This content series is sponsored by The Bison Council with a goal of educating the public about the culinary, health and taste benefits of eating bison.
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I've got a cousin who sort of freaked me out the first few times I met him. It might have been something in his crazy eyes, or in his motorcycle stories, or perhaps his way with moonshine. I gotta admit: it took three or four family reunions before I finally figured that his eyes weren't crazy, they were intense. His motorcycle stories weren't reckless, they were just eccentric. His moonshine wasn't... well, his moonshine was still moonshine, but it was the smoothest damn moonshine in Pennsylvania. You've probably all got a cousin or two like that, don't you?
Bison is a bit like the crazy cousin at the ruminant family reunion. It's similar to beef in appearance, flavor, and cooking methods, but it's just eccentrically different enough that you'll need to go through a bit of a how's-your-father session before you're 100 percent comfortable working with it.
The American bison industry has been picking up recently with ground meat and other cuts becoming more regularly available in standard supermarkets. Over the next few months, I'll be going over some of the major cuts of bison that you're likely to encounter in the wilds of the meat department and how to deal with them to maximize deliciousness.
First up: bison burgers.
Bison, Beef, and Burgers
What are the main difference between bison and beef? It largely comes down to flavor and fat content. Bison has a reputation for being much gamier than beef, but in reality, modern bison is only very mildly gamey. Indeed, I've had cuts of bison that I'd have trouble differentiating from beef in terms of flavor. A lot of this has to do with the fact that bison by its nature is a leaner meat, and many of the identifying flavor compounds in various meats are stored in their fat.
So why would someone want to use a leaner meat? Well there's health reasons, of course, and I've found that a lean bison tends to be of higher quality—better flavor and more tender—than equivalently lean beef. It's also a nice changeup. A lean bison ribeye or burger, when cooked properly, is perfectly tender and moist and makes for an interesting change from the norm.
Of course, you'll need to make some adjustments in the way you form and cook hamburger patties to compensate for the lower fat content.
Packaged ground bison is readily available. Just like packaged ground beef, it suffers from being overly compressed in its plastic wrapping—it's compressed and dense even before you start working with it, which means that for skillet-fried or grilled patties in which a lighter, looser texture is desired, it's not the best option.
But for certain applications, it's a perfectly acceptable product to use. Of all the types of burgers in my repertoire, smashed burgers and sliders are the two that work best with pre-ground meat. With smashed patties, you end up compressing the meat anyway, and with sliders, the patties are so thin that texture doesn't really come into play.
For grilled or skillet-fried burgers, you'll need to go with a different tack: grind the meat yourself. By grinding meat fresh and handling it with care, you create a much lighter, almost fluffy patty full of internal nooks and crannies that are essential for capturing the dripping juices that can make even a lean burger taste juicy and moist.
Sound daunting? Don't worry, it's not! All you need is a food processor or a stand mixer with a grinding attachment, and a bit of know how.
I tested a number of different cuts of bison for grinding, both on their own and with some extra added bison fat, and I found that chuck was the best all-around option. It makes sense—it's the single cut of beef that I'm most likely to grab for my burgers as well. As with beef chuck, bison chuck is one of the most intensely flavorful cuts on the beast with a decent balance of fat and lean meat (though obviously bison is leaner).
Nothing will gunk up a meat grinder or food processor blade faster than tough connective tissue, so when breaking down your chuck, make sure to trim out as much tough silverskin and tough connective tissue as possible while leaving in the fat (you're going to need all the help you can get in keeping things juicy).
The easiest way to do this is to start by splitting open a rolled chuck and butterflying it so that it lays flat, working as much as possible by cutting between muscle seams, which will expose connective tissue that you can remove with the tip of a sharp boning knife.
Once you've cleaned up the butterflied sections, cut them into long, thin strips, which should expose even more connective tissue to trim.
Finally, cut across the long strips to form cubes that are between an inch and two inches on each side. For the meat grinder, you can go on the larger side, but for the food processor you'll want to cut them a little smaller.
Whether you're grinding beef, chicken, bison, mammoth, dolphin—heck, when you're grinding anything—the most important thing to remember is to keep everything ice cold.
Let me repeat that: keep everything ice cold.
And once more: KEEP EVERYTHING ICE COLD.
The colder your meat, the firmer it is, and the better it will chop. The idea with grinding meat is to chop the meat, minimizing the amount you mush and smear it. Both of these actions will ruin its texture, and more importantly with bison, it'll cause it to shed moisture faster as it cooks.
I store my meat grinder in the freezer at all times so that I have it ready to grind at moment's notice. To keep things extra cold, I place the chunked up bison in the freezer for a short period until it's nearly frozen but still slightly pliable.
If you go the food processor route, you'll want to make sure that the pieces don't touch each other when freezing them so that they freeze evenly from all sides
With the grinder attachment, I grind the meat at a relatively high speed (on my Kitchenaid I go at a setting of 6 or 7) so that it gets ground before it begins to warm up. If you choose to grind it twice for a more uniform texture, make sure that it gets chilled again in between grinds if it begins to warm up.
In the food processor, you'll want to go in small batches, pulsing just until ground and dumping the ground meat out onto a rimmed baking sheet so you can pick through for any larger un-ground chunks that can go back into the processor with the next batch.
Once the meat is ground, minimum handling is the key to maintaining good texture. You just spent all that time and effort getting yourself some light, airy, fluffy, freshly ground meat to save you from using the pre-packaged stuff. The last thing you want to do is compress it!
I form patties directly on a rimmed baking sheet by dumping the ground meat out onto it and forming it into even piles, which I then gently form into shape, pressing the meat together just until it holds its shape and is flippable without falling apart.
Once you've got your patties formed, the only other thing to remember is that leaner bison burgers will cook a little bit faster than equivalently-sized beef burgers—fat is an insulator and will slow down the transfer of heat energy through a burger patty.
What does this mean? It means you'll want to really blast it with high heat in order to be able to get a nice char on its outer surface before it ends up overcooking in the center. To guarantee the juiciest, moistest interior, you'll want to check your burgers with an instant read thermometer and pull them off the grill when they hit around 125°F, which will guarantee a medium-rare center.
With really excellent meat, I often like to serve my burgers naked with nothing but perhaps a swipe of mayo and a slice of cheese. Of course, onions and pickles never hurt anyone.
Except maybe my cousin. If you ever meet him, ask him how he got those crazy eyes.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.
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