Chicken breast is to meat as vanilla ice cream is to dessert, or as tofu is to vegetarian dishes. By itself, it’s blah. It needs to be simmered in stew, or perhaps banded with bacon. Without a little extra something to give it flavor, it remains a pale, unappealing slab of protein. Healthy, yes, but not an overall crowd favorite. People (at least in these parts) wouldn’t react the same way to a chicken breast cook-out the way they do to steak suppers and rib festivals.
But why is that? Why do people dismiss chicken breast (well, white meat in general) as bland and having a tendency to dry out if not drowned in marinade or sauce? It’s because that breast meat started life as a particular type of muscle in a live chicken. The muscle was composed primarily of cells known by a variety of names: white fibers, type IIA fibers, and fast twitch fibers perhaps being the most-used monikers. The names differ in scientific accuracy, and the broader term, “white fiber” is considered slightly out-of-date compared to the more technical “type IIA fiber.” But, like any name that’s been used for a length of time, it’s still used after an official change. (Just like how members of a community might refer to “the old Johnson place” even after four generations of non-Johnsons have lived there.)
Chicken breast meat: a bit blah and dry on its own. Notice the striped appearance of the muscle. These fibers are built for short, powerful bursts of action.
White fibers are designed for powerful, short bursts of energy while their counterpart “red fibers” (AKA type I fibers, slow twitch fibers) are designed for sustainable, long-lasting activity. White fibers prefer carbohydrates as fuel that can be used in an anaerobic environment (i.e., little to no presence of oxygen). Red fibers utilize fats as fuel that are broken down in an aerobic environment. The much darker color of red fibers is partially due to the greater concentration of iron found in the protein myoglobin. You’ve probably heard of hemoglobin: that efficient, four-passenger vehicle protein that carries oxygen through the body. As needed, the oxygen molecules loosely bonded to the iron atoms in hemoglobin are relayed to the iron atom of myoglobin. After that, oxygen can be used during the muscle cell’s metabolism: it helps turn fats into useful energy for long, sustained movement such as walking, sitting upright, binge-watching Netflix, etc.
White fibers, though, are useful for sprints and spurts. In some muscles they are interspersed with red fibers; after all, the same leg muscles used for a long hike are also used for a hundred-yard dash. In other muscles, however, they can reign supreme. Domesticated fowl that don’t utilize their breast muscles for long flights have developed muscles predominated by white fibers. Your average chicken doesn’t need red fiber-filled breast muscles for hours of a southward migration every fall; it needs white fiber-empowered breast muscles to flap its wings like mad to propel itself a few feet upward and escape whatever startled it. Since this activity isn’t expected to last long, the amount of carbohydrates kept nearby to fuel flapping and similar actions is kept at a low level. In fact, during the conversion of muscle to meat (more on that in a future post), physiological changes cause the carbohydrate stores to become virtually nil. On the other hand, the storehouse of fat stored in muscles to feed red fibers typically remains after the conversion to meat, and these in turn enhance the flavor and juiciness of these meats.
Proteins in chicken breast meat – light pink when raw – turn a yellowish-white when cooked due to the relatively low levels of myoglobin and its associated iron atoms. If I had chunks of wild duck breast in the pan, the meat designed for a bird capable of long, sustained flights, would be much darker due to the greater concentration of red fibers.
A good trick for remembering the difference between white and red fibers is the picture image of a white rabbit and a red ox. Rabbits have few options for defense, and speed is perhaps their most effective mechanism to escape a lynx, coyote, or other predator in hot pursuit. The rabbit, of course, can’t maintain its “run away!” speed forever; it only needs that burst of speed to escape back to its burrow. Since soft little rabbits are favorite prey for many creatures in the wild, rabbits find themselves needing bursts of speed rather frequently, so these white fibers essential for survival develop well over time. Oxen, on the other hand, aren’t well-known for sprinting away from danger. They’re known for slow, steady movements like grazing, chewing cud, and pulling wagons across the Oregon Trail (while fording the occasional river). As such, they are masters at developing red fibers fueled by fats and capable of grazing, chewing, pulling, and fording all day long.
So that’s a basic overview of white and red fibers and why chicken breast meat can still be tasty if just cooked and served with a little consideration for its inherent lack of flavor. Dunk it in dips, batter it with breading, smother it with sauce. Just do something to keep it moist and delicious.
Can’t complain about dried-out chicken breast meat, chunked and sauteed to 165oF, when it’s bathed in tikka masala sauce and served on a bed of saffron rice with roasted vegetables and an IPA on the side.
Do you prefer your meat made of white or red fibers? Of course, many meat cuts have a combination of both, with pork being a notable middle-ground in the debate of white vs. dark meat, and thus the spectrum of flavor and juiciness at the meat counter is wide and nuanced. Many cookbooks provide guidance for the correct cooking methods and ingredients for delivering the best quality no matter which fibers make up your meat.
Which part of the chicken does Bacon like the most?