Where the buffalo roam.

From M., 21 July 2010, water buffalo – enough said.

Q: I have just returned from a hunting trip with a friend in the Northern Territory. Whilst there we shot a water buffalo (a feral introduced species – hence the hunt). Can you suggest any ways to cook buffalo rump steaks, or buffalo backstraps. I would also be grateful for any suggestions on ways to roast/marinade large (2-3kg) roasting size pieces of buffalo.

A: Greetings, my Australian friend. I should start by commending you for asking me about a food that I never have encountered. I even resorted to the 1981 edition of the Joy of Cooking – a classic edition of a classic and comprehensive work. While I was able to learn to field-dress opossum, muskrat, raccoon, and porcupine, and found recipes for armadillo, bear, and beaver tail, Irma and Marion Rombauer were silent about water buffalo. So again, good job.

Water buffalo, despite their name, are not related to what Americans call buffalo. American “buffalo” are actually bison, and are related to cattle and yak. Water buffalo constitute a separate genus – Bubalis bubalis, as opposed to Bison bison. In Europe, water buffalo milk forms the basis for the classic cheese, mozzarella di bufala, which, when made in Campania, enjoys the protected DOC and PDO status. Mozzarella di bufala is richer than cow’s milk mozzarella (mozzarella fior di latte) because water buffalo milk is higher in protein- and fat-rich milk solids.

Water buffalo, in Thailand

American bison

Am I stalling with all this arcania because I don’t know how to cook water buffalo? Possibly. Then again, here’s what I do know. It’s leaner than beef. Having been free to graze at will, it’s probably more flavorful than domesticated beef, and possibly even somewhat gamy. In these ways, it’s probably a lot like caribou, moose, yak, or bison, all of which I’ve prepared (and hopefully it’s more like moose or bison than caribou). So for the tougher cuts, like the rump, short rib, or the leg, you’ll want to cook it low and slow – braising or roasting at low temperatures. For the more tender cut, like the saddle (backstrap) or tenderloin, you’ll find the most success slicing into steaks or medallions and cooking quickly.

How do you know if you’re looking at a tough or a tender cut? Look at the meat. Is the meat finely-grained? Or do you see long, distinct, muscle fiber strands? Press the meat with your fingers. Do you encounter almost no resistance, leaving deep finger marks? Or does it feel rather more solid? The latter are the tough cuts – long, ropy muscles, bound with connective tissue, rich in collagen and meaty flavor. Cook these in a flavorful braising liquid, or marinate well with an acidic liquid like buttermilk or yoghurt, and then lard with solid fat and roast slowly. The former are the tender cuts – little-exercised and less flavorful. Cook these quickly over high heat, being sure to serve them medium rare.

The fat of large game meats turns rancid very quickly and you should not use it in your cooking. Trim all visible fat and the tough connective tissue – tendons, ligaments, and any membranes. Add the fat back with olive oil, butter, or lard, which add moisture and richness, or by serving with a sauce.

Buffalo steaks, mustard sauce

The flavors of the accompanying pan sauce – which comes together quickly – are reminiscent of the bistro classic, Steak Diane.

Buffalo steaks, 3/4″ thick, cut from the saddle (backstrap) or the rump
unsalted butter, about 4 tbsp for two steaks
2 tbsp cognac
1/4 c white wine
2 tbsp dijon mustard
1/4 c beef stock (or tinned beef broth)
chives, snipped
salt and pepper

Pat each steak dry and season well with salt.

Place a large, heavy skillet over high heat. When hot, add about 1 tbsp butter and swirl to coat the pan. Place the steaks in the pan and turn the heat down slightly to medium. Brown for about 2 minutes on each side – do not disturb while they are cooking. Remove to a pan (touch to check doneness first).

Return the pan to the heat and add the cognac. Reduce until nearly dry and then add the white wine. Again reduce until syrupy and nearly dry, and whisk in the mustard. Bring to a simmer and add the beef stock, simmering until slightly thickened. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter. Pour over the steaks and garnish with the chives. Finish with pepper.

Buffalo carbonnade

This is a hearty dish for cold weather. Since it’s winter in Australia, you might enjoy preparing this now. Bonus: leftovers taste even better as the stew’s flavors have a chance to blend. The carrots are optional and not strictly authentic, but I like them.

The choice of beer is important. It should be somewhat bitter and somewhat tart – don’t use a pilsener for this dish.

1/2 kg/1.25 lbs buffalo, cut into 1″ or slightly larger cubes
2 slices bacon (streaky bacon), diced
vegetable oil
2 large onions, sliced thinly pole-to-pole
2 carrots, trimmed and roll-cut (slice on an angle as you roll the carrot)
2 tbsp flour
1 bottle beer, preferably a Belgian ale like a brown ale or a Flanders red
500 ml/2 c beef stock or tinned beef broth
1 large bay leaf
about 4 branches thyme, tied together, or 1/2 tsp dried thyme
red wine vinegar
salt and pepper

300F oven if you plan to cook this in the oven. Read the instructions first.

Place a large, deep pot over medium heat and, when hot, add the bacon and fry until the fat has rendered and the bacon is crisp. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add the meat to the hot fat and brown well. You should perform this in batches if your pan is not large enough to accommodate the meat in a single layer with space to spare. Remove the meat to a bowl with any accumulated juices. Add 2 tbsp vegetable oil and then add the onions to the fat. Brown the onions slowly until golden. Add the flour and fry for several minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon.

Add the beer to the pot and bring to a simmer. Add the beef stock and bring back to the simmer. Add the carrots, the browned buffalo, the bacon, and accumulated juices, drop in the bay leaf and the thyme, and cover the pot. Bring to a simmer – do not boil – and simmer over very low heat for about 3 hours. If you like, you can place the whole pot in a 300F oven. Remove the lid for the last 30 minutes and stir well.

Stir a teaspoon or two of red wine vinegar into the carbonnade just before serving. Taste for salt and pepper. Serve over boiled potatoes or egg noodles.

Roast buffalo with sauce verte

I don’t have access to water buffalo, but I did prepare a bison roast last week. It was a tri-tip roast, which also is called the bottom sirloin. It comes from the portion of the animal closest to the round (the source of rump roast), and is similar in texture and composition. You requested directions for a 2-3 kg roast. That’s a lot of meat, so perhaps you can halve the roast. If you cook the whole thing all in one, that’s enough meat for almost ten meals.

This bright green herb sauce is for spring or summer, so if your roast lasts in the freezer that long, give it a try.

1 kg/2.5 lbs tri-tip roast, or rump roast
olive oil
espelette pepper, or black pepper
Sauce verte

225F/105C oven

Pat the roast dry and season well with salt.

Place a large, heavy skillet over high heat. When hot, add the olive oil and swirl to coat the pan. Place the roast in the pan and brown well on each side. After browning the last side, place in the oven. Roast for 17 minutes/lb, turning over halfway through. This should yield a medium rare roast but be sure to check.

Rest for 30 minutes on a rack, lightly covered with foil. Slice the roast about 1/3″ thick. Serve with the sauce verte.

Roast bison tri-tip, sauce verte.

Image sources:

Water buffalo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BUFFALO159.JPG
Bison: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/2/29/Americanbison.jpg

4 thoughts on “Where the buffalo roam.

  1. Pingback: Water buffalo. « The Upstart Kitchen

  2. Ok…after reading these recipes I am thinking about relocating to a region that has Water Buffalo!

    For the Buffalo carbonnade is a stout too tart/bitter to be effective? I’ve never used a stout in a stew before and wonder if it would give a “mealy” texture to the stew the longer it sat…?

    • I’ve made the dish with non-Belgian ales and have found that brown ale (like Newcastle Brown Ale) works nicely. I also think a stout might be good. The only beer I definitely don’t recommend is a rauchbier (the smoked beers from Germany) – the smoke taste becomes sort of chemical-y and lends an unpleasant note to the carbonnade.

  3. Pingback: Project Food Blog, Part I. « The Upstart Kitchen

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