Tastes like chicken? Not this bird. Ostrich meat is "the other red meat" with a taste profile that more closely resembles beef than poultry. It's easy to raise, has a champion nutrition profile and is gentle on the land, yet is a rare site on American plates, often viewed as something you might eat but only on a dare.
The classification as an "exotic" meat is largely cultural. Just like other victuals such as pheasant, alligator and reindeer, the distinction is relative to the availability and popularity of the supply. It's no more of a shock to find pheasant roasted for Sunday lunch in the UK, some 'gator stewed up in Louisiana or deer steaks on menus in Norway than sitting down to turkey dinner here in the US. While it may not yet have found its audience here, ostrich has a strong following in other countries, such as South Africa, where the lean, tasty meat is a staple.
Perhaps with a little education, and maybe a taste test or two, we, too can get our heads out of the sand and enjoy this bird for more than its ability to make a snazzy boot.
A Brief History
The early Egyptians, Greeks and Romans were the first to dabble in ostrich. The birds were raised for their meat, feathers and skins, which were tanned into leather by our cultural ancestors. Never ones to shy away from the glamorous life, noble Egyptian and Roman women rode ostriches on ceremonial occasions. Royalty hunted them and the men of the time sometimes raced them. Wacky those ancients, weren't they?
The first commercial ostrich farm was established in South Africa in about 1860 to provide a supply of feathers whose regal plumage has long served to dust, decorate and don many a chapeaux. Over 1 million ostriches were being farmed by 1913. But the World Wars put the kibosh on frivolity and crashed the feather market. The number of ostrich farms dwindled.
The industry held on in South Africa, however, where it stayed afloat and then continued to grow steadily through the 1980s. Anti-apartheid embargos against the country limited their exports, hobbling the South African farms and causing, in turn, world prices for breeding pairs of ostrich to skyrocket. A number of farmers in the US rushed in to fill the void demanding and receiving top dollar, sometimes as high as ten thousand dollars, for breeding pairs.
After the embargos were been lifted, prices for breeding stock normalized and breeding was no longer the lucrative option it had been. The domestic industry has recently refocused, shifting away from breeding programs and concentrating on establishing itself as a commodity industry.
Ostrich don't really bury their head in the sand. But they do lay it low to the ground to keep their height from giving them away to predators.
Ostrich are still raced for sport, as exhibited at the Annual Ostrich Festival in Chandler, AZ.
In addition to its durability and soft feel, ostrich leather is highly prized for its uniquely textured appearance, stippled by the feathers' follicles, making it a popular choice for fashion designers and custom car upholstery.
Ostrich are a relatively easy farm animal to raise. They thrive in dry, desert environments but are highly adaptable and can live in a wide variety of climates. They just need shade from the sun and shelter from the cold - their spectacular feathers act as both cooling and heating systems to regulate the animal's temperature. Over half the ostriches in the US reside in Texas, California, Arizona and Oklahoma.
Ostrich eat mainly plants but will also graze for insects, lizards or other small creatures if they are available. They enjoy a good splash in water but get most of their hydration needs from the plants they eat.
Ostrich farms are highly profitable. When compared to cattle, one ostrich produces forty offspring compared to one calf, yielding seven times the meat, fifteen times the leather, plus a supply of feathers.
Ostrich have a long and prolific breeding season. The mating season lasts six to eight months during which high-producing females lay between eighty to one hundred eggs. For commercial ostrich farming, all eggs are removed from the nest at least twice daily or the female will stop laying until the hatched chicks have reached four to five weeks of age. They are productive for forty of their seventy-year life span.
Ostrich are hardy animals that can survive in extreme conditions. They require very little water so are extremely draught tolerant.
Ostrich take up very little space. A breeding pair can be kept on as little as one quarter to one half an acre of land, according the the American Ostrich Association. Thirty to forty non-breeding birds can be raised on about five acres of farmland.
The feed to meat conversion rate is highly favorable for ostrich, particularly when compared to other red meat such as beef. It takes five pounds of feed to yield one pound of beef. Yet a pound of ostrich meat requires an investment of only 1.7 pounds of feed. This results not only in a net reduction in the cost of feed for the farmer, but also minimizes the net ecological footprint created to raise the animal for food, as less feed equals fewer natural resources to grow, process and transport.
When shopping for ostrich meat, you would look for the same identifying characteristics in any other animal product. You want the animals to be raised with ample space and access to the outdoors and minimal, if any, chemical inputs. The best way to ensure the good quality of your ostrich is to shop through a trusted third party who will give you the story of their husbandry.
Nutrition and Effects on the Body
Ostrich really shines in the nutrition department. It has as much protein as chicken and beef and but only a third of the fat of chicken and eighty percent less fat than beef. It's low in cholesterol and high in B vitamins. This positive nutritional profile is encouraging industry growth as more eaters adopt ostrich meat as part of a health-conscious diet.
What to Do with It and Cooking
Ostrich cooks like red meat and, because of its extremely low fat content, is best cooked to no more than pink throughout. Because there is very little fat to cook out, you can expect minimal shrinkage during cooking. One unique aspect of ostrich meat is its specific pH balance, which makes it inhospitable to contamination by pathogens such as E.coli.
Ostrich eggs also make quite a meal. They look like chicken eggs but are much larger - the equivalent, in fact, to 18 to24 chicken eggs. They taste very similar as well. The shell is quite formidable, however. You'll need some tools to do the job. The trick to cracking the thing without spilling it is to first score an "x" into the top of the shell with a serrated knife. Place the scored egg in a large bowl. Place an ice pick or similar implement at the intersection of the "x" and hammer it through with a meat mallet or an actual hammer. The shell should crack along the score, rather than shattering randomly, allowing you to pour the contents into the bowl without getting a lot of shell along for the ride. You can then use it just like you would any other egg but I find it best scrambled or used in a frittata or omelet - for a crowd!
You can find ostrich meat and eggs at natural food stores, online outlets and a growing number of farmers' markets. You may also run into their equally delicious cousin, emu. Emu meat is very similar to ostrich - it's also a low fat red meat. The eggs, however, are a striking blue green.
Like all red meat, ostrich and emu meat can be stored in the refrigerator for three to five days or wrapped well and frozen for up to six months. If you don't have a chance to use them all at once, the eggs can be whisked and frozen in ice cube trays, and then thawed in individual portions.
Ostrich meat has a flavor similar to beef but is a bit stronger. Adding some flavorings balances out the taste and provides a little extra moisture to this lean meat. For the best results, don't cook your burgers beyond pink so they stay nice and juicy.
1 small onion, grated
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons ketchup
A few dashes of Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 pounds ground ostrich meat
In a medium bowl, whisk all ingredients except the meat to combine. Add the meat and gently work the flavorings into the ground meat to flavor it. Form into four to six patties. Grill over medium hot coals or pan fry over a hot skillet until brown on the outside but still medium rare to medium on the inside. Serve on toasted buns with your favorite burger toppings. Makes four to six burgers.
Sherri Brooks Vinton wants you to have a more delicious life. Her writing, talks and hands-on workshops teach fellow eaters how to find, cook and preserve local, seasonal, farm friendly food. To find out more, visit www.sherribrooksvinton.com.