HINTON — It was 17 years ago this month that I began writing this column, which was about the time James and Sandy Stepp changed their love of buffalo from an urban hobby farm to a sustainable business operation called The Wichita Buffalo Co. at Sandy Springs Farms, where you’ll find some of the best buffalo you will ever taste.
Folks like the Stepps, committed to sharing the best Oklahoma has to offer, are what have made writing this column such a joy for nearly two decades.
The special thing about these Hinton-area producers is their magnificent buffalo are practically members of the family — at least that is true for one 15-month-old buffalo named Stormy. You won’t find many house pets weighing more than 700 pounds. Stormy was a rescue buffalo that got his name after being abandoned by his mother in the middle of an ice storm. Stormy’s closest friend besides James Stepp is one of the family dogs, named Bear.
Thankfully, a neighbor alerted James, and Stormy was brought into the house. He was fed and nursed along for months, gradually grazing and rapidly growing. He even climbed stairs and for some time slept on the floor beside the Stepps’ bed.
Stormy’s rescue is significant as it shows the dedication the Stepps have to the humane treatment of their animals. “Stormy will not become your next buffalo burger,” Sandy told me. They do not name the buffaloes that are destined to end up as burgers. As someone who enjoys a good steak as much as anyone, I also understand why some people make a commitment to being a vegetarian. So writing about the pleasures of enjoying a good buffalo burger can be a sensitive subject for folks who do not eat meat.
I asked James Stepp about this difficulty and how he rationalizes this business as a producer. He said, “I look at it this way. They are all going to die eventually from either natural causes, age, accident or illness. Some will die sooner and wind up on the dinner table.”
He reminded me of a time in history when we almost caused the extinction of the buffalo.
James takes pride in diversifying his herd over the years, often traveling some distance to make sure to maintain healthy stock in his heritage or breeding herd.
The Stepps started with 40 acres and six buffaloes in a much more urban setting than their present Sandy Springs Farms outside Hinton. The farm is a wide expanse of rolling hills with green grass for the buffaloes.
There were buffaloes of all sizes. I saw a precious baby buffalo that was born to 16-year-old Geneva the day before I arrived. There was Leslie, who rolled around in a patch of sand looking almost like a family dog lying on its back and wanting its tummy scratched. They were so mesmerizing and magnificent, I could have watched them for hours.
Building a buffalo burger
It was time, however, to get on with the business of the buffalo burger. I was so excited to think we could literally build one with all Oklahoma ingredients. I keep one-pound packages of ground Wichita Buffalo in our freezer. For making a great burger, I’ve never found anything better. It is important how you thaw the meat. If you can, thaw the ground buffalo in the refrigerator overnight or a little longer. A roast or larger cuts will take a little longer. Remember, buffalo is not fast food, so cook super-lean buffalo a little lower and slower than most beef.
I stopped at Braum’s to pick up some large buns for my third-pound burgers. I divide the pound into three parts. For quarter-pound burgers, use smaller buns.
Great mustard can really enhance your burger experience. Try Seikel’s Oklahoma Gold or the Prairie Gypsies Chipotle Lime Mustard. Sandy Stepp told me she likes to cook her buffalo roasts with the Chipotle Lime Mustard. Big purple onions from Crow Farms in Shawnee and perhaps one of their succulent red tomatoes sliced up on the burger and alongside is so good.
When it comes to pickles and relishes, here’s where you can go wild with the little extras that could make any burger unique. I love Suan’s Scotch Bonnet Pepper Jelly, and it is a great glaze on top of that buffalo burger patty. You could also use Suan’s pepper relish for an extra treat. Pepper Creek Farms makes a crunchy carrot and pepper relish that is sure to perk up your burger experience.
You will find Oklahoma-produced pickles in most farmers markets and grocery stores across the state. I even found pickles at Gulfport Seafood in Oklahoma City. This time of year, cucumbers are being transformed into pickles ranging in variety from sour to sweet to hot or spicy and everything in between or in combinations.
If you happen to be grilling the patties, consider brushing on some Peach Crest Farms’ barbecue sauce. Made from the peaches from the farm near Stratford, it is yet another way to season your Oklahoma buffalo burger. Livesay Orchards near Wagoner also makes a peach-infused barbecue sauce.
Don’t forget the lettuce. I found beautiful lettuces at the OSU-OKC Farmers Market in several producers’ booths. They are always beautifully cleaned and packaged in plastic bags.
I cook most burger patties in our house in a small skillet for the two of us. Use just a bit of cooking spray in a lightly preheated pan, a little salt and pepper perhaps a splash of Worcestershire sauce. I know those three things are not produced in Oklahoma, but there is a great little burger enhancing spice I found at Savory Spice Shop, 4400 N Western Ave., that is mighty good for seasoning your next buffalo burger. The shop has several Oklahoma-inspired spice mixtures, but the Red Rocks Hickory Smoke Seasoning is wonderful on the buffalo burger patty, especially if you are cooking indoors. While the product might be named after Red Rock Canyon State Park near Hinton, it’s a happy coincidence. That takes us back to Wichita Buffalo at Sandy Springs Farm. I forgot to mention you can buy buffalo wholesale right there at the farm. Call (405) 542-6015 to let them know you are coming.
James and Sandy Stepp are set up to welcome groups to the farm. You might even arrange for a buffalo burger lunch and get to meet Stormy, as Sandy told me when I was rubbing that friendly approachable critter’s head.
Last year, Sandy Springs played host to chef James Denevan’s traveling culinary adventure, Outstanding in the Field. Ludivine chefs Russ Johnson and Jonathon Stranger and The George executive chef Josh Valentine headed up that feast under the stars. Outstanding in the Field returns to Sandy Springs on Oct. 9. Tickets are available online at outstandinginthefield.com under the events tab.
At a glance
The Wichita Buffalo Co. at Sandy Springs Farms
Where: 28580 State Highway 37, Hinton.
Phone: (405) 542-6015.
Where to buy
Akin’s Natural Foods stores; Native Roots; Homeland stores; Dodson’s Nutrional Food Center (Norman); Artisan’s Pride (Norman); Cossey’s Custom Cuts (Mustang); Health Food Centers (Oklahoma City and Lawton); Pearson’s (Enid); Oklahoma Food Cooperative (statewide).
Where it’s served
Big Buffalo Burgers, 8027 NW 23 St., Bethany; Mutt’s Amazing Hot Dogs, 1400 NW 23; Ludivine, 805 N Hudson; Bob’s Steak and Catfish, 10603 Interstate 35 Service Road; VZD’s, 4200 N Western Ave.; Local, 2262 W Main, Norman; Cherokee Restaurant, 201 S Walbaum Road, Calumet; Kilkenny’s, 1413 E 15 St., Tulsa; Vintage House, 402 N Main St., Burlington; Rusty Barrel, 2005 N 14 St., Ponca City.