the original American grass-fed meat

A New Mexico bison burger is topped with Ted’s guacamole and Ted’s spicy tomato jam.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Renee Brock

Bison. It’s the original American grass-fed meat.

Before cows came to this continent, enormous herds of bison were roaming the Great Plains. After a long period of decline, there are now hundreds of thousands of bison living on ranches in North America. Although conservation efforts helped restore the herds, it was America acquiring a taste for bison that brought the numbers back.

For the record, “bison” is not “buffalo.” Although members of the same scientific family, bison are native to North America while buffalo are a species native to Africa and Asia.

George McKerrow, co-founder and chief executive officer of Ted’s Montana Grill, relishes the resurgence of the bison. “Ranchers like my partner Ted Turner are saving a part of North American culture and history, putting these animals back where they belong. Since they eat grass and wander great distances, they’re much less demanding on the environment than cattle,” he said.

McKerrow also values bison for its health benefits, “It’s lower in fat and cholesterol than beef, it’s richer in omega-3s than salmon and it’s one of the top five foods to eat for iron replacement.”

Of the 25 million pounds of bison that went to market last year, McKerrow said his restaurants served 2 million pounds. They buy whole muscle meat and butcher it themselves, grinding the meat for their burgers throughout the day. Bison accounts for 46 percent of the restaurant’s total sales.

At home, bison is the only red meat the McKerrows eat. “We eat ground bison a lot for hamburgers, meatloaf, spaghetti sauce. We love short ribs. We eat bison pot roast from chuck. Bison filets are 97 percent fat free. Grill a bison filet medium rare and put it on a salad — that’s heart-healthy, clean food,” he said.

McKerrow and Ted’s Montana Grill’s corporate chef Chris Raucci explained how to cook bison at home.

“The key to enjoying your home-cooked bison is not to treat it like a piece of beef. We hear all the time of someone buying a beautiful piece of bison, throwing it on the grill and cooking it like beef in terms of timing and temperature, and then it tastes like shoe leather, dehydrated and tough,” McKerrow said.

He said because bison is so lean, it should either be cooked low and slow, as in a meatloaf or a braised pasta sauce, or for a steak, it should be cooked rarer than beef. “You have to cook it less time. Even burgers are best eaten at no more than medium done. If you’re a well-done meat eater, bison will be good, but you’re not going to get the full flavor and taste,” McKerrow said.

Packaged ground bison at the grocery store has been condensed into a small brick. Take a minute to loosen up the meat before forming your burgers. A light, loose mixture will make a better burger.

Raucci said when cooking bison on a charcoal or gas grill, oiling the grates is essential since bison is so lean. When designing the restaurants, they chose to go with flat top grills to help retain the meat juices rather than having them drip through grill grates.

“If you want to grill your bison, get one side of the grill hot so you can brown the burger or steak over high heat, and then move the meat to a cooler side to finish the cooking indirectly,” Raucci said.

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