White meat or dark? When it comes to preference, chefs and customers typically part ways. “I prefer dark meat, but most of my customers would vote the other way,” says Chris Keff, chef/owner of Seattle's Fandango.
Chef John Caputo of Bin 36 in Chicago confirms what is common knowledge among chefs: Dark-meat poultry has the reputation of being somehow inferior to white meat. “Our customers—especially those in our suburban location—are convinced that white meat is a better cut,” he says. “But chefs know that dark meat has more flavor, so it's frustrating.”
Only in America is the demand for white-meat chicken and turkey so lopsided. Although dark meat poultry has long been the centerpiece in a range of cuisines, from Latin to Asian to Mediterranean, consumers here eat more than twice as much white meat as dark (15.8 billion pounds in 2002, versus 6.5 billion pounds).
Clearly, dark meat has an image problem. Most consumers cite calories as a chief concern, yet, according to the USDA, the difference is negligible. A boneless, skinless chicken thigh has 50 calories per ounce, as opposed to 46 calories per ounce for boneless, skinless breast meat.
But, through creative menu strategies and just plain good recipes, chefs are increasingly turning on customers to the more intense flavor and moistness of dark meat. In doing so, they're able to capitalize on an ingredient that is not only versatile, but forgiving when there's a need to hold or reheat. And the cost is so modest—about one-third that of white meat—that operators can pass some of the savings on to the customers and still make a healthy profit.
The Thighs Have ItA preference for dark meat is not merely personal, but a matter of tradition for David Fortuna, chef/owner of Wholly Ravioli, Sacramento, Calif. Ever since his family's first restaurant was opened in 1945, its members have preached the virtues of chicken thighs. “In Italy you use all parts of the chicken,” he says. “Dark meat has a more 'chickeny' flavor, and it absorbs marinades and holds sauces better than breast meat.”
For one specialty, chicken alla Maria ($16.99), thighs are sautéed with onion and, just before service, rethermalized in Alfredo sauce, garnished with plumped sun-dried tomatoes and bedded on fettuccine. For another, skinless, boneless chicken thighs are charbroiled with summer squash and served over salad greens with house Italian dressing ($15.99). Dark meat also dominates the chicken cacciatora. And when it's time to make chicken stock for minestrone and other dishes, skinless and boneless thighs yield a stock that is virtually fat free and easy to strain.
Sometimes big ideas come in bite-sized packages. Among the bar food selections at tapas eatery La Boca, in Norfolk, Va., are marinated, pan-fried chicken thighs called parilla de pollo ($4.95).
Similarly, at Zale Lipshy and St. Paul University Hospitals in Dallas, ready-made thigh skewers, each with about 2 ounces of boneless, skinless meat, are brushed with a blend of olive oil, oregano, salt and pepper, then grilled briefly and finished in the oven. “We can count the number of skewers per customer, making it possible to put this on our self-service Mediterranean bar,” says Mary Kimbrough, corporate director of nutrition services. “The protein portion is what costs—we don't worry too much about the rest.” A standard order consists of two skewers ($4.25), accompanied by grilled pita, hummus, tabbouleh, cucumber sauce and tomatoes.
Familiarity Breeds ContentStaying within customers' comfort zone works best for foodservice operations like Zale Lipshy. “We serve a lot of bone-in chicken because customers here in Texas prefer it,” Kimbrough says. Roasted, fried or barbecued chicken quarters sell well, and Kimbrough estimates that at least 40% of customers choose dark meat.
Another dish that fits the “familiar foods with flair” slogan is Lackmann Culinary Services' turkey meatloaf ($3.95). Once it's sliced, customers of the Clearwater, Fla.-based B&I contractor can see a luxurious, colorful filling of spinach, porcini mushrooms, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.
A midday specialty at Chicago's Bin 36 is smoked chicken salad—made with thighs only. Chef Caputo brines, smokes and shreds the meat and arranges it over mixed salad greens with a creamy mustard dressing, candied walnuts and goat cheese ($9).
Why Confit Fits“Once upon a time, the purpose of confit was to preserve poultry. Now, it's more about flavor,” says Tony Maws, chef of Craigie Street Bistrot, Cambridge, Mass. He begins by smothering chicken legs in a garlic, shallot and herb mixture. After two days, the pieces are wiped clean and immersed in duck fat (ordered in bulk) to simmer until fork-tender. A week or so later, the confit is ready for service.
When an order comes in, a thigh is browned in fat with more of the same seasonings and plated with a roasted airline breast (boned, with the wing attached) and sides that shift from creamy polenta and stewed dried plums in winter to a garbanzo purée in warmer weather. Customers willingly sit out the 35-minute wait for the moderately priced dish with complex flavors. “Definitely not your ordinary chicken,” Maws says.
Confit is supremely menu-friendly. No need for a fine-tuned prediction of orders; the fat-covered poultry sits in the walk-in, developing an ever-deeper flavor, until needed. And it can be tweaked in appetizing ways. Jardin du Roi, in Chappaqua, N.Y., finishes duck leg confit with a honey glaze, plating it with French lentils and broccoli ($21.75).
Gerard Marquetty, senior regional chef of Lackmann Culinary Services, confits chicken legs and thighs in rendered chicken fat and vegetable oil, then builds mini tostadas by layering confit, guacamole, Cheddar and black bean sauce on crisp 3-inch tortilla shells to create a Latin flair.
A World of FlavorsIn many countries, cooks don't have the luxury of using only part of the bird. A brief tour of cuisines includes:
Mexican: Mole, a populist dish that's even showing up on school lunch menus, has its gourmet side, as well. Chicken thighs and legs could supply the protein, but Chef de Cuisine Kevin Karales of Platiyo, Chicago, prefers duck because it's traditional to Puebla, Mexico. “Sauces are at the heart of Mexican cooking, and duck goes well with so many sauces,” he says. For a regional Mexican wine dinner at Platiyo, he presented guests with crisp masa boats cradling roasted duck meat with traditional red mole and black beans. Roasted duck with chile pasilla sauce is a similar but simpler dish on the Platiyo menu ($17.95).
In Seattle, Fandango's regular dinner menu serves Yucatan-style chicken breasts, grilled to order, with lentil stew ($16). But every Sunday, from 5 p.m. to midnight, it's Familia time, meaning 10 dishes served family style for $25 per person. And then it's chicken thighs that get the Yucatan treatment—a rub called recado consisting of garlic, achiote seeds, allspice, black pepper and cloves, soaked overnight in vinegar and water before being ground. “It's a very red, stainy rub used for all kinds of pit cooking, including bone-in chicken, definitely,” Keff says.
Why does dark meat work on Sunday night and not the rest of the week? “If it's the main thing they're ordering, my customers expect breast meat,” Keff explains. “But Familia is a value, to begin with, and customers have lots of other things to choose from—at least three proteins, two vegetables, starches, salad.”
Mediterranean: As Chris Quintile began to create a contemporary Tuscan menu for the main dining room at Chicago's W Hotel, childhood memories of his grandfather's duck came to mind. Like his grandfather, the chef uses the whole bird, but not always in the same dish. Housemade pappardelle are topped with Muscovy duck leg confit, seasoned in a lively herb and spice blend that includes fennel seed, star anise and coriander, then combined with port wine sauce infused with the flavor of tart red cherries ($16). Dried fruits—especially Mission figs—“bloomed” in port and red wine vinegar are also prominent in the grilled duck salad ($14).
In Paula Wolfert's definitive “Couscous and Other Good Things from Morocco,” chicken legs and thighs are the alternative to squab for the classic filo-covered pie called bisteeya, seasoned with turmeric, ginger and cinnamon. The rendition at Imperial Fez, Atlanta, made with Cornish hen, is part of a meal priced from $25 to $65, depending on the number of courses. “In this dish, it's the dark meat that sings,” says owner Rafih Benjelloun.
Caribbean: Jerk chicken and pineapple stew over rice is a bestseller on the dinner menu at Pusser's Landing in the Marriott Hotel, Annapolis, Md. Customers love how it tastes, but Chef Jim Eriksen offers other reasons for its popularity: “It's a multi-step preparation customers wouldn't make at home. The thighs are cut in quarter-inch slices, lending an elegant look. And we pass on our food cost savings, pricing this dish at $16.75, compared to $26.95 for lobster.” Eriksen also uses the Caribbean stew as an appetizer quesadilla filling.
Chef Gerard Marquetty got his recipe for jerk chicken while working in the Cayman Islands. In Lackmann's college and business dining venues, it's often the centerpiece of a Caribbean barbecue, with black beans and rice, plantains and jicama slaw ($3.95).
Asian: Pimnapa Suntatkolkarn, chef/owner of Holy Basil and The Basil in New York, goes by the nickname Lek, meaning “small.” But she belongs to a wave of Asian chefs with big ideas on merging tradition and innovation.
One intricate entrée on The Basil menu requires braising duck legs in red wine and broiling the breasts to order, then arranging them on red Panang curry sauce with lychees. The pièce de resistance? Crisp finger-sized spring rolls filled with shredded duck and shiitakes ($16).
Dishes like these show just how far dark meat poultry can go when it gets a little respect.
Sidebar 1:While Americans staunchly prefer white meat, dark meat has more fat, and that delivers more flavor, says Chef Lucien Vendome, senior executive chef of an ingredient supplier. “When you grill it, the fatty juices come out, and it cooks more evenly, without drying out. The best flavor comes from fat and skin.” His visit to Japan several weeks go revealed that yakitori—grilling meat over charcoal—is very popular, and one of the most requested items is dark meat chicken on a skewer. “It doesn't have more than salt and pepper, or just salt—the leg meat has great flavor.”
Plus: A Tip on Grilled Flavors
He points out traditional American recipes, derived from European cooking (i.e., French or Italian cuisine) use dark meats for the best flavor, such as braised chicken or candied chicken or goose. When making a chicken nugget, kabob or meatball, he suggests a ratio of 50% white meat and 50% dark meat. “It delivers the best mouthfeel without the fat overwhelming the flavor.” Kraft has a flavor that can be added to chicken breasts to deliver a fatty mouthfeel and fat-like flavor. “It tastes like chicken drippings and char-roasted flavors together and can be microwaved, roasted or baked. We call it “Too Good to be Skinless.”
The use of smoke and grill flavors provides food formulators, "the ability to re-create the subtle, yet distinctive, nuances of specific cooking methods, adding depth and complexity to dark meat poultry items," says R.J. Foster, senior food technologist at a flavor company. "Low levels of mesquite smoke, for example, bring fire-roasted character to chorizo-style sausages made entirely from ground chicken thigh meat."
He adds, "Incorporation of smoky or grilled notes in a basic marinade transforms bland chicken pieces into robust smoky chicken. . .even fully cooked and reheated items look and taste as if they are right out of the smoker, while natural antioxidants within the smoke flavors prevent the warm-over taste often associated with pre-cooked poultry."
Sidebar 2:Chef Gerard Marquetty, Lackmann Culinary Services, Clearwater, Fla.
Spinach-stuffed Turkey Meatloaf
Yield: 10 servings of two 2-ounce slices
Porcini mushrooms, coarsely chopped 1 C
Onion, chopped 1/4 C
Garlic, minced 2 tsp
Olive oil 1/4 C
Spinach, cooked, chopped 10 Oz
Salt 3/4 tsp
Freshly ground black pepper 1/2 tsp
Whole-milk mozzarella cheese, shredded 1/2 C
Parmesan cheese, grated 1/2 C
Turkey, ground 1 Lb
Quick-cooking oats, uncooked 3/4 C
Milk 1/2 C
Egg, large 1 each
Fresh basil 1 tsp
Fresh oregano 1 tsp
1. Saute mushrooms, onion and garlic in a sauté pan over medium heat. Remove from heat, drain pan of excess juices. Add in spinach, salt, pepper, 1/4 cup of the mozzarella cheese and the Parmesan cheese. Reserve.
2. Combine ground turkey and remaining ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Spoon 2/3 of mixture into a lightly greased hotel pan. Make a 7 x 1 1/2-inch indentation lengthwise down the center of the turkey mixture; fill with spinach mixture. Spoon remaining turkey mixture on top and press edges to seal.
3. Bake at 350 degrees F until cooked through, about 35 minutes. Sprinkle remaining 1/4 cup of mozzarella cheese on top of the loaf and bake until cheese melts, several more minutes. Remove from pan; let rest 5 minutes before serving.
Menu price: $3.95; food cost/serving 32%
Sidebar 3:Thanks to a renewed interest in retro dishes, menus are suddenly sprouting a decades' old classic—chicken cordon bleu—that uses the seductive combination of cheese and ham not only to heighten flavor but seal in juices, making chicken breast as juicy and flavorful as chicken thigh.
Chicken Cordon New
Naturally, contemporary chefs are updating the ingredients and presentation. Anthony F. Seta, the principal of Master Chef Seta & Co., Rosewell, Ga., replaces the traditional ham and Swiss cheese with prosciutto di Parma and fontina, uses either a boneless thigh or a wing-on breast, sautés and roasts, then slices it atop a mushroom-and-greens salad. ($8.95).