White Meat vs Dark Meat Chicken: What’s The Difference?

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Recipes.net Team March 31, 2021
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White meat from chicken is the most widely consumed among all other poultry products. Aside from being easily available in any food store around the world compared to any other type of meat, it is also more preferred for health reasons. as well as inexpensive. Chicken meat in general has a delicate and versatile taste. It acts as a canvas to any flavor you choose to add with it while retaining its most natural succulent quality.

In broader terms, chicken and other kinds of poultry are classified as white meat as opposed to beef and pork that is considered red or dark. You’ll be surprised to know that there’s a difference between each part of the chicken. To start, chicken meat actually has both white meat and dark meat. They are made of two types of muscle fibers that differ not just in terms of color but also in fat content, structure, and taste. Read on to find out their difference and a few handy tips on the best methods of cooking them.

What’s in Chicken Meat?

The different cuts of chicken can either be white or dark/red, depending on the composition of the meat. Muscle tissue made up of bundles of cells, collectively referred to as muscle fibers, contain a red protein called myoglobin. Dark meat is mostly made up of red fibers with more red protein, while white meat is mainly composed of white fibers in which the amount of myoglobin is significantly lesser.

What causes an increase in myoglobin? This protein functions as a storage unit for oxygen in the muscles. An increase in oxygen to a certain part of the body causes the amount of myoglobin to surge in that part, too. Muscle activity stimulates oxygen and blood flow. In chicken specifically, regularly exerted body parts are dark meat.

White Meat Chicken

Cooked chicken breasts with tomatoes and a dip

The reason why the chicken breast, breast tenders, and chicken wings are considered white meat is that they aren’t exerted as much. The muscles in these parts rarely experience a surge in oxygen flow, so they contain less myoglobin compared to other parts. 

Want to know more about the different types of meat? Check out our article on the difference between fish and meat for more interesting facts about these common ingredients. 

How to Cook White Meat 

White meat is leaner compared to dark meat, which is why chicken breasts are a common protein choice for health junkies. These chicken parts also cook much faster, because they have less fat and connective tissues. Cooking white meat for an extended period of time would dry them out because of their lower fat content, which isn’t ideal. Thus, it’s best to cook them quickly at a high temperature. Here are some of the best ways of cooking white meat: 

Option 1: Dry Heat Cooking Methods 

These methods involve exposing raw food to direct heat like baking, grilling, broiling, and roasting. Other times, fats and oils are used to transfer heat to the food. Common examples of this are pan-frying, searing, sautéing, and deep-frying. Most of the time, people opt for this method to achieve a crispy or caramelized exterior. These methods are ideal to use for fast-cooking white meat. Here are some chicken recipes that you can make using these methods:

  • Korean Fried ChickenFor this recipe, chicken wings undergo two dry heat cooking methods: roasting and deep-frying. Once the crispy skin is achieved, glaze them with a special Korean-style sauce for extra flavor and moisture.
  • Chicken BurritoPack your chicken tenders with flavor by marinating them in a blend of tomato sauce, vinegar, herbs, and spices before pan-frying them. For serving, combine the tenders with flavored rice and cheese, and wrap them with large burrito tortillas.  
  • Grilled Chicken Caesar SaladGrill well-seasoned chicken breasts and stir together with salad dressing, romaine lettuce, garlic, croutons, anchovies, and cheese for a classic caesar salad meal.
Tip: Check the internal temperature of the meat to see if it’s cooked. Your meat thermometer must read 165 degrees F.

Option 2: Moist Heat Cooking Methods

These cooking methods require a liquid medium like water, broth, and steam to transfer heat to food. Examples of these are boiling, poaching, and simmering. Although hot and fast is the ideal way to cook white meat chicken, you could also make do with some moist heat techniques. 

  • Crockpot Salsa ChickenSlow cook boneless and skinless chicken breasts in thick salsa using your Crockpot. For a filling meal, serve salsa chicken over rice or shred the meat to use as a burrito filling.
  • Slow Cooker Chicken Breast With Creamy Mustard Leek SauceSoak chicken breasts in a mayo-based marinade. Then, slow cook the marinated chicken in thickened creamy mustard leek sauce. To serve, plate the chicken and sauce over egg noodles. 

Dark Meat Chicken

Cooked chicken legs on a plate, garnished with scallions

Chickens use their thighs and legs to support the weight of their body. Hence, the muscles around this area are dark meat because they contain more myoglobin. They are generally juicier and more flavorful compared to white meat. 

How to Cook Dark Meat

These parts can take quite a while to cook, which means that they can withstand a longer cooking time without drying out. This is because red meat has more connective tissues and fat that would keep them moist, despite being exposed to heat for extended periods. This feat opens up a wider range of cooking options for dark meat.  

Option 1: Dry Heat Cooking Methods

Dry cooking methods like pan-frying, broiling, and grilling are great to use for dark meat chicken, too. Similar to white meat parts, the ideal internal temperature you should aim for is 165 degrees F. Chicken thighs and legs (especially bone-in ones) would take longer to cook than white meat. 

  • Apple Sweet BBQ ChickenMarinate chicken drumsticks in a sweet and spicy sauce made of apple juice and spices. Roast chicken until perfectly tender, and serve with reduced marinade sauce.
  • Garlic-Rosemary Chicken DrumstickPan-fry chicken drumsticks with potatoes in a garlic-rosemary flavored olive oil sauce until golden brown. Finish cooking by baking the dish until the chicken reaches the ideal internal temperature.

Option 2: Wet Heat Cooking Methods

These cooking methods are ideal for dark meat chicken because these often entail longer cooking times. Dark meat parts are more likely to stay juicy after hours of cooking. 

  • Rustic Irish Chicken and Cabbage StewSlowly cook bone-in chicken thighs with bacon, onions, and mushroom in a beer-infused broth using your Crockpot for a few hours. Then, add potatoes and cabbages and continue cooking for two more hours.
  • Slow Cooker Salsa VerdeCook well-seasoned chicken thighs with salsa verde and lime juice in your slow cooker for a bright and zesty chicken dish. 

Option 3: Combination Cooking

This method calls for a mix of both dry and moist heat cooking methods. 

  • Chicken on the BeachSear seasoned chicken leg quarters and breasts until browned. Then, braise in the sauce for 45 minutes. To enhance the texture of the chicken, remove the sauce and roast the meat until the skin turns crispy. Serve the chicken with vegetables and leftover braising sauce.
  • Crockpot Chicken and RiceBake chicken legs until slightly brown and continue cooking chicken with rice and onions in chicken broth using a Crockpot. 

How Healthy is White Meat vs Dark Meat Chicken?

Person cutting a whole chicken

For a long time, we believed that dark meat is the bad egg of chicken meat mainly because these chicken cuts are not as lean as white meat. However, recent studies have shown that both types offer unique qualities. Sure, white meat is leaner, but the fat content in dark meat isn’t as bad. In fact, it makes dishes a lot more flavorful. More than that, dark meat contains more essential nutrients like zinc and iron.  

According to the UK National Health Service (NHS) calorie checker on the calories of chicken based on its parts,  a serving of raw and skinless chicken breast has 106 calories on average and 1 gram of fat. Meanwhile, raw, skinless, and boneless chicken thigh calories amount to 110, with 6 grams of fat. So, when it comes down to chicken thigh vs breast, choose the latter if you’re wary about your intake of fat. Meanwhile, chicken drumstick calories amount to 84 with 3 grams of fat. Lastly, chicken wings’ calories on average amount to 50 calories and 3 grams of fat per serving. 

So, is chicken healthy? To answer this question, it’s also important to note that other factors such as skin, sauces, and cooking methods affect the nutrition count of your poultry meat. For instance, the batter and oil in fried chicken pack more calories into your dish. By comparison, grilling, roasting, and other cooking methods that don’t require adding much fat are better for your health.

White Meat is Leaner, Dark Meat is More Flavorful

The two types of chicken meat both have their fair share of pros and cons. White meat is leaner, which makes it prone to drying out; dark meat is juicier and more flavorful, but it contains more fat. Choose the ones that suit your needs and personal preference best. Also, take into account the type of dish you wish to make because some parts are more suited for specific cooking methods than others. 

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