For meat-eaters, poultry is a heart-healthy option because it is high in protein (26g of protein for the average chicken breast), low in fat, and contains essential vitamins and minerals. But while chicken is one of the healthiest meat options, research shows that the type of chicken meat you choose and the way you prepare it can result in unhealthy consequences. Understanding the nutritional differences between white and dark cuts and finding the highest quality chicken available are important steps in cooking a nutritious meal. Cooking methods that produce smoked, browned or charred meat or that use high temperatures for long periods of time may produce carcinogenic and inflammatory compounds. So, what is the healthiest way to cook chicken?
Buying the healthiest chicken
The chicken’s diet impacts its brothy flavor, but the taste and texture of the chicken is based on how it was raised.
What the labels mean
Labeling can be misleading, but knowing what to look for can help you find the highest-quality and best-tasting chicken in the store. Feed, space, stress levels and lifespan all impact the chicken’s texture and taste. The conditions in which the chicken was raised will give you a good idea of the quality.
- Indoor-farmed chickens are representative of the typical industrial-scale setting. The birds are raised quite closely together and often don’t have access to the outdoors. Typically,chickens from this type of farming are tender but paler and less flavorful.
- Free-range means that the chickens must have access to the outdoors, although this doesn’t guarantee all of the chickens get time outdoors. Chickens with access to the outdoors have high protein levels, but also high stress levels, which can result in a dry, acidic meat.
- Organic chickens have much more space than free-range and indoor-farmed chickens, and the “organic” classification is the highest regulated welfare standard in use today. While this claim is regulated by the USDA, there isn’t a minimum space requirement or type of space provided for each chicken.
- Pasture-raised is not a term regulated by USDA. However many packages are also labeled as certified-humane, which means the chickens must have at least 108 square feet to roam outdoors.
In general, slow-growing breeds from small farms that are fed a range of food have firmer, more flavorful meat.
Other labels to consider
- Buy chicken without the skin. Though it adds a flavor and moisture, skin browns quickly and can produce unnecessary carcinogenic compounds. The skin is also higher in cholesterol and saturated fat.
- If you’re buying processed chicken (such as ground chicken or chicken sausages), look at the nutrition facts panel for a low level of saturated fat, sodium and sugar contents.
- Consider where the meat is coming from: if the chicken travels far and is stored for a long period of time, this can impact the taste. A non-organic, local farm may be a far superior option.
When shopping for chicken, look for good quality cuts
- Breast meat should be firm and plum
- Bones should be intact and not broken
- Flesh should be blemish-free
- Skin should be soft and smooth
Choosing the best chicken meat
White meat vs. dark chicken meat
The color of your meat is a good indication of how it should be cooked. Color is related to levels of myoglobin, a red-colored, oxygen-supplying protein present in muscles. The more myoglobin present, the darker and redder the meat. Chicken is categorized into white and dark meat — but even white meat has a small presence of dark meat fibers.
Dark meat, high in myoglobin, indicates the muscles are used for “slow twitch” activity, such as endurance. Chicken legs are dark meat. Dark meat is more flavorful because it’s filled with iron, fat and flavor enzymes. Dark meat is about 25% higher in cholesterol and contains almost twice the amount of saturated fat than white meat. Dark meat also contains higher levels of iron, zinc and vitamin C. Dark meat can be tougher in structure so needs a longer cooking time to tenderize. The extra fat melts when it’s exposed to heat, keeping the meat juicy and moist.
The white meat of chicken includes the breasts and wings — the “fast twitch” muscles used for short bursts of energy, such as the power to flap the wings. White meat has slightly fewer calories than dark, contains more B vitamins, and has more protein per ounce than dark meat. Because white meat is lean and lacks the flavor enzymes of dark meat, it can dry out quickly when cooking. It’s best cooked using quick methods until it’s just done — and not longer.
The bottom line: Eating a variety of both white and dark meats will ensure that you get the flavors and nutrients offered by both of these protein options.
The healthiest way to cook your chicken
The most important thing to remember when determining the healthiest way to cook chicken is to find a method that you enjoy and that works for your lifestyle — whether that’s timing, flavor, or preparation method. Stick to using healthy oils, and no matter what cooking method you choose, avoid charring or dark brown coloring as much as possible.
How do carcinogens form during cooking?
Browning meat is a visual indication that a chemical reaction called the Maillard reaction (also called the “browning reaction”) is taking place. Once temperatures hit over 280℉, amino acids begin to collide with nearby sugar molecules to produce tasty aromas and rich flavors. Once the reaction is completed, at temperatures higher than 356℉, food then begins a pyrolysis reaction, or burning, and flavors become bitter — while harmful molecules begin to form.
The pros and cons of various cooking methods
- Slow cooking is best for tough cuts of meat with lots of fat because it cooks your food at a low temperature over time, allowing the meat to break down and turn into a flavorful, rich gravy. Usually operating below the boiling point of water, heat comes from the bottom or the sides of the cooker and travels into the cooking liquid and eventually passes into the food. Typically, lean cuts of meat will dry out if slow-cooked because they don’t contain the necessary amounts of collagen to create rich and melty meals.
- Pressure cooking involves placing the food in or suspended just above cooking stock or water. The meat is cooked by pressurized steam above normal boiling point temperature. This is a similar method to steaming, but cooks larger cuts of meat quite quickly and produces moist, flavorful, and tender meat.
- Sous vide is a method that involves vacuum-sealing your meat in a food-grade plastic bag and cooking it in a pot of water at a low temperature for around 1-3 hours. This is the most foolproof way to keep your poultry moist because there’s only a small chance of overcooking your meat. Unlike other cooking methods that use stock or water, the heat from the sous vide water bath penetrates the food at every surface. The temperature at the core of the food slowly rises to the water temperature — so the food is cooked completely evenly. This is practical for nearly any type of meat. Make sure you use BPA-free bags and fresh chicken. The sous vide method intensifies the flavors, both good and bad, of the food — so using fresh meat is important.
- Grilling chicken can result in the formation of carcinogenic compounds such as heterocyclic aromatic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These compounds are only found in significant amounts in meat cooked at high temperatures. No matter the meat, if it’s cooked for longer than 10 minutes above 300ºF, meat is likely to develop HCAs. Grilled chicken is not the healthiest way to cook chicken, but it is quite common — so it’s important to note the following ways you can avoid producing HCA and other carcinogenic and inflammatory compounds:
- Marinate meat for at least 30 minutes before grilling. Studies show that marinated meat may result in fewer HCAs. Using healthy vegetable oils with a high heat tolerance, such as avocado oil, can help protect the meat from charing as quickly.
- Use thin and even pieces of meat. Selecting chicken that has an even thickness throughout can help you avoid getting charred tips (while the thicker portion still cooks). Using a thinner piece of meat will avoid longer cooking times.
- Avoid flame flares. When the fire shoots around the meat, this rushes the edges right into the burning reaction. Avoid dumping marinade onto the grill and spraying oil over the flames. Leaner types of meat cause less flare-ups.
- Don’t overcook your meat. Overcooking and cooking at very high temperatures will produce inflammatory and carcinogenic compounds. Chicken is cooked when the internal temperature is 165℉.
What is the healthiest way to cook chicken? The first step to eating healthy chicken is choosing the highest quality bird and best variety of cuts. The healthiest cooking methods, to avoid producing carcinogenic compounds, are ones that avoid browning, charring and burning or cooking meat at a high temperature for long periods of time. Whatever the method you choose, using these guidelines will help you create a healthy, flavorful and nutrient-dense dish.