Thinking About Buffalo as an Ingredient
There’s something magical about seeing buffalo out on the plains; it’s as if they are so well suited for each other that it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other starts.
It can be unusual to see live buffalo in America today, which is baffling when you look at pictures of the millions of buffalo that used to range across the Great Plains. Today there are only a few herds of native buffalo still roaming wild, with a majority of those that are left living on ranches being raised for food.
Over the last twenty-five years or so there has been a lot more interest in buffalo meat, in part because it has fewer calories and less fat than similar cuts of beef, which means many people consider it a healthier option and because of what buffalo represent to the local foods movement.
It’s a shame when you think about what an amazing animal they are, how well they had adapted to life on the plains, and the critical role they play in native cultures. It’s particularly disturbing when you think of the estimated 50 million buffalo that were killed for sport and to deprive native tribes of an important resource. It’s also a shame from a culinary perspective once you’ve had a chance to experience how delicious and versatile buffalo can be as an ingredient.
The majority of my experience eating buffalo, like most people, is with burgers, with the quality of the burgers varying widely, depending on how they’re made, how much buffalo is in them, and what else they’re mixed with. The best buffalo burgers I’ve had are leaner and more flavorful than similar beef burgers. The worst come straight from the freezer and look and taste like chewy hockey pucks.
How is Buffalo as an Ingredient?
As someone who is deeply interested in local ingredients I wanted to see how different cuts of buffalo worked, not necessarily as replacements for beef, but as an ingredient on its own merits.
To get started I ordered a big box of buffalo from the Wild Idea Buffalo Company, where they raise grass fed, free roaming buffalo. My order included a chuck roast, a couple of different cuts of steak, back ribs, stew meat, and ground buffalo.
What drew me to them was the idea of buffalo back ribs, which just look amazing. Unfortunately, they ran out, which sometimes happens when you choose the farm over the factory. So that will have to be a story for another day.
My plan was simple; once I had the big box of meat, I would have some friends over and start making stuff. I know it’s not exactly an evil genius plan, but I thought I’d be ok without one, this time.
Let’s Cook Some Buffalo
The first test was a straight-up comparison of chuck roasts – beef vs. buffalo. The two cuts couldn’t have been more different. The buffalo was a deep red color, with almost no fat in it. The beef was great looking, with big streaks of well-marbled fat running through the entire cut. To make sure it was a fair fight they both spent the afternoon in the smoker for the same amount of time, with a simple rub, and a light smoke.
Looking at the cuts from the outside it seemed like the buffalo was in real trouble. The cut was so lean that it looked like it was going to be dry and tough. I was worried enough that I started to think about sauces and apologize for ruining such a beautiful piece of meat. As with most things looks can be deceiving, the buffalo chuck roast lasted all of fifteen minutes before it was completely devoured, with a big chunk of the beef roast just sitting there with a sad, what about me look. It wasn’t that the beef chuck roast wasn’t any good, as a friend of mine said we would have thought it was great if the buffalo wasn’t there.
The next experiment was a test of culinary flexibility. I was planning on making a Bolognese sauce for a holiday dinner and thought it would be an interesting challenge to see how the buffalo could do in a delicate dish that includes fresh ground pork and veal.
A well-done Bolognese sauce is a wonder to taste, so rich and tender with a texture that defies its sloppy joe appearance. The buffalo ended up being the star of the dish; it was as soft and tender as the other cuts while adding a full-bodied flavor to an already amazing dish.
Next up were a couple of steaks that included flat iron and hanger steaks. The flat iron buffalo steaks are odd little things; they’re cut thin and long and look like a steak’um on steroids. When you’re putting them on the grill, you’re thinking no more than four or five minutes a side or this is going to taste like a piece of burnt cardboard. Not only did they stand up to the grill, they took longer to cook than a similar piece of beef would have taken and ended up having a supple texture. I had a similar experience with the hanger steak, which was pan roasted before being finished in the oven.
The last item up was the stew meat, something I was looking forward to. For me, the idea of buffalo stew conjures up images of working outside on cold winter days and curling up in front of a warm fire. The stew was a simple meat and potatoes affair with the addition of Poblano peppers to give it some zip. The buffalo did a great job of taking on some of the flavors from the other ingredients, which is important in a stew and adding a distinct flavor all its own, without ending up tough, which I was concerned about because of how lean it is.
What I found in all the dishes is that the buffalo meat has a unique ability to remain tender and flavorful in all sorts of conditions.
It was wonderful as a stew, soft in the Bolognese, a star in the smoker, and supple on the grill. It is definitely something I’d like to incorporate into a lot more of my cooking, for both culinary and environmental reasons.
The only downside to buffalo is the cost. You still have to pay a premium for it compared to similar cuts of beef, which has a lot to do with the differences in how they are produced. Something I’m ok with, but still, find challenging. It’s also not an excessive premium when you look at the whole picture of what you’re getting, especially in the context of other premium ingredients.
At the end of this little adventure what impressed me the most about the buffalo is how much it was able to reflect the animal and the world it comes from, which to me is one of the highest culinary compliments you can give.
The term bison and buffalo are used somewhat interchangeably in America to describe the same animal. Scientifically speaking the animal should be called bison, but the term buffalo has been in use longer. Personally, I like Tatanka, which is the word the Lakota use.