Set the Table with Bison
By: Lauren Griswold
While the horned, haunched American bison usually evokes backdrops of western plains and peaks, it also inhabits the outskirts of humble Rutland, Vermont. There, Thomas Hubbard and his wife, Lisa, have raised the animals for about 10 years on their farm, Mountain View Bison. Their long, steep driveway is peppered with unfamiliar sights: fallow deer with elk-like antlers range the initial pastures, and bison appear higher up. When I visited this past summer, I paused to watch the bristle-hided bulls, cows, and calves, as they are called, chew their cud in the afternoon shade. The sight’s conceptual similarity to cattle on pasture is belied by a tone that feels unearthly under the familiar maples and beeches. “One is always watching you,” Tom says, of the herd’s scrupulous watch. Devilish tapered beards, curved horns, and a zero to sixty wildness leer from the trees’ shadows. The trick is that, rather than unearthly, the sight is ever real.
Bison are raised on ranches all over the country—about 2,500 ranches, according to the 2012 USDA census. While most of these captive herds are concentrated in western states, you can find some here in Vermont, too. The animals thrive on Vermont’s rich grasses and handle our winters with ease, even eluding shelter from nor’easter storms. Their meat has enjoyed increased popularity in recent years, too. Bison’s nuanced flavor and wild allure now adds an out-of-the-box flair to menus all over the country, often standing in for classic beef dishes—bison burgers, chili, meatloaf, stew, shepherd’s pie, and pot-roast.
Customers seek out bison for its flavor, and increasingly, its nutritional profile. Perhaps the hottest fuel behind bison’s rise to fame is its nutritional content, which outshines most. According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s “National Nutrient Database,” it’s a low-calorie, low-fat, high-protein option that prices-out similarly to grass-fed beef. The wild nature of the animals usually dictates that they are sustainably raised, with lots of room to roam and rarely are hormones or antibiotics used. Many macro and micro nutrient levels are higher in bison than grass-fed beef and even salmon. For those concerned with nutrient density, bison is the strongest option in the meat aisle.
For all their magnetism and profitability, though, bison are one of the most challenging specialty livestock species. Raising wild animals for meat is not for the faint of heart. The Hubbards have bought out herds from four other farms in Vermont, and one in New York, that decided to discontinue their bison businesses. Tom lists the animals’ aggression and abuse on equipment as primary challenges. Bison are unpredictable, no matter how long they have been in captivity. And they are in many ways a marvel of evolution: their sheer physical power is in a league of its own. They are the largest terrestrial mammal in North America. They can run up to 35 miles per hour, like a galloping horse, but have horns, and can flip a 500-pound bale of hay, easy. For a bison farmer, charges and gorings are real threats, and as a general rule, ranchers never turn their backs on the bison they raise.
Tom explained that bison are also heavy grazers, hitting pastures harder than cattle, so they require more acreage. Outfitting an operation with proper equipment can represent a steep learning curve for new bison farmers, too. Fencing must be high and robust, which translates to expensive. And further, no matter how tough, all infrastructure and equipment takes abuse from the powerful animals. Not many bison farmers remain in Vermont, but the Hubbards aren’t looking to leave the business any time soon.
It’s evident that Tom has a deep respect for his herd. He tells me about his animals with a sense of awe tucked behind his stories and descriptions. Tom switched slaughterhouses once because his previous facility stopped accepting horned animals. The owner suggested dehorning his animals, as many a cattle and goat owner do. Tom can’t imagine a bison without its horns: “I wouldn’t do that to my animals, I just wouldn’t, because a horn on a bison is not like a deer. It’s permanent. If they break off, they’re not comin’ back.” He also watches each of his animals get processed through to the point where they hit the cooler.
Butchering bison is comparable to cattle, with a few caveats. Consider the bison’s front-loaded form and massive shoulder hump, comprised of solid muscle. This shifted arrangement allows for a lot more shoulder, or chuck roast. Some even designate a bison-specific cut, called the “hump roast”. Bison rib cages are also twice the size of cattle’s. Other than these primary differences, the cuts translate from one animal to the other fairly easily.
“The past two years have been crazy,” Tom notes, speaking to bison meat demand. He and Lisa sell at two local farmers’ markets and retailers. Their experience here in Vermont reflects national trends—the National Bison Association attests to a domestic demand so strong that more producers are needed to maintain supply without raising prices.
Bison is also rising in popularity because unlike other mineral-laden wild meats, bison isn’t gamey. It’s actually very similar to beef. I served a top round steak from Mountain View Bison, seared medium rare, back to back with grass-fed beef sirloin. The textures were comparable, but the bison’s flavor offered more nuanced complexity than the beef’s. In fact, the sweet, nutty, and savory notes in bison recall dry-aged beef. To enjoy a bison steak simply seasoned is a taster’s treat, although the flavor also stands up to richly flavored dishes.
Any umami-forward recipe is fair game. The flavors are so similar that any beef recipe can easily be adapted for bison. Whether you’re trying an old favorite or exploring a new frontier, those hearty, savory tones greet red meat dishes with resonance. When preparing bison, know that it has far less, and far finer, marbling than even grass-fed beef. Less fat means less insulation in the cooking process, so steak cuts take less time over the heat and are best served medium rare, lest they’re served tough. Brush with oil and sear steaks on the grill or in a skillet, and finish in a low-temperature oven, if necessary. With tougher roast or stew cuts, go low and slow with an all-day, or overnight, braise.
Mountain View’s bison can be purchased at the Rutland Farmers’ Market, May 13 to October 28, on Saturdays from 9-2pm, and Wednesdays 3-6pm in Rutland’s Depot Park, 98 Merchants Row—or directly from the farm by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling Lisa at 802.342.0429. Their Facebook page, where you can see some short videos of the herd in action, is facebook.com/Mountain-View-Bison-887881177903723/.
Bison meats are also sold at the Yankee Farmers’ Market, 360 Route 103 East, in Warner, NH, and directly from Valley View Bison, in Langdon, NH, 603-835-6863. They can be special ordered at Vermont Meat and Seafood in Williston, VT, 802-878-2020.
Caprese Bison Sirloin Steak with Bowtie Pasta
When preparing bison, know that it has far less, and far finer, marbling than even grass-fed beef. Less fat means less insulation in the cooking process, so steak cuts take less time over the heat and are best served medium rare, lest they’re served tough. Recipe courtesy of The Bison Council: thebisoncouncil.com.
4 6-ounce bison top sirloin steaks
salt and black pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
6 ounces dried bow tie (farfalle) pasta
½ cup purchased or homemade basil pesto
2 cups halved grape tomatoes
1 cup cubed fresh mozzarella
extra-virgin olive oil
chopped fresh basil
Season bison sirloin steaks with salt and pepper.
Heat the oil over medium heat in a large heavy skillet. Cook bison sirloin steaks, turning once, in hot oil for 16 to 18 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer registers 145 °F. Top each bison steak with 1 tablespoon of the pesto.
Cover skillet and let stand for 3 minutes. Remove bison sirloin steaks from skillet and thinly slice.
Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions; drain. Toss the cooked pasta, the remaining pesto, the tomatoes, and mozzarella in a large bowl. Serve with the sliced bison sirloin steaks. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with basil.
Recipe courtesy of The Bison Council: thebisoncouncil.com.