Wine With . . . Grilled Bison Steak
by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas
“Jessica, you want some buffalo wings?”
“Sorry, I don’t eat buffalo,” Jessica Simpson infamously replied.
Well, we eat buffalo, and the more we do the more we like it. The healthier-than-beef benefits are certainly an attraction, but what really grabs our attention are the succulent flavors and texture of this all-American meat.
Let’s be more precise: the meat we eat is bison, not actually buffalo. Bison are herd animals indigenous to North America, while true buffalo are distant relations native to Africa and Asia. (Both are ruminants, i.e. cud-chewing, hoofed mammals, as are cattle.) Nonetheless, lots of people (including a famous western showman who went by the name of Bill) refer to the North American animal as “buffalo.”
Despite some people’s fears about it, we’ve never found bison to be at all gamey. If anything, it seems marginally sweeter than beef. In fact, bison tastes so beefy that people generally say they can’t tell the difference. In appearance, grass fed bison meat is typically dark red, with almost no marbling, and what little fat there is will be yellowish, rather than white, due to the grass the animals eat. The bison we buy at our local farmers’ market comes from Gunpowder Bison & Trading, a seventy acre family-owned farm located just outside Baltimore. If bison isn’t available where you shop, check out their website since they ship via mail order.
Our appetite for bison meat became serious a couple of years ago, when we first tasted buffalo burgers. More recently, we’ve discovered the joys of bison steaks. Gunpowder offers a range of cuts, including flank and Delmonico; and not long ago we ordered their melt-in-the-mouth filet mignon at Charleston, Baltimore’s premiere destination-dining restaurant. But our favorite cut for grilling at home, which we now do often, is the flat iron, a.k.a. top blade steak.
Relatively inexpensive but full of flavor, a bison flat iron will cook up plump and juicy. Be sure not to overcook it, though. Being very lean, bison needs to be served medium if not rare. We’ve found that bison steaks adapt beautifully to a variety of marinades and rubs. We often borrow from Gunpowder’s own spicy chipotle rub (recipe below), which delivers just the right kick to make this an unusually congenial partner for red wine. But because bison is lean and dense, the best possible wine choice will not necessarily be the same as for, say, a well marbled beef sirloin.
If you were wondering if bison produce buffalo milk cheese, the answer is no. Milk-producing water buffalo are a separate species. According to the National Bison Association, a principle reason why the North American animals are not milked is that “female bison do not adapt well to the type of handling necessary.” OK, got it. Let’s forgo the mozzarella, and the wings too for that matter, and get straight to work preparing the steaks.
CHIPOTLE RUB FOR BISON STEAK
(Adapted from the Gunpowder Bison & Trading recipe. Makes enough to cover two or three steaks, but feel free to double or triple the recipe and keep the leftover rub in your spice drawer. We’ve found it’s also good on pork chops.)
1 tablespoon paprika
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon chipotle powder
2 teaspoons chili powder blend
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
Combine all ingredients and rub over steaks, covering all sides of the meat. Wrap the steaks in plastic wrap, or place them in a heavy plastic food storage bag. Refrigerate for 2 hours, then grill over high heat.
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We tried twelve red wines with our grilled bison steaks and didn’t find a clunker in the lot. The flavors in this dish are fairly intense, due both to the dense meat and the spicy rub, so we wouldn’t suggest choosing a very light wine (e.g., a Beaujolais or Dolcetto). We also found that, unlike when drinking wine with fattier beef steak, the tannins won’t soften very much in this pairing; so if the astringency in some full-bodied reds bothers you, we’d suggest opting for something soft. But except for those two minor caveats, we found that a range of different wines in different styles worked well, making this one of the more versatile dishes we have experimented with in the nearly five years we’ve been writing this column. That adaptability is yet another reason to try bison if you have not done so yet.