Who Will Speak for Dark Meat?


The poultry industry wants America to come over to the dark side. Of chickens, that is.

After successfully selling the boneless, skinless chicken breast as the quick and easy dinner solution, chicken producers are shifting their marketing resources to the back of the bird. Their goal: Turn America on to the wonders of thighs and drumsticks.

It’s going to be an uphill battle.

Until a few years ago, America’s preference for white-meat chicken didn’t concern poultry producers. Domestically, white-meat products commanded premium prices. And internationally, the market for dark-meat chicken was so strong--80% of exported chicken consists of dark meat--that it balanced the American market.


“Foreign markets love the dark meat. In Asia it’s viewed as the premium product,” says Jeff Sandore, spokesman for Tyson Food.

And Asians aren’t the only ones who love dark meat. “If you go anywhere--Southeast Asia, Mexico, South America--dark meat is preferred and commands a higher price than white meat,” says Jim Perdue, chairman and chief executive of Perdue Farms.

As long as the chicken fetched a good price in foreign markets, there was no need to look for outlets closer to home.

That started to change in 1997, as economic problems hit Asia. Then, in the summer of 1998 the Russian ruble tumbled. Though total export volumes remained steady at about 3.84 billion pounds for 1998, the dollars realized did not. Exporters to Russia saw gross revenue drop to the tune of about $250 million, according to Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council.

It was a wake-up call for the poultry industry. Suddenly the cozy balance between domestic and foreign markets was disturbed. Although both the Asian and Russian markets have rebounded, the downturn pushed the U.S. poultry producers into action.

“These [foreign] markets will come back, but as an industry we are going to market dark meat so we can control our destiny,” says Perdue.

Dark-meat fans like the richer, deeper taste of the thigh, leg and back meat and the moist, chewy texture. Just ask Julia Child. “It’s very much the best part. The flavor and texture are better. Everything about it is better.” Many chefs and food professionals agree.

“In my family everyone likes the legs, no one likes the breast,” says cooking teacher Jacques Pepin.

“I tend to prefer dark,” says Todd Gray, chef-owner of Equinox restaurant in Washington, D.C.

“Dark meat,” chimes in Greggory Hill, executive chef at Gabriel in Washington. “I prefer dark meat,” adds Robert Wiedmaier, chef de cuisine at Marcel’s, also in Washington.

“Dark meat. It has more flavor,” says Francois Dionot, president of L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Md.

Sure, there are chefs who prefer the white meat of chicken. For the most part, though, chefs prize the dark meat for its flavor and versatility. But customers often just don’t go for dark meat. “Even in chicken salad, if they see meat that is a shade gray, they notice,” says Gray.

Chefs have their tricks for getting dark meat on the plate. Gray braises chicken thighs and cooks the breast separately. The thigh meat is then used as bed for the chicken breast. Customers never seem to notice that the meat under the breast is a shade darker.

Wiedmaier takes the dark meat, makes it into a roulade and serves it alongside the breast. Hill features chicken thighs at the tapas buffet. He marinates the thighs in jalapeno chilies, cilantro and garlic oil and then braises them in a chipotle barbecue sauce. No customer ever complains.

The rich flavor of dark meat makes it a natural for soups, stews and dishes using pulled or shredded chicken. But don’t forget about grilling. Jessie Yan, owner of Washington’s Yanyu, Oodles Noodles and Spices restaurants, thinks dark meat is much better for barbecue.

“It has more flavor and holds up to marinating,” she says. Though white meat is easily overwhelmed by strong marinades, dark meat isn’t. Then there’s the cooking method. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are easily overcooked on grills. With their low fat content, they dry out quickly. Dark meat, with a higher fat content, stays moist and succulent.

With so much going for it--taste, cost and resilience--you would think it would be easy to sell America on dark-meat chicken. But our love affair with white meat shows no signs of slowing.

In a survey conducted for the National Chicken Council in 1997, 55% of the respondents reported that when serving chicken, they usually used boneless, skinless breasts. “People are willing to pay up to $5 a pound for boneless, skinless chicken breasts. It’s where the demand is,” says the council’s Lobb.

Herbal-Rub Dark-Meat Grill

Active Work Time: 10 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 20 minutes plus 8 hours chilling

If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, put the spices in a resealable bag and crush them with a rolling pin. From “Chicken: 150 Great Recipes for All Seasons” by Elaine Corn (Chronicle, 1999).

4 large cloves garlic

1 teaspoon coarse salt

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns

2 teaspoons dried thyme

2 shallots, finely minced

8 chicken thighs

3 bay leaves

* In mortar, crush together garlic, salt, parsley, peppercorns and thyme. Add shallots and crush into spices.

* Carefully loosen skin on chicken thighs and tuck some of herbal rub under skin. Place thighs, any remaining rub and bay leaves in sturdy resealable plastic bag. Refrigerate overnight or up to 2 days.

* Prepare an indirect-heat fire in charcoal grill. Place thighs on grill rack, skin-side down, cover, open vents fully and grill 10 minutes. urn, cover, and grill until cooked through, about 10 minutes more.

4 servings. Each serving: 412 calories; 728 mg sodium; 158 mg cholesterol; 29 grams fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 33 grams protein; 0 fiber.

Japanese Fried Chicken (Toriniku Tatsuta-age)

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 25 minutes plus 1 hour chilling

Japanese deep-fried chicken has Chinese roots. The chicken is cut into bite-size nuggets, marinated, mixed with a starch and fried quickly in deep fat. This chicken is good either hot or at room temperature and is therefore a popular lunch-box dish in Japan. That fact also makes it ideal for parties and picnics. From “Fried Chicken” by Damon Lee Fowler (Broadway, 1998).

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons sake

1 tablespoon grated ginger root

1 teaspoon dark sesame oil

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 large clove garlic, lightly crushed

1/3 cup katakuri-ko (Japanese potato starch) or potato starch

Peanut or vegetable oil for frying

* In large glass or stainless steel bowl, stir together soy sauce, sake, ginger root and sesame oil. Add chicken and garlic and toss until chicken is evenly coated. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour or overnight.

* Sprinkle potato starch over chicken and toss until mixture forms a smooth batter.

* Fill deep-fat fryer or Dutch oven with enough oil to come halfway up sides or at least 2 inches deep. Set wire rack over baking sheet. Over medium-high heat, bring oil to 375 degrees (hot but not smoking). Stir chicken again to coat it evenly and, wearing heat-proof gloves, transfer it a few pieces at a time to hot oil. Fry until chicken is light gold, about 2 minutes, and transfer to wire rack. Drain well.

* Bring temperature of oil back to 375 degrees. Return all of chicken pieces to oil and fry until crisp and golden, about 1 minute. Remove from fat, allow any excess oil to drip off and transfer chicken to rack to drain thoroughly. Serve hot or at room temperature.

4 servings. Each serving: 212 calories; 248 mg sodium; 94 mg cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 23 grams protein; 0 fiber.

Deviled Drumsticks

Active Work Time: 10 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 30 minutes

These spicy chicken drumsticks, perfect barbecue fare, are excellent cooked on a charcoal grill. Accompany them with corn on the cob. From Anne Willan’s “Perfect Chicken Dishes” (DK Publishing, 1997).

2 tablespoons mango chutney

2 tablespoons tomato paste or ketchup

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste, optional

Dash cayenne pepper or hot pepper sauce

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted


Freshly ground pepper

Vegetable oil

8 chicken drumsticks

* Put chutney in bowl, chopping up any large pieces of fruit. Stir in tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, nutmeg, anchovy paste (if using), cayenne, butter and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well and taste for seasoning.

* Cut skin from drumsticks and pull it off. (A little salt on your fingertips will help you grip chicken skin.) With point of knife, slash meat on each drumstick diagonally several times. Brush some of chutney mixture onto each drumstick, working it into cuts in meat.

* Arrange drumsticks on oiled broiler rack and broil 3 to 4 inches from heat, turning once during cooking and basting frequently with remaining mixture and any pan juices. Cook until drumsticks are well-browned and tender, about 10 to 12 minutes each side. Discard any remaining mixture. Serve hot or cold. (To reheat, wrap in foil and warm in a 350-degree oven about 10 minutes.)

4 servings. Each serving: 426 calories; 335 mg sodium; 206 mg cholesterol; 26 grams fat; 5 grams carbohydrates; 42 grams protein; 1 gram fiber.