Getting Picky About Poultry
Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD
We love our poultry. While boneless, skinless chicken breasts are a dietary staple of the health-conscious, fried chicken is as American as apple pie and, if Ben Franklin had had his way, the turkey would have been our national bird rather than the bald eagle.
Every year, we each eat about 90 pounds of chicken and about 18 pounds of turkey. With poultry figuring so prominently in the diet, it’s worth paying attention to what you’re actually buying and cooking.
First, let’s compare the cuts. Turkey and chicken breast meat is lower in fat, saturated fat and calories than the dark meat found in the thighs and drumsticks. Wings don’t have much meat at all. You’re eating mostly skin and fat, so they’re best saved for an occasional appetizer.
If you’re buying ground poultry, keep in mind that unless the package says ground poultry breast, most ground turkey is a mixture of light and dark meat (and sometimes fat and skin). Some regular ground poultry has more than twice the fat of ground breast meat, and can have more fat than extra lean ground beef, but it varies by brand. So read your nutrition facts labels carefully.
In every case, since turkey cuts are slightly less fatty than chicken, they tend to cook up dry. But here’s a tip, and something that may surprise you. Leaving the skin on when you cook poultry will keep it moist. But the fat will cook out, not into the meat. So you don’t need to worry that your chicken or turkey breast will be less healthy if you’ve left the skin on during cooking. Skin on or off during cooking makes almost no difference in fat or calories, but the skin-on method makes for significantly juicier meat. Just be sure to remove the skin before serving.
Here’s something else to look out for. To make the meat more moist, some poultry processors sell what’s called ‘enhanced’ chicken which means that water and salt has been injected into the meat so it stays moist when you cook it. And it’s not a small amount. If you buy a whole chicken with 15% of its weight as added broth, you’re paying for about 2 cups of water and ten times the salt that wouldn’t normally be there. The poultry might still be labeled ‘all natural’, and the addition of broth is often in very small print on the label, so you really read labels carefully to see if your poultry has been pumped up with water.
One last thing – don’t assume that all poultry products are healthy and low fat, or that poultry is always better than beef. A fried chicken patty sandwich can have twice the calories and more than twice the fat of a plain beef burger. And turkey bacon, lunch meats or hot dogs may not be any leaner than those made with beef or pork, and they’re often just as salty.