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 foods 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.
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.
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 American Ostrich Association. Thirty to 40 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.
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 40 of their 70-year life span.
Ostrich are a relatively easy farm animals 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 United States reside in Texas, California, Arizona and Oklahoma.
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 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 to 24 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; it’s great for scrambled eggs 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.
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 80 percent less fat than beef. It’s low in cholesterol and high in Vitamin B complex. This positive nutritional profile is encouraging industry growth as more eaters adopt ostrich meat as part of a health-conscious diet.