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A&E >  Food

With careful prep, elk steaks and ground bison produce juicy goodness

The hunters I asked all said the same thing: Whatever you do, they stressed repeatedly, don’t overcook it.

With this advice in mind, I recently made my first attempts at cooking game.

I’m happy to report I was pleased with the results. Despite my trepidation about overcooking, drying out and toughening up the elk and the bison, the meat turned out tender, juicy and downright delicious.

Rich in minerals – especially iron – but leaner than most meats, both elk and bison provide protein without the same kind of calories as beef, pork or lamb. If you’re trying to eat healthier but don’t want to give up red meat, these two kinds of game make versatile substitutes.

“Elk is pretty healthy for you. But bison is pretty much the healthiest red meat you’re going to get,” said Christian Starr, an avid hunter and the manager at L III Ranches, which specializes in raising elk and bison, just north of Blanchard.

“You don’t get the flavor of the fat in the steak” from either animal, Starr said.

There’s about 2.42 grams of fat in a 100-gram serving of bison and about 2.85 grams in a same-size serving of elk, compared to 8.09 grams of fat for select beef or 18.54 grams of fat for choice beef.

Because both elk and bison contain so little internal and external fat, they easily dry out and become tough if they’re cooked too long. So, I aimed for medium rare for my two rib-eye elk steaks and medium for my bison burgers. The ground bison had a rich, velvety texture. Both meats featured flavor similar to but slightly sweeter than beef.

Both were also grown and raised locally.

One of my foodie resolutions for 2014 is to shop locally and seasonally. I bought the elk steaks and ground bison from L III after a recent short tour of the property.

Home to about 110 elk and 230 bison, the relatively new ranch supplies a few grocery stores in Spokane, including Main Market in downtown and Egger’s Better Meats and Seafood on the South Hill. It also aims to maintain a local and sustainable supply of bison – animals that were on the brink of extinction some 130 years ago.

When European explorers arrived in North America, bison herds numbered more than 30 million, according to the National Bison Association. By the late 1880s, fewer than 1,000 bison remained.

Today, the U.S. herd totals an estimated 220,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Throughout all of North America, there are some 450,000 bison.

Much of the resurgence has taken place in the past 25 years, thanks to increasing demand for the leaner, healthier red meat. According to the National Bison Association, some 60,000 bison were slaughtered under state and federal guidelines in the U.S. in 2011, more than double the processing figures for 2002.

At the start of last year, figures from the National Bison Association list the average price per pound for a young bull at $3.88, or 89 percent higher than five years earlier.

L III’s retail price is $8 per pound for 100 percent grass-fed bison, available by the quarter, half or whole animal. Elk is a bit higher, priced at $8.50 per pound. Prices vary for prime cuts and ground meat.

This is the time to place orders. Winter is harvest season in the ranching business.

L III Ranches are named for its owner, George Lawrence III, a world-class archery hunter and the owner of Consumer Auto Liquidator in Airway Heights. In 2010, he bought “a rundown old dairy” on 895 acres – and leased another 100 acres – then went to work refurbishing the farm. In 2011, he and Starr, his newly hired ranch manager, attended a holistic ranch management school in Wyoming.

“We want to raise animals as stress-free as possible,” Starr said.

Heading into L III’s fourth year, the ranch is focusing on expanding its distribution to natural food markets and grocery stores as well as direct consumers, maybe even restaurants, from Spokane to Seattle.

Meantime, Lawrence said he eats bison at home “probably three or four” times per week.

“My wife puts short ribs in a pressure cooker, and they’re just phenomenal,” he said. “The meat is like butter. It makes my mouth water talking about it.”

Flat-Iron Elk Steak

Adapted from a recipe from Dave Voelker of Rathdrum, via Thomas Clouse, his hunting buddy and a Spokesman-Review sports reporter

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup red wine (optional)

1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

3 cloves garlic, minced

Fresh, chopped oregano, to taste

2 (8-ounce) rib-eye elk steaks

Combine all ingredients through oregano to make the marinade. Marinate the steaks in the mixture overnight in the refrigerator. Heat a cast iron pan on high until water droplets skitter on the surface. Depending on the width of the steak, cook 1 to 2 minutes per side until the meat is seared.

Pull when rare. Let meat sit on a cutting board, where it will continue to cook while resting, for 3 minutes.

Yield: 2 servings

Notes: Because of the leanness, any elk meat allowed to overcook will become tough and the taste will darken, or become gamey. Seared and served rare will ensure it is tender, moist and at its peak flavor.

Red wine is recommended if you’re cooking a round steak. It’s not needed if you’re using a tender cut.


I used ciabatta rolls for all three of these burgers because that’s what I had on hand. Toasted kaiser rolls would also work well. And a pretzel bun might be fun to try with the Brie and Bourbon-Poached Pear Bison Burger.

Because the meat is so lean, it can be prone to crumbling. If your patties begin falling apart, try adding an egg to the meat mixture to help hold them together.

Greek Bison Burger

1/3 pound ground bison

1/8 teaspoon mint

1/8 teaspoon thyme

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/4 teaspoon oregano

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon red onion, finely chopped

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 roll or bun

1 tablespoon tahini

1 lettuce leaf

1 cucumber slice, thinly cut length-wise

1 tomato slice

1 red onion slice

1 tablespoon feta cheese

Mix all the ingredients through the chopped red onion in a small mixing bowl, forming the seasoned meat into patty. Heat oil in a skillet, grilling patty to desired gradation. Remove from heat and place on bottom half of the roll, which has been spread with tahini and covered with lettuce leaf and cucumber, tomato and red onion. Sprinkle feta cheese on top of patty and cover with the top piece of the roll.

Yield: 1 burger

Brie and Bourbon-Poached Pear Bison Burger

2 cups water

1/2 cup bourbon

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 star anise

1 Bosc pear

1 teaspoon olive oil

1/3 pound ground bison

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 roll or bun

1/4 cup arugula

2 to 4 pieces brie, thinly sliced

For the pear, bring water to a boil in a small saucepan. Peel pear, scooping core and seeds from the bottom with a melon baller. Add sugar to the water, stirring to dissolve granules. Bring mixture to a simmer over medium heat, then add bourbon, star anise and pear, cooking until tender, about 15 minutes. Remove pear with a slotted spoon. Cool and slice.

For the burger: Form patty, seasoning with salt, pepper and Worcestershire sauce. Heat oil in a skillet, grilling patty to desired gradation. Layer roll with arugula, brie, patty and pear.

Note: Try this with caramelized onions and a piece or two of pancetta or bacon on a pretzel roll.

Yield: 1 burger

Mushroom and Gorgonzola Bison Burger

1/3 pound ground bison

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon olive oil

1/4 cup mushrooms, sliced (white buttons or cremini)

1 clove garlic, minced

1 roll or bun

1 tablespoon creamy horseradish sauce

1 lettuce leaf

1 tablespoon gorgonzola

Form patty, seasoning with salt, pepper and Worcestershire sauce. Heat oil in a skillet, grilling patty to desired gradation. Meanwhile, sauté mushrooms and garlic until garlic is golden brown and mushrooms are cooked throughout. Layer roll with horseradish sauce, lettuce and patty, topping with mushroom mixture and gorgonzola.

Yield: 1 burger

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