Boneless, skinless chicken breast is pretty much as ubiquitous as a food gets in the USA. But why did this one cut become so wildly popular…and what the heck happens to all of the dark meat that none of us seem to be eating?
Chicken wasn’t always as popular as it is today. Though humans around the world have eaten chickens for millenia, usually they were raised primarily for their eggs, and only roosters and hens past laying age would be eaten.
But all that changed in the 20th century.
Post WWI, Americans were dining out more often, and high-end restaurants began to add variety to their menus by introducing the broiler chicken. Prior to this, the chickens available at markets were small, stringy things, usually hens past laying age. Broilers were young, and thus more tender.
Chicken became even more popular during WWII, when it was promoted by the government as an inexpensive alternative to beef, which was being rationed. Once demand increased, farmers began trying in earnest to produce chickens for meat rather than for eggs, and the industrial poultry farming age was begun.
Part of it comes from the notion that chicken legs are tough, which was true when old, free-range hens were all that was on the market. But the vast, vast majority of today’s chickens get barely any exercise, and their atrophied leg muscles are much more tender.
Subconciously, the color of dark meat is also off-putting to Americans, who think it looks dirty.
In recent years, one of the biggest misconceptions that pushes us to consume more white meat is that it is significantly healthier than dark. But according to the USDA, 100 grams of dark meat has just .46 grams of saturated fat and 5 calories more than 100 grams of breast meat. Meanwhile, dark meat contains more nutrients than white.
Regardless, Americans are obsessed with white meat. Even McDonald’s reformulated its chicken nugget recipe in 2003 to contain 100% white meat.
So where does all of that dark meat go?
Some of it is sold in packages at the grocery store, where chicken legs, thighs, and drumsticks sell for a fraction of the price of breasts. But figuring out what to do with the rest of it is tricky.
Some of it – 1.6 billion pounds in 2009 alone – is sent to Russia, where dark meat is preferred. But there’s been a lot of fluctuation in that number, thanks to Russia’s ever-changing import rules and bans. The US exports dark meat to other countries around the world as well, but now that the Russian market is no longer a sure thing, the industry is trying to find a more reliable method of selling the meat.
Vast quantities of dark meat are turned into pet food, and the USDA purchases millions of dollars of dark meat every year for federal food assistance programs and food banks.
But two of the most intriguing ideas involve changing the meat itself.
The first method relies on technology that transforms dark meat into white. Dark meat is thrown into a centrifuge, where the fat, water and myoglobin (the chemical that causes the meat to appear darker in color) are separated from the meat. The meat at this point is a sort of chicken slurry that can be used in a wide variety of processed foods, from nuggets to patties and beyond.
The second method is already being used – selective breeding of the chickens themselves. Since the early 80s, chickens have been bred to yield, on average, 4% more breast meat relative to their size, and the average chicken breast is 1.5 ounces heavier.
Though the average American seems hell-bent on enjoying white meat chicken any chance they get, if you ask chefs they’ll tell you almost exclusively that they prefer dark meat.
Mark Marrone, executive chef at Tao Group in Las Vegas, told Thrillist that, “The most overrated cut of meat, by far, is chicken breast. Yes, it’s lean and easy for people to work with, but it has no real flavor, and people turn it into jerky before they think it’s cooked.”
Meanwhile, “Iron Chef” Michael Symon praised chicken thighs, which can be a good introduction to dark meat. “They’re usually the least expensive cuts, and to me, they have the most depth of flavor. In my experience, people that generally dislike dark meat tend to love chicken thighs,” he told Thrillist.
And the late, great food writer Josh Ozersky was unflinching in his assessment of white meat chicken in an article he wrote for Time:
“I’m going to be the one to say what nearly every person in the culinary world thinks: We all hate chicken breasts. Hate them. I speak for every chef, food writer and butcher in America here. There’s not one of us that has the slightest interest or respect for the chicken breast, at least compared with the dark meat. It might as well be a McNugget.”
With selective breeding and scientific advancement increasing the availability of white meat, it looks like its spot on top is a sure thing. But in an America where the Food Network and its stars are household names, perhaps celebrity chef-obsessed home cooks will finally start listening to their idols and give dark meat a try.
Justina Huddleston is a food writer living in Los Angeles. When she's not writing for Menuism or SheKnows, she spends her time in the kitchen creating both virtuous and decidedly junky vegan food. Buffalo chickpea pizza, anyone? She's also been known to eat a plain block of tofu or beans straight out of the can for lunch, but somehow those culinary adventures don't make it to her Instagram. You can follow Justina on Twitter or see what's cooking in her kitchen on her blog A Life of Little Pleasures.