One day as I was noshing on oven roasted chicken breast I stopped mid-chew and took a good long look at the specimen in front of me. I looked over at Jeremy’s fork of steak, swiped it away, and had a look at his meat with the same scrutiny.
Then it hit me.
I had no idea what the actual difference was between red and white meat.
I know that white meat comes from poultry while red meat comes from cows, pigs, and lamb, I know that apparently I should be making the heart-conscious decision of eating red meat in moderation while white meat gets a dietician’s thumbs up, and I know that there are varying nutrients. But why is one “red” and one “white”?
The main piece to the puzzle is myoglobin, which is a protein that stores oxygen and transfers it to the muscles as needed. Fun Fact: Mammals that spend extended time underwater (dolphins and whales) have quite a bit of myoglobin, which is what allows them to stay underwater for extended lengths of time.
Myoglobin explains why red meat is, well, red. The muscles on cows are designed to support extended periods of low intensity activity such as grazing about and standing around all day (what a life!). These “slow twitch” muscles need consistent energy which comes via myoglobin. Chickens, on the other hand, are quick little devils that take off with the drop of a pin. These “fast twitch” flight muscles get energy from glycogen as oppose to myoglobin because it is much more accessible, which means the muscles stay “white”. However, chickens and turkeys DO just stand around shooting the breeze sometimes, which is why their thighs are dark meat and their breasts are white meat.
Activity levels and fast twitch vs. slow twitch are the first part of the story, and the second is how the meat is cooked. As a hunk of red meat surpasses 140 degree F, the myoglobin can no longer bond with oxygen and the iron molecule oxidizes as it loses its electron which forms hemichrome, a tan colored compound. The low levels of myoglobin in chicken and turkey means that as the fowls are cooked, they remain light in color.
So the next time you cut into a perfectly medium rare steak, I dare you to say, “oh my is this myoglobin oxidized to perfection!!”
Check out 5 Meals for Under $5 for a delicious roast recipe as well as a chicken curry!