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

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Kaye Published: March 31, 2021 Modified: May 5, 2022
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Chicken meat is widely consumed among other poultry products as it is easily available in any food store around the world. Aside from its health benefits and inexpensive cost, it is also prized for its delicate taste and versatile use. It often acts as a canvas for any flavor you choose to add with it while retaining its succulent quality.

White chicken meat is usually the go-to meat for creating healthy recipes like low-cholesterol meals. Meanwhile, the dark meats would often get a bad rep for being the “unhealthy” counterpart. However, you’ll be surprised to know that both dark meat and white meat parts are actually good for you!

In this article, we’ll discuss their different qualities, as well as a few handy tips for the best methods of cooking both dark and white chicken meat.

Dark Meat vs White Meat: How They Compare

person cutting a whole chicken

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, contains a red protein called myoglobin

Dark meat is mostly made up of red muscle fibers with more myoglobin or red protein, while white meat is mainly composed of white fibers in which the amount of myoglobin is significantly lesser. Hence, the names “dark” and “white” meat.

But what is myoglobin? This pigmented protein carries oxygen in protein which acts as a fuel for movement and exercise. The more activity there is in the muscle, the more it stimulates oxygen and blood flow. This then invites the surge of myoglobin in those body parts and with it the saturation of red pigment. 

In the case of chickens, they rely on their legs and thighs to move around as flightless birds, thus with their frequent activity, these parts end up with a lot of myoglobin. This leaves the meat in darker color compared to the inactive white parts, such as the wings and breasts.

Taste

Aside from their appearance, the structural difference and cook time between white meat and dark meat also contribute to their taste. The higher fat content of dark meat allows for lengthier cook times which makes the chicken more tender. The longer it cooks, the more connective tissues are broken down into gelatin, imparting rich flavors into the meat. Moreover, dark meat parts in the chicken are usually connected to bones, and these also slow down cooking. 

On the other hand, the white counterpart has less fat content and can easily be overcooked. It is typically regarded as dry and flavorless. However, if you get the cooking time and temperature right, white meat can be just as juicy and succulent as any other part of the chicken. Light meat should be cooked at the right temperature and time to retain its natural juices. If prepared properly, white meat is as tasty as dark meat. 

Nutrition

For the longest time, people were led to believe that dark meat is the bad egg of chicken meat when it came to the dark meat vs white meat debacle. This is mainly because these chicken cuts are not as lean as white meat

However, recent studies have shown that both types offer their own unique qualities.  In fact, dark meat contains more essential nutrients like zinc and iron. To add, the nutritional differences between dark meat vs white meat are actually not that drastic. Sure, white meat is leaner, but the fat content in dark meat isn’t as bad. As mentioned, it makes dishes a lot more flavorful.

Dark Meat vs White Meat: Nutrition per 100 grams serving

Nutrients Chicken breast Chicken drumsticks Chicken wings Chicken thighs
Calories 165 kcal 172 kcal 203 kcal 209 kcal
Fat 3.6 g 5.7  g 8.1 g 10.9 g
Protein 31  28.3 g 30.5 g 26 g

According to the USDA’s FoodData Central, 100 g serving of raw and skinless chicken breast has 165 calories on average and 3.6 grams of fat. Meanwhile, raw, skinless, and boneless chicken thigh calories amount to 209, with 10.9 grams of fat. So, when it comes down to chicken thigh vs breast, the difference is minuscule. But if you’re very particular about your calorie or fat consumption, then choose the latter. On the other hand, chicken drumstick calories amount to 172 with 5.7 grams of fat. Lastly, chicken wings’ calories on average amount to 203 calories and 8.1 grams of fat per serving.

So, is chicken healthy? The answer is yes. But 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 usually better for your health.

White Meat Chicken

Cooked chicken breasts with tomatoes and a dip

As previously explained, 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, thus containing less myoglobin compared to other parts.

READ ALSO: The Debate Between Fish And Meat – Is Fish Meat?

How to Cook White Meat

Between dark meat vs white meat, the latter is leaner. This is why chicken breasts are a common protein choice for health junkies. These chicken parts cook much faster because they have less fat and connective tissues. This is why white meat has the tendency to be dry when overcooked. 

For better results using this chicken part, the trick is in its cook time and preparation. 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 use for fast-cooking white meat.

Tips

  • 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. The addition of liquids adds moisture to your dish but do note that you should still keep the cooking time short to dry and overcook the meat.

White Meat Recipes to Try

Copycat Applebee's Chicken Tenders with Paprika Honey Mustard

With those useful methods for cooking white meat in mind, here are some chicken recipes that you can make:

Dry Heat Cooking Methods:

  • Korean Fried Chicken – For this recipe, chicken wings undergo two dry heat cooking methods: roasting and deep-frying. For extra flavor and moisture, glaze the crispy chicken with a special Korean-style sauce.
  • Chicken Burrito – Pack 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.
  • Applebee’s Chicken Fingers with Paprika Honey Mustard – This chicken tender recipe is marinated in a garlic buttermilk mixture before it’s deep-fried for a juicy bite. The satisfying crunch of the breadcrumbs will make you want more, not to mention the irresistible combo of paprika and honey mustard as its companion. 

Moist Heat Cooking Methods

  • Slow Cooker Chicken Marsala – You only need to prepare a few key ingredients like garlic, wine, chicken broth, and mushrooms with your boneless and skinless chicken breasts for this recipe. With just a press of your slow cooker, you get a deliciously tender chicken dish that is sure to fill you up.
  • White Chicken Chili – A lighter take on the famous comfort food, this dish is surely hearty and warm. You only need to stir everything (including the diced chicken breasts) together in one pot. You’ll be ready to go after simmering for 25 minutes!

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 longer cook times without drying out. This is because red meat has more connective tissues and fat that would help keep them moist, despite being exposed to heat for extended periods. This feat opens up a wider range of cooking options for dark meat such as the following:

Option 1: Dry Heat Cooking Methods

Dry cooking methods like pan-frying, deep-frying, broiling, roasting, 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. Generally, it takes about 20 to 30 minutes to cook boneless chicken thighs while bone-in chicken legs take around 40 to 55 minutes.

Option 2: Wet Heat Cooking Methods

Cooking methods such as slow-braising, stewing, or boiling is 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. 

Option 3: Combination Cooking

This method calls for a mix of both dry and moist heat cooking methods. Initially, the chicken is browned to seal juices and develop flavor, followed by the addition of a liquid to tenderize the meat.

Dark Meat Recipes to Try

garlic-rosemary-chicken-drumsticks-recipe

Pick your preferred method for cooking dark meat and try these delicious recipes: 

Dry Heat Cooking Methods:

  • Crispy Rotisserie Chicken Thighs – Rub your chicken thighs with a flavorful seasoning made with aromatic spices and herbs such as thyme, paprika, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder. As it comes straight from your oven, it will certainly beat store-bought rotisserie chicken with its deliciously tender insides and crispy outsides.    
  • Garlic-Rosemary Chicken Drumstick – Pan-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.

Wet Heat Cooking Methods:

  • Rustic Irish Chicken and Cabbage Stew – Slowly 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.
  • Creamy Chicken Drumsticks In A Crockpot – This hearty and filling recipe is simple and easy to prepare. All you need to do is combine all the ingredients and make your flavorful roux to thicken it up. Every bite is certainly creamy and delightful!

Combination Cooking

  • Chicken on the Beach – Sear 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.

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, while dark meat is juicier and more flavorful, but it contains more fat. Ultimately, the ones that suit your needs and personal preferences are the best choice. 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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Kaye

Kaye is a writer and a recent oat milk convert. With a background in Language Studies, she has founded a deep appreciation of cultures, traditions, and the power of words. In her spare time, she enjoys testing some of the trendiest and most accessible recipes on the internet.

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