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White Meat vs. Dark Meat: How To Cook Each To Perfection

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It seems like everyone is divided over white meat vs. dark meat chicken. I grew up in a family where there was a clear divide. My father always ate dark meat, preferring the leg or thigh instead of what he called "the dry tasteless breast." I sort of went for either, but eventually began preferring the white meat as I grew older. Does that sound a little like your family?

It seems most people overwhelmingly choose white meat over dark. No wonder they sell skinless, boneless chicken breast at the supermarket! Most people prefer eating protein that's completely unrecognizable as a once-living creature. Somehow chicken legs just remind us that we're eating something that was once running amok in a farmyard.

White Meat And Dark Meat Of Yesteryear
The prejudice against dark meat chicken began more than 50 years ago. People who raised their own free-range birds didn't care for the legs, because they were tough. The chickens ran around a lot, so they grew big and strong leg muscles that resulted in tough meat. That's why braising was a key cooking procedure for making use of the tough unwanted legs. The preference for white meat put dark meat in the corner. Dark meat got no respect!

White Meat And Dark Meat Today
The chickens of yesteryear are no longer the birds of today -- they've changed. Most of the poultry we eat is raised in gigantic farms that turn out chickens on conveyer belts. The chickens are raised in awfully crowded pens and as a result they barely move. Therefore their chicken legs are a whole lot more tender than their ancestors' legs. However they're also bred to have extraordinarily large breasts -- some of the chickens are so top-heavy they can't even stand up.

But even with tastier more tender legs, people still preferred white meat over dark. Part of this was a little brainwashing. By the 1960s Americans had been convinced by the medical community that white meat was healthier because it was lower in fat and cholesterol. And poultry manufacturers began marketing white meat as better for you, even selling it at higher prices to meet their bottom line. Dark meat was shipped abroad.

The Nature And Science Behind White And Dark Meat
There is an obvious difference between dark and white meat. The dark meat -- the legs -- do more work. They are constantly moving muscles. Dark meat contains the compound myoglobin, which is what gives it a reddish hue. Myoglobin helps transport oxygen to muscles so that they can function. When you cook dark meat, its color changes to brown. White meat has very little myoglobin and thus the meat has a pale pink color. When cooked, the proteins coagulate and the meat becomes whitish.

The Nutrition Behind White and Dark Meat
Nutritionally there isn't that much difference between white meat and dark meat. If you compare 100 grams of boneless, skinless chicken breast to 100 grams of boneless, skinless chicken thigh, there isn't a lot to differentiate the two. The chicken breast has 0.44 grams of saturated fat and 114 calories. The chicken thigh has 1.1 grams of fat and 125 calories. The dark meat chicken is more rich in nutrients and minerals. The white meat is higher in protein at 23 grams compared to 20 grams for dark meat.

The Whole Bird Conundrum
The problem with cooking a whole chicken is that it does have both dark and white meat. When roasting a bird you either end up with overcooked breast and perfectly cooked dark meat, or perfectly cooked breast and underdone dark meat. In a perfect world, you'd be cooking the chicken parts separately or at least taking them out of the oven at different times -- that's exactly what restaurants do to get the perfect roast chicken. One great way of cooking a whole bird is to butterfly or spatchcock it. Basically the chicken is split down the back and cooked flat. This works well for roasting and grilling. The end result is a tender and succulent chicken cooked very evenly.

Recipes:
Roasted Chicken Under a Brick
Grilled Chicken Under a Brick

The Best Ways To Cook White Meat
Fast and hot is the best way to cook chicken breast, since it has very little fat. Think of pan-searing and grilling -- these are the methods that will give you the best results. No one likes a dry, overcooked chicken breast, so cooking it quickly is the key. For pan-searing you'll want to sear each side of the breast, then finish cooking it in the oven, or if the breast is thin you can finish it on the stove-top. With grilling, you'll want to mark each side of the breast and then let the breast cook through over a low flame. Make sure to check that the internal temperature of the bird is 160 degrees to ensure it is done. When cooked properly, the inside of a chicken breast will be tender and moist.

Recipes:
Pan-Roasted Chicken Breasts
Grilled Chicken Breasts

The Best Ways To Cook Dark Meat
Even if today's chickens get much less exercise, their legs are still all muscle and fat. The best cooking methods for legs are ones that render the fat and tenderize the connective tissues. Roasting at high heat and slow-braising are your go-to techniques. Roasting renders a lot of fat and tenderizes the tough legs. With braising, you will want to sear the meat first to render excess fat as well as add flavor to the dish. The long cooking time will help create meltingly tender meat. The crock pot is great for braising chicken legs.

Recipes:
Chilaquiles-Style Roasted Chicken Legs
Cider Vinegar Braised Chicken Thighs

Do you prefer white meat or dark meat chicken? Leave a comment.

Around the Web

The Dark Side of the Bird - Slate Magazine

Chicken: Get Over White Meat and Try Legs and Thighs - TIME