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Bypassing Pit Beef For Pit Bison

Henry Buffalo

By Henry Hong | Posted 9/10/2008

This past July Fourth, I think I may have blazed a trail of sorts: I made me some pit bison. I think this may be a first because searching (I refuse to use "Google" as a verb) "pit bison" on the web returns nothing having to do with food, except for links pointing to yours truly. I figured it to be doubly patriotic somehow, considering that meat cooked "pit" style is so highly regional to Maryland and the bison is a symbol of the American West.

For the record, the creature referred to in classic folk songs roaming among playing deer and antelope is not a buffalo--it's a bison. And if I may digress briefly, pit beef is not Maryland's answer to barbecue, as some contend, since here in the U.S. barbecue is a method of low-temperature cooking, and pit beef is cooked at high temperature--and that's called grilling. While I'm at it, "tems" is a river in England, "thayms" is a street in Baltimore. Thanks for your patience. 

American bison are in fact the largest mammals native to the U.S., and the original American red meat. Cattle are imports to this continent, and the desire to secure grazing land for cattle was one of the reasons behind the mind-bogglingly swift and wanton decimation of the native species, along with the value of their hides, and it being a convenient way to deprive Native Americans of a food source. Having been pushed to near extinction, most of us today will find it hard to believe that bison once ranged free right here in Maryland; the last bison in Maryland is said to have been killed in 1775 in Garrett County.   

So apparently we got a jump on the rest of the country, as far as eradicating these animals, but thanks no doubt to consumers becoming more particular about how food animals are raised and, of course, to a few local farms, bison is making something of comeback. According to the Eastern Bison Association, there are 14 bison producers in Maryland, and among them Gunpowder Bison and Trading Co. has without a doubt become the most recognizable. Its meat is available at the Harbor East farmers market, Eddie's of Roland Park, at most Graul's locations, and from its online store. There is also the retail store at their farm in Monkton, which is where I'd been trekking every couple weeks, burning gas and hating on the earth, before I became aware of the more convenient options. 

But then again, I would have missed out on what is without question the most well-maintained, neatly manicured, postcard-worthy farm I've ever seen, and I've been to many. It didn't even smell like poop. Proprietors Trey and Angela Lewis (who themselves are disconcertingly polished and well heeled) tend to a herd of about 50 bison on their golf course-perfect 75 acres, culling seven to 10 per month. My dream of having a picture taken while riding one was short lived, because these things are freaking huge, with the top gun of the herd, the ominously named T-Bone, reaching a height of over six feet at the hump. And they are commensurately badass, being able to jump several vertical feet (say, right over a fence), and run your trespassing ass down at 30 mph. A Photoshopped pic will have to do. 

The price of bison meat is comparable to that of high-quality beef--$5.69/pound ground, $18.99/pound for rib-eye steaks. And bison meat shares many qualities with grass-fed cattle, though it is immediately distinguishable from beef by its dark crimson color. Bison's active lifestyle means the meat is low in intramuscular fat, or marbling. This leanness makes bison meat all the more healthy, but less tender than well-marbled beef, and makes it particularly susceptible to being overcooked and drying out. 

Gunpowder Bison's meat is dry-aged a full 21-28 days to enhance tenderness, a step that also contributes to a very savory, deeply meaty, and sometimes slightly livery flavor and a dense, mouth-filling texture. The best way to mitigate dryness is to be very careful to not overcook--I've found cooking times of about 20 percent less than those called for in analogous beef recipes to be ideal. Remember you can always cook it more, but you can never uncook it.

Indeed, for the aforementioned Independence Day cookout, I had to take extra precautions in order to accommodate bison meat's special needs. I was cooking on my buddy's virgin (and frankly rather JV) grill, and was concerned about generating sufficient heat to form a proper char on the top round (the proper cut for pit beef/bison) without overcooking. Alas, I was fearful of seeming too douchey and left my personal stash of super hot-burning charcoal at home. But because that cut can be a bit tough, obtaining the thinnest possible slices was of paramount importance, all but forcing me to bring along my commercial meat slicer. And as it's tricky to keep bison meat moist beyond medium-doneness, I equipped myself with some par-cooked beef top round for those who prefer their meat overcooked.

All who sampled were massively impressed--in fact, I would say blown away--by the aroma, flavor, and texture of the pit bison. (Get the recipe at www.citypaper.com/eat.) The charred "bark" was a bit dry but savory and smoky, while the medium-rare interior was moist and extremely meaty. It tasted intense but clean, with richness coming from the flesh as opposed to fat. A small crowd actually formed around me with buns agape, as I coaxed gossamer ribbons of maroon awesomeness from my trusty slicer. I didn't even get my own sandwich, so quickly did the bison go. And most telling, no one used barbecue sauce, mayo, or any other condiment on their sandwiches. After everyone had their fill, I vaguely recall some genuflecting and swooning in my direction, but in all fairness, I was many High Lifes in by then.

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