Opinion Columns & Blogs

Views on food: A sorry state of dominance for boneless, skinless chicken breasts

New Year’s diet resolutions never begin on Jan. 1. This year, we could procrastinate with a rolling determination. We got an extra weekend until today – Diet Sunday – the day that begins the flight of something called the boneless, skinless chicken breast out the doors of thousands of grocery stores all over America.

The news here is it’s the first time they would fly. The other news is you don’t need boneless, skinless chicken breasts to diet. But you’d never know it by the numbers.

More than 55 percent of all chicken sold in the United States is breast meat. Add in white-meated wings and the approximately 35 percent chicken left in the case is for me – lovely dark meat, thighs and drumsticks, complete legs, moist, flavorful, juicy. We disregard dark meat enough that in 2012 more than 4 billion pounds of frozen leg quarters were sent to Russia, Mexico, Angola, Cuba, China, Iraq and Taiwan. Now, those folks know how to eat.

In our family, a whole roasted chicken appears at the table intact until all the dark meat is torn off the carcass. What’s left on the serving platter is a browned hump, the whole breast, good for nothing but chopping up for chicken salad with lots of mayonnaise to mask the dryness.

Why would anyone eat boneless, skinless chicken breasts when they could have had a leg?

A couple of nonsensical and outdated reasons brought us to this sorry state of chicken-part dominance. In response to 1980s alarmist news about cholesterol and fat, the chicken industry obliged us with the invention of a chicken breast with nothing in it or on it. UC Davis nutrition professor Liz Applegate was part of that message. And she’s sorry.

“I’ll take some of the bad credit for promoting that,” Applegate admits. She says that in the 1980s we didn’t know any better. “Fat was the devil, and we thought you could eat as many bagels as you wanted.”

Another reason for the popularity of boneless, skinless chicken breast is that Americans prefer a sanitized notion of where their food comes from. Remove the bone and skin, and what’s left doesn’t even look like it came from a bird. It just looks like a piece of meat.

But by splitting hairs (or feathers), breast meat climbed to perceived nutritional dominance. Breast meat is lower in fat and calories. Ready? Applegate knows the numbers by heart: 2 grams of fat in a 4-ounce breast, 5 to 6 grams in a thigh. “It’s negligible,” she says.

Dark meat has more minerals, zinc and iron, which are more easily absorbed because myoglobin, a protein that binds oxygen and iron, is in dark meat muscle. Its fat is monounsaturated, the same desirable fat in olive oil.

As to calories, a boneless, skinless breast has 114 calories; a boneless, skinless thigh has 119. Are 5 calories worth a lifetime gagging on food with the texture of blown insulation?

The minute the bone is removed in processing, the breast begins to dry out. Rip off the skin, even an average home cook would have difficulty ending up with anything but dry, cottony mouthfuls, particularly if you engage in a violent cooking technique like grilling to finish off this defenseless chicken part. A good chef can circumvent the dryness. Braising helps, but it’s got to be quick or the naked breast will overcook.

For most Americans – for we are the only country that favors dry white meat over dark – “that’s what they think chicken tastes like,” says University of the Pacific food historian Ken Albala. “We invented white meat,” Albala says, noting that man prevented chickens from a natural predilection to fly, which gave them a workout, made them muscular and kept breast meat dark. Once domesticated, they stayed on the ground and hung out in pens eating, and breast meat became whiter and drier.

Albala says white meat was the domain of the wealthy who didn’t get much exercise, either. Five hundred years ago, the whitest poultry was the breast of a capon. Laborers were tossed the lowly dark meat, secretly grateful that their scraps at least tasted better than that of their lords. At $4 to $7 a pound, the boneless, skinless chicken breast could still be considered the domain of the wealthy.

Call me a laborer, but I’m starting to get more than irritated that I can’t find dark meat in restaurants. I eat a lot of ethnic food. Over the past five years, I’ve seen breast meat-only in dishes where it would never show up in the host country. Cubes of breast meat in Indian curry. White meat enchiladas. White meat chicken potstickers. White meat in Vietnamese pho. And what is that piece of particle board with black grill marks on top of a Caesar salad?

There’s a Chinese saying that goes, “If you like dark meat, then you know good eating.”

My Chinese cousin-in-law jokes that Asian restaurateurs keep the dark meat for themselves. Once when I was in a Vietnamese restaurant that featured soups and other entrees, the menu offered a Vietnamese version of chicken noodle soup. A picture next to the item showed white meat mingled with the noodles.

“Is that white meat in the chicken noodle soup?” I asked.

“Yes, white meat,” the server replied.

“Do you have dark meat?”

“Yes, we have some dark meat,” she said, reluctantly. “ You want dark meat?”

It was in the back, just as my relative suspected.

Don’t be fooled that there’s virtue in denying yourself pleasure by enduring the presumed nothingness of a boneless, skinless chicken breast.

“They’re a nightmare when it comes to sodium,” says nutritionist Amy Myrdall Miller of the Culinary Institute of America. She warns that bulk packages of boneless, skinless chicken breasts at big box stores are injected with 8 percent sodium by weight by the manufacturer.

Word from the National Chicken Council is that dark meat may be making a comeback for many reasons: interest in food with flavor; popularity of ethnic food (if they’d bring back the authentic dark meat and put it where it belongs); lower cost, and better suited to grilling.

I’m waiting for my dream bird – a flat-chested chicken with four legs.