Bison. It's the original American grass-fed meat. Before cows came to this continent, enormous herds of bison roamed 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 Americans' 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. 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.”
Turner, founder and chairman of Ted's Montana Grill, is the nation's largest bison rancher with 55,000 head. Turner keeps some of that herd on the more than 425,000 acres he owns in Nebraska. McKerrow says when you compare that to the 100 million cattle in the United States, you can see it's a small proportion of the total market for red meat.
But the interest in bison for dinner is growing. Ted's Montana Grill is part of the reason for the increase in demand. "We know from experience, you can create demand in consumers by serving them something in a restaurant. The customer enjoys it, and they go to the grocery store and say, 'I want to buy bison,'" McKerrow said.
Twenty-five million pounds of bison went to market last year, McKerrow said.
The first Ted's Montana Grill opened in 2002.
“I had a concept, a classic American grill with gourmet hamburgers. Ted and I adapted it to bison, and now we have 44 restaurants in 16 states,” McKerrow said. Omaha previously had two Ted's Montana Grill restaurants. One closed in 2005. The other, renamed Ted's Nebraska Grill, closed in November 2010.
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 that when cooking bison on a charcoal or gas grill, oiling the grates is essential because 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.
Recipe: Special Spice Mixture
• Total time: 5 minutes
• Makes: 2 tablespoons
• 1½ teaspoons coarse salt
• 1½ teaspoons garlic salt
• 1 teaspoon seasoned salt
• 1 teaspoon onion salt
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
In a small jar, combine coarse salt, garlic salt, seasoned salt, onion salt and pepper. Put on lid and shake vigorously. Store in jar for up to three months. You'll be able to use the salt more easily if you put it in a salt shaker with large enough holes.
It's a nice seasoning mixture for bison, beef and chicken.
Recipe: Ted's Montana Grill's New Mexico Bison Burger
• Total time: 10 minutes, plus time to preheat the grill
• Serves: 1
• 8 ounces freshly ground bison
• ½ teaspoon Ted's Special Spice Mixture (see recipe), divided
• ½ roasted and peeled Anaheim chile
• 1½ ounces grated pepper jack
• 1 kaiser roll, toasted
• ¼ cup Ted's Montana Grill's Guacamole (recipe below)
• 1 tablespoon Ted's Montana Grill's Spicy Tomato Jam (recipe below)
Preheat grill to medium high. If using a charcoal grill, have one hot side and one side for indirect cooking. If using a gas grill, use all burners to get the grill up to temperature and then shut off one section when ready to cook. When internal temperature is 375 degrees, the grill is ready for the bison burgers. Lightly oil the grates.
Form the ground bison into a loose patty. It should have rough edges and should never be compacted.
Holding the burger over the grill, use the seasoning shaker to “rain” a third of the Ted's Special Spice Mixture onto one side of the burger.
Place the burger seasoned side down on hot side of the grill and repeat the “rain” process to the unseasoned side. Cover the grill. Cook the burger halfway to desired temperature (generally, the halfway point for a medium burger is 4 minutes), uncover and gently flip the burger and move it to the cooler side. Never press the burger with the spatula. When the burger is flipped, season the burger a third time using the “rain” method and place the green chile on the grill so it will lightly char. Cover the grill and cook for 2 minutes.
Uncover grill, add cheese in the center of the burger and cover the grill again. When the cheese has melted, about 2 minutes, uncover the grill and lay the chile over the burger. When the burger reaches the appropriate temperature, remove the burger from the grill and place on the bottom of the toasted bun.
Top burger with guacamole and spread evenly over the surface of the burger. Spread tomato jam on the surface of the top of the bun and place on top of the burger. Serve immediately.
At Ted's Montana Grill, they roast the chiles by dropping them in a deep fryer for 2 minutes to blister the skins, then remove them and cover for 5 minutes to steam the peppers. The blistered skins are peeled from the chiles, and they're ready to be used. You may want to roast your chiles over an open flame to achieve the same blistered skin rather than frying them. Do not rinse the chiles with water as you're peeling them as this removes much of the flavor.
Recipe: Ted's Montana Grill's Guacamole
• Total time: 15 minutes
• Makes: 2¼ cups
• ½ cup chopped fresh tomatoes, cut into 3/8-inch dice
• 1½ tablespoons fresh lime juice
• 2 tablespoons chopped white onion, cut into 3/8-inch dice
• 3 avocados
• 1 tablespoon minced jalapeno, seeds removed
• ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
In a medium bowl, combine tomatoes, onion, lime juice, jalapeno and salt. Stir together. Taste for seasoning. Can be made ahead and refrigerated up to a day in advance.
When ready to serve, cut avocados in half and remove pits. Peel off skin and dice avocado flesh. Toss together with tomato mixture, being careful not to mash the avocado. Serve immediately.
Recipe: Ted's Montana Grill's Spicy Tomato Jam
• Total time: 30 minutes, plus cooling time
• Makes: 4 cups
• 3 tablespoons olive oil blend
• 1 cup diced onions, cut into 3/8-inch dice
• 3 tablespoons chopped garlic
• 2 cups canned diced tomatoes
• ½ cup light brown sugar
• ½ cup red wine vinegar
• 2 tablespoons chipotle purée
• 1 tablespoon honey
• 1 tablespoon tomato paste
• 1 teaspoon oregano
• 1 teaspoon cumin
• 1 teaspoon salt
In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and sauté 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 minute more.
While onions are cooking, in a large bowl, combine tomatoes, brown sugar, vinegar, chipotle puree, honey, tomato paste, oregano, cumin and salt. Add to skillet with onions and garlic and simmer 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
In the bowl of a food processor, puree tomato mixture until smooth. Chill and refrigerate. May be made up to two weeks in advance and kept refrigerated.