Are Chicken Wings White or Dark Meat?
We sent them to a lab to find out.
Chicken wings evade neat categorization. They’re wrapped in skin and divided by a bone, like dark meat, but—as anyone who’s had to douse a dried-up drumette in blue cheese dressing can attest—they can also overcook easily like white meat. Even when we took an informal poll of our test cooks, we couldn’t come to a consensus: The majority classified wings as dark meat, while a small, but vocal, minority insisted they were white.
Why does this even matter? Because white and dark meat require pretty different approaches in the kitchen. Thanks to its higher concentration of fat and connective tissue, dark meat needs to be cooked to a higher temperature, and for longer, than white meat. White meat, on the other hand, is leaner, and must be carefully monitored when cooking, lest it turn dry. So, knowing which camp wings belong to is key to knowing the best way to cook them.
To settle the debate once and for all, we conducted two experiments.
Experiment 1: The Blind Taste Test
The setup: We excised the meat from 1 pound of chicken wings, vacuum-sealed it into a uniform shape, and cooked it to 170 degrees, a temperature at which white meat is dry and dark meat is juicy. We did the same with a dark meat sample from chicken thighs and a white meat sample from chicken breasts. We then asked tasters to try all samples blind, note the juiciness and fibrousness of each, then indicate whether the wing meat sample was more similar to the thigh or breast meat.
The result: Our tasters’ feedback on juiciness and fibrousness for the wings and breast were very closely aligned, while the thigh meat feedback was quite different. Plus, tasters unanimously found wing meat to be more similar to breast than thigh when asked directly.
Experiment 2: The Lab Analysis
The setup: We sent samples of wing, breast, and thigh meat to a lab to analyze for fat and protein.
The result: The breast and wing meat averaged 0.7 and 1.1 percent fat, respectively, while the thigh meat averaged more than double that at 2.5 percent. Protein averages corresponded to those differences: Breast meat contained 23 percent; wing meat, 22 percent; thigh meat, 20 percent.
So, Chicken Wings Are White Meat—
Contrary to popular belief, chicken wings technically contain white, not dark meat. Surprised? So were many of our test cooks.
When cooking, therefore, it’s best to treat chicken wings a little like chicken breasts, cooking them gently and being careful not to dry them out.
—But There’s a Catch.
There is, however, one major difference between wings and breasts that helps wings track as less dry: Skin.
Wings have the highest proportion of skin compared to other chicken parts, and that skin is 60-80 percent collagen. When that collagen reaches 135 degrees, it begins to convert into gelatin, that gel-like substance that provides tenderness and moisture-holding capacity in many meats. (This same transformation also happens to the collagen in chicken muscle, but at a temperature about 20 degrees higher.) The collagen helps retain moisture in the meat as it cooks, keeping them more juicy and tender. This is extremely helpful when it comes to cooking wings: This extra gelatin provides the perception of juiciness thanks to its moisture-holding capacity.
The takeaway here? Chicken wings are technically white meat, but because they contain a good deal of collagen, they are in a class of their own while cooking.