It looks like beef, but it doesn’t moo. Many Americans are turning to buffalo as a tasty and healthful alternative to beef and other meats.
Buffalo is naturally leaner than many other types of meat, such as pork and beef. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, buffalo has almost half of the calories and about one-fourth of the fat as the same amount of beef.
The American Heart Association also lists buffalo as a heart-healthy food in its eating plan, stating that it is “very low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.”
“Buffalo haven’t been bred to put on large amounts of fat like the cattle,” said Richard Carmack, owner of Carmack Farms in Glasglow.
Carmack and his wife, Diane, supply the majority of buffalo to Columbia and surrounding areas. For 10 years, they have been raising buffalo on their farm of about 325 acres, where they now have about 200 head.
Each Saturday, the Carmacks have a booth at both the Columbia and Boone County farmers markets, where they sell fresh cut buffalo, roasts, steaks and burgers, in addition to summer sausage, bratwursts and snack sticks.
Buffalo is nutritionally leaner because the animals, also called bison, mostly live on grass, as opposed to cattle, which live on feed. Grass-fed herds benefit for the farmer because the buffalo can get their daily intake of food entirely from the pasture. The benefit for consumers is that a grass diet leads to leaner meat.
“The appeal about buffalo is that it’s range fed,” said Eric Berg, assistant professor of animal science at MU.
Grass is a low-carbohydrate diet, Berg said, whereas the feed that cattle live on is a high-carbohydrate diet made up mainly of corn. Because the corn provides more energy than grass, the corn diet results in higher fat levels.
This high-carbohydrate diet causes the cattle meat to produce fat within the muscle fibers, called marbling. Buffalo don’t have marbling, nor do they have much fat on the surface of the muscle, which causes a slight difference in taste when compared to beef.
The taste would be similar to that of Australian beef, Berg said, because both are raised on grass.
The shift in taste didn’t stop Erlinda Burke from buying two pounds of ground buffalo at the Columbia Farmers Market on a recent Saturday. Burke tried her first taste of buffalo at Carmack Farm’s booth and was surprised at the similarity in taste to beef.
“It’s delicious,” she said.
Customers Kathy and Gary Hughes come to the Columbia Market frequently to purchase buffalo. The couple most commonly uses their buffalo meat to barbecue burgers.
“We’re converting everybody,” Kathy Hughes said.
Buffalo is catching on in places other than the farmers markets. Some restaurants around Columbia have buffalo dishes on their menus. Jack’s Gourmet Restaurant in Columbia and Abigail’s in Rocheport carry buffalo seasonally and at special events, although neither has buffalo on the menu now.
Customers at Jack’s requested that buffalo be served, said owner Ken Applegate. He adds a buffalo steak to the menu occasionally to add variety.
“It’s a specialty item,” he said. “It gives people a chance to try other things.”
Trailside Cafe in Rocheport sells buffalo burgers year-round, and the cafe goes through 15 to 20 pounds of buffalo patties a week, said Tom Spradling, who works at the restaurant.
Retail stores in Columbia also carry buffalo. Clovers and the Root Cellar both receive weekly deliveries from Carmack Farms.
“It works really well in here,” Root Cellar owner Walker Claridge said of his product selection.
Walker said that nutrition information is posted in the store, and this draws attention and curiosity to the meat. Demand at the store is higher that it is in other places; The Root Cellar sells about one pound of buffalo for every two pounds of beef.
It is not uncommon to find alternative products at local establishments while the big chains normally stay with more traditional products. HyVee in Columbia plans to join the growing group of retail stores carrying buffalo products.
“We aren’t doing it yet,” said HyVee HealthMarket manager Cortney Daniels, “but we’re going to.”
Daniels hopes to have the buffalo available for sale some time in August or September.
One interesting dish Burke likes to make is sweet and sour buffalo, instead of traditional sweet and sour beef. She substitutes the buffalo for beef and prepares the rest of the dish the same way.
“The children like it,” she said, then added slyly that the kids still don’t know they are eating buffalo. “I didn’t tell them.”