What Is Dark Meat Chicken?

And Is it Really Less Healthy Than White Meat?

Two grilled chicken legs with onions and herbs

 Istetiana / Getty Images

Because they offer a selection of white meat and dark meat, chicken and turkey are rather unique in the culinary world. After all, how many foods do you know where people actively clamor for one part of it versus another? 

But what is the difference between white meat and dark meat? Most people have a vague sense that white meat is "healthier" than dark meat, but is this really true? And if so, how? Let's break down the bird and find out what's what.

The Parts of the Bird

First of all, chicken and turkey consist of four parts: the breast, the thigh, the drumstick, and the wing. Each bird has two of each. The breast is white meat, while the thigh and drumstick (collectively known as the leg) are dark. And what about the wing? You might be surprised to know that the wing is considered white meat as well.

But what do these distinctions mean?

White Meat Vs. Dark Meat

Like all the animals we eat for their meat, the meat consists of the animal's muscles. Different muscles are used in different ways, but essentially, their job is to convert fuel into energy. And the type of fuel varies according to what types of movements are required. 

Muscles used for quick bursts of energy, like the flapping of wings, are made up of white fibers, which convert carbohydrates into energy. Muscles used for prolonged exercise, like standing, are made up mainly of red muscle fibers, which convert fat into energy. 

Converting fat into energy requires a special protein called myoglobin, which is red in color because of its high iron and oxygen content. Thus, the muscles that a chicken or turkey uses for prolonged work like standing are rich in myoglobin, giving those muscles a darker color. It's also this protein that gives dark meat its richer flavor as compared with white.

And because fat is the main fuel of these red muscle fibers, those muscles have more naturally occurring fat in them than muscles made up mostly of white fibers like the breasts and wings, which are naturally leaner.

White Meat Is Leaner. Right?

So, yes, white meat chicken is leaner than dark meat chicken. A 4-ounce (113 gram) serving of skinless chicken breast contains an average of around 3 grams of fat. Compare this to a 4-ounce (113 gram) serving of skinless chicken thigh, which contains an average of 4.7 grams of fat

So the thigh has more fat. Note, however, that while the thigh boasts 1.7 additional grams of fat per serving, 1.7 grams of fat is the equivalent of about three almonds

In terms of calories, the two are about the same: 136 calories for the chicken breast and 137 for the thigh. If you're wondering how this is possible, it's because the chicken breast has more protein than the thigh.

The two meats differ in terms of other nutrients (dark meat contains more zinc, iron, and vitamin C, white meat has more B vitamins). But the bottom line is, chicken breast has more protein and less fat than the chicken thigh, but the difference is negligible. 

Ultimately, how you prepare it is far more important as it relates to your health. A battered, deep-fried chicken breast is way worse for you than a grilled, skinless thigh.

Cooking Dark Meat Vs. Light

Just because dark and light meat chicken (and turkey) are basically equivalent nutritionally, that doesn't mean the same techniques are equally good for cooking them. That's because there's another difference between white meat and dark meat, which is that dark meat contains more connective tissue than white meat.

This connective tissue is mainly in the form of collagen sheaths surrounding the bundles of muscle fibers. In dark meat, these sheaths are tougher, and it takes longer cooking to soften them. In general, doneness for dark meat is achieved by cooking it to an internal temperature of 175 to 180 F, whereas white meat is done at 145 to 150 F.

This discrepancy is what makes roasting a whole turkey so difficult. Its large mass requires long cooking times, which means by the time the dark meat is done, the breast meat is enormously overcooked.

The same is true of roasting a whole chicken, but since this takes less time, the difference is less noticeable.

All of this means you're probably cooking your chicken all wrong. Instead of roasting a whole bird, consider purchasing a cut-up chicken and baking it—just add the breasts and wings to the baking dish a little later, after the legs have cooked for a while.

Conversely, because they need to be cooked to a higher temperature, and are less likely to dry out, boneless chicken thighs are better candidates for the grill than breasts. In fact, here are 11 reasons we love chicken thighs.