Skip to content
Bison Meat | A Chef

Bison Meat | A Chef's Perspective

Big thanks to the National Bison Association for allowing us to share this fantastic interview with Damon Holter! Published in Bison World Summer 2023.
Author: Karen Conley

As we search for ways to expand the consumer base for bison meat, Chef Damon Holter brings a fresh perspective on cooking with it. Rather than merely substitute for beef, Holter believes that bison is a unique protein that should be celebrated. “Instead of your common approach that someone can use bison instead of beef in any recipe, highlight bison as a unique protein, and you can do unique things with it. That’s really the approach I would take. Celebrate it. Highlight it for what it is, for being different with its sweeter flavor, cleaner taste, and unique flavor profile. Give the consumer a reason to eat it.”

“It comes down to celebrating the creativity,” Holter said. “My approach going into the World Food Championships (WFC) was how can I take this protein and put it into some- thing I would typically use beef? If I ever see it on a restaurant menu, I see it through that same lens. I think other chefs, other restaurants, say here is bison ribeye, and they are selling it more as novelty because they don’t know what to do with it. They are pigeonholing that protein into what somebody would typically use beef for. As a consumer, I think it’s a hard leap to make and say I came here to eat a ribeye steak. Why would I eat the bison ribeye? I know I will enjoy the beef ribeye and the fattiness, so I’ll order that. I think it’s more of a novelty when I see it on other restaurant menus.”

Spoken like the true creative he is, Holter’s thoughts about bison being a unique protein are something the bison community should take to heart. He has experience that spans various sectors of the culinary world.

He and his wife, Lu, own Croix Valley Foods in Hudson, WI. The pair are well known and respected in food sport circles, and Croix Valley Foods is quickly growing into one of the fastest- growing barbecue brands in the country that features barbecue sauces, dry rubs, marinades, and even Bloody Mary seasonings. Consumers can find their products in various barbecue supply shops, hardware and home improvement stores, meat markets, specialty food shops, and grocery stores. Croix Valley products are available across the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan and are now expanding into South and Central America, Asia, the Middle East, and beyond.

With a wealth of knowledge accrued from years in the restaurant business, food sport competitions, and as an owner of Croix Valley Foods, barbecue and grilling expert, Holter was a force to be reckoned with at the 2022 WFC in Dallas, TX. This past fall was his ninth year competing in the WFC, just one of the numerous competitions he competes in annually.

While Holter had limited experience with bison meat, he approached the challenge of the Sandwich Category at the 2022 WCF with his usual flair for outside-of-the-box-thinking. Benjamin Lee Bison and the National Bison Association sponsored the Sandwich category, and Benjamin Lee Bison provided all the meat used in the Sandwich competition.

Practice was essential for Holter. “As chef, once I knew I would be working with bison, I ordered the same cuts from Benjamin Lee Bison so I could practice ahead of time,” he explained. “Benjamin Lee Bison offered bison ribeye, flank steaks, short ribs, and ground bison. I thought the bison short rib would be huge and was surprised it was similar in size to a beef short rib,” he noted with a chuckle.

For competition in the Sandwich Category, Holter set aside the short rib because he didn’t feel there was enough meat on it to work for a sandwich. “It was a great cut, but not for the competition,” he noted. “All the other cuts worked well. Knowing that bison is a much leaner meat than beef, the approach to cooking it must be a little different. After looking at it, I can start to assess what I do and what my dish will look like so that I don’t dry out the steak. The cooking times might be different, and how do I infuse flavor and a lot of moisture to ensure that I’m getting the product I’m looking for.”

“I had a unique approach to both of my dishes at WFC,” Holter explained. “That approach came from practicing with the meat. I went the route of doing a Rueben sandwich out of that ribeye steak in the first round. Making the Rueben was a decision of strategy. I felt it would resonate with the judges, as it’s something approach- able to them. But I also chose it to highlight my skills, especially in creating that corned bison.”

In creating the Rueben sandwich, Holter’s biggest challenge was to figure out how to make corned bison out of a ribeye steak in 45 minutes. “That’s a lot of work,” he explained. “I am very connected in the industry; I’ve got a lot of friends who are butchers and master meat crafters, and I reached out to a number of them to ask them how they would make corned beef in their facility. I asked them to tell me about the process. It’s time- consuming, sometimes a 10–15-day brine. I was trying to gauge infusing flavor while making sure bison tasted like bison. There isn’t anything else around that tastes like it. It’s a little sweeter and leaner, and I had to take that into account. But how do I make that into a corned bison product that captures the distinctive salty, spicy, sour, and meaty taste that are hallmarks to a corned product?”

“That’s where the fun comes into play, in my opinion. Experimenting, being creative, and thinking outside the box, which is what I did with that process, and thankfully it worked beautifully,” Holter explained. “I developed this notion in my head as to how to do it, I practiced it twice, and when I went into the competition with those steaks, it turned out identical to what I had done practicing with that protein ahead of time. That was the big win!” Holter noted that it doesn’t matter if it was bison, beef, chicken, or pork when you have any protein, you can play around, practice, create recipes, and cook a dish. But when you get the next cut of meat, there could be a host of other factors you have to consider, where it might not work the same. “Meat is a different size, weight, less marble, more marble, more aged, whatever,” he explains. 

Holter was very impressed with the consistency and quality of the meat provided by Benjamin Lee Bison. “It can be a blank canvas for creating all sorts of different dishes and flavors,” he explained. “There were no setbacks with how I utilized the bison for the competition.  It worked exactly how I wanted. And the interesting thing is I never practiced my final dish (for the championship round). I totally made that recipe up on the fly the night after I made it to the finals. I employed the same technique that I did to make the corned bison.” Once again, the decision to make a gyro was one of strategy and skill. Holter wanted to impress the judges with something familiar but unexpected. “Most people would never think of eating bison in this fashion,” he explained.

I used the pressure cooker to infuse flavor and utilized that same technique with one of the Greek seasonings that I make to be able to deeply infuse Greek flavors into the flank steaks to try and replicate gyro meat. That worked just beautifully. That was the only time I did it. There was no practicing involved, nothing. My strategy was let’s take this concept and run with it.”

The originality and diversity of dishes in the Sandwich Category at the WFC were inspiring. For Holter’s entry, he ensured the bison meat was the star of his creation. “Something I always have to keep in mind, regardless of the activity or the sport we are doing, especially if we are given a cate- gory or a protein to use, we must make sure that protein is the star of the dish, or the dish fits the category. I can’t be throwing something out that highlights my skills as a chef but doesn’t pay the proper attention to the protein,” he said.

In food sport competitions, Holter says competitors should first and foremost highlight any specific items they must use when creating their dishes. For the final round at WFC, the chefs were front and center with the judges and were on the spot when they asked questions about their dishes.

Holter was apprehensive when it came time to explain his dish to the judges: “Listening to the other people describing their dishes was very intimidating, as so many descriptions were technical, with many components and other layers. As I listened, I questioned where is the meat in all that? We’re supposed to be highlighting the bison. With all those layers, it could easily be muddled and get lost in the translation when you are eating that dish, as opposed to my approach, where I’m going to make something really delicious. I’m going to elevate it with fresh ingredients, the right seasonings and cooking techniques that will have you tasting what I want you to taste. That was my approach. I made a gyro; I want it to taste like a gyro but be the best one you have ever eaten!” Holter explained.

With his years of experience and connections to the chef community, Holter had some unique thoughts about how bison producers and marketers can appeal to chefs and consumers to get bison meat on more menus and plates.

When asked how we can overcome the stigma of just replacing beef with bison in a given recipe, Holter didn’t hesitate. “Give the consumer a reason to eat it. It’s not a choice between having a regular burger or a bison burger. Why isn’t the chef doing something amazing with that bison burger that they will not get with a beef burger? For the health-conscious consumer, knowing that bison meat is lower in cholesterol and much leaner is a great starting point to get someone to try bison. If a restaurant came come up with really creative methods to be able to serve that dish, like a bison filet that you are doing something really unique and different with and you are not going to find on the menu any other way, then as a consumer if I am eating in that restaurant, I say I want to try that bison filet, it sounds delicious, even if I’m not thinking about the health benefits of that dish.”

Pairing a bison burger with complimentary homemade dressings, unusual condiments or healthy side dishes is a great way to begin setting it apart from a typical beef burger. Steaks could be infused with a variety of flavors to enhance the natural sweetness of the meat, or they could be seared using spices to seal in the tender and juicy flavor of bison. The challenge for chefs and home cooks is to be creative with ingredients and techniques but still retain the integrity of the bison meat. It would be a mistake to lose sight of the taste, texture and juiciness that sets bison apart from other proteins.

“As producers, if you leverage the originality and creativity of what you can do with bison meat by using different flavors and cooking techniques, it gives people a real reason to try it. Don’t think of this as beef. Think of it as something different. Create a dish that is going to be unique, and something that we don’t find on other parts of a typical restaurant menu. That’s the real reason for a consumer to try it. Then they get a liking for it, and say gee, I love that bison, and the next time they are at the grocery store, they might be seeking it out themselves,” he said.

Holter suggested incorporating different, bold flavors when cooking with bison. “I think of Korean dishes that use soy, oyster sauce and so many different ingredients you wouldn’t expect when cooking with bison,” he explains. “Do the unexpected. Stews are a fantastic way to incorporate bison meat. What about stews with a cultural flair, like a curry stew or an African stew with a lot of root vegetables and spices. Think outside of the health benefits and experiment. Slow braise the meat and use it for something like a bison barbacoa where it’s slowly braised with garlic and tomatoes.”

Creating unique, elevated dishes is part of a day’s work for Holter, and he knows that a good recipe can help sell a product. Holter says he and his wife create all sorts of content for their brand, Croix Valley. One of the things they used to do regularly was a Facebook live show featuring unusual proteins and creating something new and different with them. With the newly christened expansion of their headquarters in WI, Holter said they are looking at getting back to doing the live show. He said the audience loved the show and the creativity of the meats and dishes. “I can’t tell you how many times we would create these dishes, and all of a sudden, the place where we got the meat from was inundated with people wanting to try the proteins we were working with,” he said.

Taking Holter’s advice, the bison community can build upon what we already do to promote bison meat. Working with chefs and restaurants to develop bison-specific recipes and to feature elevated bison dishes could complement the Farmers’ Market approach on local levels. Larger processors and marketers are already making inroads with the culinary community. However, getting in front of influencers could help take our product to the next level. Encouraging restaurants to create unique dishes starring bison could be an appealing option for diners and one way to introduce bison to a broader audience.

Holter also encouraged producers and processors to utilize all the unique cuts within a carcass. “Why not use all the muscles instead of grinding it into burger,” he says. “Take those interesting cuts and create those exciting recipes that no one is expecting.”

Highlighting bison meat as a unique protein and, as Holter urged, celebrating the creativity of dishes prepared with it, could break us out of the mold of bison as a beef replacement in traditional beef dishes. “As bison producers, if you leverage what you can do with this meat, it gives consumers a reason to try it,” Holter explains. “Try going beyond the health-conscious aspect and celebrate this unique protein and the creativity it inspires.”

In 1995 the American Bison Association (formed in 1975) and the National Buffalo Association (chartered in 1966) merged to become the National Bison Association. The NBA has more than 1,100 members in all 50 states and 10 foreign countries. The NBA is a non-profit association of producers, processors, marketers and bison enthusiasts. The vision of the NBA is a community bound by the heritage of the American Bison. The mission of the National Bison Association is to bring together stakeholders to celebrate the heritage of American bison, to educate, and to create a sustainable future for our industry.


Older Post
Newer Post

Leave a comment