It seems at Thanksgiving there are two distinct teams — those who dig deep on the serving platter for the white meat, and those who fight for the drumstick. It’s really a battle of white meat versus dark meat. But aside from the color, what really is the difference?
It all comes down to what a particular muscle, aka meat, is used for.
Turkeys aren’t known for their flying abilities. They typically only take off for short distances — say, from the ground to a perch (Fun fact: Wild turkeys spend the night in trees, preferably oak trees). This means they rely on their legs to get them around all day.
All of that walking and running means the muscles in their legs and thighs are full of blood vessels. These blood vessels contain myoglobin (or muscle hemoglobin), which delivers tons of rich oxygen to the muscles. The more myoglobin present, the darker the muscle.
When we talk about white meat, we’re really referring to breast meat. Its light color results from well-rested muscles. Since turkeys largely don’t fly or use these muscles as often, there is no need to have the same amount of rich oxygen delivered to them.
The muscles in the breast are designed for an immediate explosion of energy — like when a startled turkey flies away. This activity is fueled by a carbohydrate called glycogen. Glycogen is only useful for short bursts of activity, so these muscles fatigue quickly.
Dark meat is found in the wings, thighs, and drumsticks. It has a stronger, more game-like flavor compared to the thinner, more tender taste of white breast meat.
Choosing white over dark meat will save you 45 calories and 6 grams of saturated fat per 3 ounce serving. Both types are good sources of protein. Dark meat does have the nutritional advantage of delivering more iron than white meat.
Cooking the two at the same time presents a problem. The wings and drumsticks are sheltered, while the breast meat is exposed entirely to the heat of the oven.
One suggested method for combatting this dilemma is to start roasting the turkey upside down, and then turning it right-side up partway through the cook time. Others use bacon to keep the breast moist. Still others bypass the problem all together and just fry the bird.
No matter what way you cook your bird, and no matter what meat you prefer, just take a moment to thank the 50 million delicious Thanksgiving Day turkeys out there that will make it all possible.
(Source: The Library of Congress)