While developing an upcoming recipe for smothered chicken, I put out a call on Twitter to get a sense of how various people prepare it in their own kitchens. I asked about things such as what vegetables they include and which cut of chicken they prefer to use. To the latter, food blogger Marta Rivera Diaz replied: “Dark meat because I actually love myself.” And never have I agreed more.
America has an obsession with white meat, particularly boneless, skinless chicken breasts, favoring them for the ease and efficiency with which they can be cooked and consumed. Additionally, the lack of skin and bones helps people dissociate from the fact that the food they’re consuming was once a living, breathing animal, supporting their cognitive dissonance around wanting to consume meat with as little involvement as possible in the process.
Well, America, it’s time to escape the chicken breast chokehold and embrace more flavorful and forgiving cuts of fowl: chicken quarters and thighs. (While much of the following applies to drumsticks as well, their stringy tendons and high bone-to-meat ratio make them less versatile as the sole cut of chicken in recipes.)
For starters, dark meat simply has more flavor thanks to its higher fat content — and in my kitchen, flavor reigns supreme. (If you are concerned about your fat intake, you can trim or completely remove the skin.) If speed is what you’re after, anything boneless, skinless chicken breasts can do, boneless, skinless chicken thighs can do better. The two are interchangeable in recipes, allowing you to enjoy the same efficiency you’re used to with breasts. And in addition to quick-cooking dishes, thighs and quarters have the versatility to stand up to longer cooking methods, such as braising, meaning you can do more with these cuts.
Chicken quarters and thighs also have a significant price advantage. A U.S. Agriculture Department report released earlier this month listed the average price of a regular pack (less than 2.5 pounds) of thighs at $1.01 per pound and of bagged quarters at $0.73 per pound. Meanwhile, a regular pack of boneless skinless chicken breasts came in at a whopping $2.64 per pound. As food prices continue to rise, chicken quarters and thighs are an affordable alternative for people on a budget.
It’s also easier to cook dark meat so that it remains tender and juicy. The USDA’s guidance for the minimum internal temperature — 165 degrees, at which point harmful bacteria is killed instantaneously — already surpasses the level at which professional and highly experienced home cooks prefer for white meat.
Chef and cookbook author J. Kenji López-Alt prefers chicken breasts cooked to 145 degrees, but acknowledges the texture isn’t for everyone. “As long as chicken stays at 150°F or higher for at least 2.7 minutes, it is as safe to eat as chicken that has been cooked to 165°F,” he wrote in “The Food Lab” cookbook. The team at Cook’s Illustrated prefers 155 degrees — “the test kitchen’s favorite temperature for juiciness and tenderness,” per the “Cook’s Science” cookbook — where it needs to be held for only about 50 seconds to kill salmonella and be safe to consume.
“Despite government warnings to be sure to cook chicken to 165°F, in reality, about 150°F or so, muscle fibers have become almost completely squeezed dry,” López-Alt wrote. “Congratulations, your dinner is now officially cardboard.”
But the story for dark meat is a cook’s dream. Although the USDA’s recommended temperature at which it’s safe to consume is the same, dark meat’s texture is actually better at higher temperatures. “Unlike chicken breasts, chicken thighs and drumsticks actually become more tender the longer they cook,” Mari Levine of America’s Test Kitchen explains. “ … Dark meat has an abundant amount of connective tissue, which dissolves into gelatin as the meat cooks, rendering it juicy and tender. The longer it cooks, the more that connective tissue breaks down. This means that chicken thighs are good at an internal temp of 175 degrees Fahrenheit, but they’re even better at 195.”
However, there is an upper limit. Once dark meat chicken hits 210 degrees, the flavor and texture start to deteriorate. So while you can get chicken thighs that are safe to eat in as little as 30 or 40 minutes in the oven (depending on the temperature), a quick experiment at home showed that it took over an hour for it to reach 210 degrees (at which point the thighs were still edible, but definitely a little stringy). That’s at least 20 minutes of wiggle room! In a world full of distractions, ingredients with flexibility built in are priceless.