Why the mad obsession with chicken breast?
White chicken meat is less tasty, less nutritious and pricier than brown meat yet most of us love it more. Why? Plus gorgeous recipes using brown meat from the new books of three superb food writers.
Welcome to Pen and Spoon, my weekly newsletter. This week I have an absolute treat for you. As well as my thoughts about chicken, I’m including three recipes from three amazing food writers from their new books. Each one celebrates brown chicken meat - not the most popular cut, but vastly superior in my view to breast meat. Usually I alternate free newsletters with paid-only - this’s week’s should be for paid subscribers only. But I wanted to share the recipes and the beautiful books they come from with as many people as possible, so they’re available to all. If you could see your way to becoming a paid subscriber it would help to support the enormous amount of research and other work that goes into these posts. Many thanks and I hope you enjoy my newsletter. XX
The Instagram feed of the New York Times Cooking section recently had me and dozens of other followers fall for what was, no doubt, a consciously controversial post about chicken. One of their writers had gone “on a mission” to make chicken breasts taste more like thighs – strange times on the NYT, it seems. Anyway, the key, apparently, was fresh pineapple. Cue cries from those of us who took the click bait: why not just use thighs, ffs?
In my defence, this is one of my pet food hates: the obsession in some parts of the world (notably the UK and the US) with chicken breast. It’s inferior to the brown meat on thighs, legs and wings on all counts, as far as I’m concerned, and yet white breast meat is far and away more popular. Can I get nerdy for a moment and explain why this is madness?
In his essential book On Food and Cooking, food science guru Harold McGee explains that well-exercised muscle (like that on chicken legs and thighs) has a higher proportion of red fibres than the less exercised parts (like the gigantic breasts of industrially reared chickens). Red fibres contain more flavour-creating substances than white, including fat droplets and compounds that help break down flavour molecules. In other words, brown meat does contain more fat than white meat (not by much) but that’s where the flavour and succulence resides.
Moreover, dark meat contains more of some nutrients than white, including iron and zinc. If you’d like to compare the relative health merits of white versus brown chicken meat, take a gander at this chart.
The popularity of breast meat can probably be traced back, at least in part, to the days when fat and saturated fat were thoroughly demonised. We were all advised to reach for lower calorie, less fatty chicken breasts over that devilish dark meat. So, we developed a taste for a cut that is frequently boring, often dry and mostly bland. And this has created a crazy, unsustainable situation in terms of supply and demand.
Chicken accounts for roughly half the meat we consume in the UK (I think the situation is similar in the US). But because Britons (and Americans) prefer chicken breast to dark meat, we have to import breast meat to satisfy demand. According to the British Poultry Council the sustainability of the whole industry hinges on finding markets for the 75% of every bird that that is left over after removing the breasts. This means the UK is only 65% self-sufficient in chicken. Mind boggling.
In an effort to save us all the trouble of buying pineapples to turn chicken into something it isn’t, I’m sharing three recipes from wonderful food writers who recently released new cookbooks. Their dishes celebrate chicken thighs and wings in all their deliciousness - just click on the links and you’ll be taken to the recipe. All hail brown chicken meat.
This delicious recipe for Chicken Cacciatore is byin her very beautiful new book, Cucina Povera: the Italian Way of Transforming Humble Ingredients into Unforgettable Meals. The book celebrates the ‘art of making do’, a centuries old approach to cooking that combines humble ingredients, ingenuity and resourcefulness to produce wonderful plates of food. No sneering at chicken breasts here - use chicken thighs or a whole bird.
Olivia Potts’ love letter to everything buttery is filled with irresistible recipes, history, anecdotes and beautiful writing. Her grand tour of butter covers everything from Turkish eggs with yoghurt and chilli butter to French salted butter biscuits. This deeply delicious Buffalo Chicken Wings recipe involves bathing the wings in a buttery-hot-sauce-and-honey glaze.
Susan Jung’s Kung Pau & Beyond is a cookbook devoted to the joy that is fried chicken, with recipes from East and Southeast Asia. There are chicken breast recipes in the book, but the former food editor of the South Chine Morning Post gives much deserved attention to thighs, drumsticks and wings. This sweet-tart Tamarind Chicken recipe made with thighs is irresistible.