Cooking a big, bone-in, bison ribeye steak is not all that different from cooking a big, bone-in, beef ribeye steak, but there are some key differences, chiefly incurred by bison's relative lack of the intramuscular fat known as marbling. The lacy, pale white, spider-webbed fat that winds its way through a grain-finished bovine steer can provide both lubrication for a fuller, juicier, flavor, and insulation for gentler, more even cooking.
Take a look at a bison rib steak, on the other hand, and you'll find a near-solid mass of red meat with a thin sinew of fat running between the main eye of meat (the longissimus for the physiologically inclined) and the cap (the spinalis).
First and foremost, it means that heat will travel into the meat faster than it would in a regular beef steak. This means that not only will it take less time overall to reach the same internal temperature (the difference is somewhere between 10 and 15 percent), but it will also require more care to build up a good crackling crust before the interior overcooks.
Super high heat helps, and we'll get to that, but even before you begin to heat a pan, there are steps you can take to ensure success.
The biggest bottle neck when building up a browned crust on a steak is the energy that is required to evaporate surface moisture from the steak.
You see, until all of that surface moisture evaporates, it is impossible for your steak to reach the high temperatures required to trigger the Maillard browning reactions. When you add a freshly cut, moist steak to a hot pan, for the first several minutes, all you're doing is wasting time evaporating surface moisture before it can even begin to think about starting to brown. With a fatty beef steak, you can get away with this. With bison, you run the risk of overcooking the steak to the center before the exterior can brown properly.
Season the steak and let it rest uncovered in the refrigerator overnight on a wire rack. This accomplishes two goals. First, it gives a bit of time for the salt to work itself into the meat, seasoning it more deeply, and more importantly, loosening its protein structure to help it retain more moisture internally as the steak cooks. Secondly, it allows for surface area to evaporate, creating a dry pellicle on the exterior of the meat that vastly improves its browning capabilities.
Note: This short term drying is not to be confused with true dry-aging, a enzymatic and bacterial process that takes a minimum of several weeks before any noticeable effects are produced. You can read up on that here.
With a dry surface, you should have no problem getting a good sear in a ripping hot cast iron skillet. For the best results, start with a neutral oil with a high smoke point such as canola, vegetable, or peanut, and heat it up until its smoking hot. The 600°F+ range is what we're going for here. Lay the steak in gently, then cook it, flipping it relatively frequently as you go.
You may have been scolded in the past for frequently flipping meat, but in fact, frequent flips will not only brown your meat as well as using the single flip method, but it will also cook your meat more evenly from edge to center. This is especially important for a lean cut of bison, which has a tendency to get tough if overcooked.
Once the steak has begun to develop a crust, it's time to add a bit of fat and flavor. Because of its leanness, bison benefits from a good basting with butter and aromatics even more than a standard beef steak does. To do this, add a knob of butter to the pan, reduce the heat slightly to prevent it from scorching, and add a handful of herbs and aromatics like rosemary, thyme, and garlic.
Keep cooking the steak, turning it occasionally, and tilting the pan so you can spoon the hot butter over the meat's surface, helping it to cook and brown more deeply, and depositing flavor with every spoonful.
There you go...
The last step where bison differs from beef is that because of its lack of fat, it'll actually carry over cooking after you remove it from the pan even more than beef does. When you take a steak out of a hot skillet, its outer layers are much hotter than the center. As it rests, that heat travels inward, increasing its core temperature by several degrees. In the case of a rib steak, it can rise by as much as 5°F during a ten minute rest. For lean bison with less insulating fat and a higher heat capacity, this goes up to around 10°F.
This means that you'll have to pull it out of the skillet a little bit sooner than you would a normal steak. Make sure to use a thermometer if you want perfect, reliable results!
What to do while that steak rests? How about we fry off some nice fingerling potatoes in its drippings?
The best way to do this is to boil the potatoes first so that their starches partially gelatinize. This allows you to create an ultra-crisp crust when you subsequently fry them, just like the blanching step for a good french fry. If you've got your potatoes boiled and split, they should crisp up in just about the time it takes for your steak to rest.
Want to make sure that your steak keeps its crackling crust right before serving? Just reheat the drippings until smoking hot after taking the potatoes out until, then pour 'em right back over the resting steak to crisp up the surface.
As it turns out, lean doesn't have to mean dry or flavorless!
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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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