Learn to love bison as other red meat

Bison  not to be confused with buffalo  is a healthy alternative to beef when seared and served with sage-seasoned gnocchi. Enlarge photo

Matthew Mead/Associated Press

Bison not to be confused with buffalo is a healthy alternative to beef when seared and served with sage-seasoned gnocchi.

Nothing says Yum! like a bit of nomenclatural confusion ... Especially with a side of near extinction.

But thats what you get once you venture down the culinary path with bison, an alternative red meat that is showing up at more and more grocers nationwide. And these massive shaggy creatures are such a delicious and good for us meat, its worth sorting it all out.

So lets start with the name. The critter you know as the American buffalo (yes, of rolling plains and Native American fame) really isnt a buffalo at all. Turns out there are only a few types of buffalo in the world (including the Asian water buffalo and African Cape buffalo). The American buffalo (technically a bison) is more closely related to your run-of-the-mill cow.

Still, people tend to use the terms interchangeably and were not going to get too bent out of shape over it.

Once, bison were hunted to near extinction. But theyve made a pretty good turnaround and these days are raised primarily for consumption. Why do you care? Because bison meat (which is raised without hormones or antibiotics) can be incredibly tender and flavorful, with a sweet, rich beefy flavor.

It also happens to be amazingly lean, packing fewer calories and less fat than beef and even skinless chicken.

That low-fat profile comes with a price, however. Like any lean meat, bison has a tendency to cook quickly, so quickly that its easy to overcook it. And that is why bison has a reputation for being tough. It isnt. If you have bison that is tough, that just means it was overcooked.

Though bison is available in most of the same cuts as traditional beef, the most common varieties at grocers are ground and steaks. Well stick with those.

You can use bison much as you would beef. The trick is to modify the cooking method (rather than the flavors or other ingredients) to account for the leanness.

When cooking ground bison, its best to work in some sort of liquid flavor to keep the meat moist. This might mean eggs or tomato paste for a meatloaf, or some sort of pan sauce or gravy if you are browning it in a skillet. That also makes it ideal for meatballs simmered in sauce or for using in chili.

For bison steaks, think fast and furious. Season them, then pop them under the broiler or on the grill for just a few minutes per side.

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