg and oil. Add the bison, bread crumbs, parsley, onion, garlic, chili, Dijon mustard, grainy mustard, and lemon zest. Mix thoroughly by hand, massaging the ingredients together. Divide mixture into 6. Roll by hand into balls, then flatten by hand into 3/4-inch thick patties. Place the burgers on a baking sheet and cover with plastic. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour to let them firm up.

Heat a lightly oiled large cast-iron skillet over medium-high. Add the burgers, in batches if needed, and cook for 5 minutes per side to desired doneness. Top each burger with a cheese slice for the last minute of cooking. Burgers should be cooked to 160℉.

Alternately, heat the oven to 350℉. Sear the burgers for 1 minute per side in a lightly oiled ovenproof skillet, and then place the skillet in the oven and bake for 10 minutes or until the burgers are cooked to 160℉ or to desired doneness, adding the cheese for the last minute of cooking.

Serve on a bun. If desired, top each with lettuce, tomato, and Red Pepper Relish to taste.

Red Pepper Relish
Makes about 4 cups

I adore this easy relish from John Butler. It’s perfect with bison burgers, but this makes a big batch, so use it lavishly wherever you like.

5 red bell peppers, finely chopped
4 jalapenos, seeded and minced
2 tart apples (such as McIntosh or Northern Spy), peeled and chopped
1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 tbsp kosher salt
1/4 cup chopped cilantro

In a medium saucepan, combine the bell peppers, jalapenos, apples, cider vinegar, sugar, and salt. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium. Briskly simmer until thick and reduced to about 4 cups, about 35 to 45 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes. Stir in the cilantro. Refrigerate until cold before serving. This will keep for up to 2 weeks in the fridge.


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