by Marion Nestle
Mar 20 2012

Nutritionist’s Notebook: cooking chicken (of all things)

Every Tuesday I answer a question about food or nutrition in NYU’s student newspaper, the Washington Square News.  My deal with the dining editor is that she sends one question a week and I do the best I can with it.  The questions reflect the kinds of things that NYU undergraduates want to know.

This week, the question is about cooking chicken:

Q.  What are the more cheap and healthy ways for students to buy and cook chicken? What are the health differences between chicken breast/legs/etc.?

A.  Let me answer your second question first.  Chicken is a good source of protein and other nutrients.  Most of the nutritional differences between one part and another are too small to bother mentioning.  The one useful difference is that dark meat has a bit more saturated fat and cholesterol than white meat.  Even so, most of the fat in chicken is in the skin.  Worried about fat?  Remove the skin.

The important nutritional differences result from preparation.  If you add fat during preparation, you are also adding calories (fat has 9 calories per gram as compared to 4 for protein or carbohydrate).

The healthiest way to cook chicken is to bake it in the oven or stir fry it with vegetables.  Put the parts in a baking pan, rub some olive oil on them, and surround them with plenty of garlic, lemon, carrots, or whatever you like.  Bake at 350° until brown.

Buy whole chickens so you aren’t paying someone else to cut it up for you.  Cutting a chicken is easy and YouTube has plenty of videos that explain how to do it.

The cheapest chicken is industrially produced, meaning that the chickens are raised in huge flocks indoors under crowded conditions, treated with antibiotics to prevent illness and promote rapid growth, and are ready to slaughter six weeks after hatching. 

If you don’t want to eat chicken raised this way, you should look for birds that were raised free-range without antibiotics and are Certified Organic, kosher, or halal—if you value such things.   You will have to pay more for such meat but it will taste better. 

You will be supporting a food system that is healthier for chickens, people, and the planet.

  • msm

    why not poaching the chicken? no added fat..

  • Margeretrc

    “…dark meat has a bit more saturated fat and cholesterol than white meat. Even so, most of the fat in chicken is in the skin. Worried about fat? Remove the skin.” From the link below, you can see that chicken fat is mostly “healthy” monounsaturated fat–the same fat the makes olive oil so “healthy.” So there’s no need at all to remove the skin. It tastes good.
    I agree with your last 3 paragraphs. Free Range chicken tastes better and is better for you and the environment.

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  • Beenie

    “Bake until brown”???? Seriously??? This is terrible advice. A thermometer should absolutely be used when cooking chicken, and chicken should always be cooked until the interior reaches 160 degrees for food safety. For dark meat, the texture improves remarkably by cooking to 175 degrees. It’s crazy easy to get sick from chicken, especially from national, industrial brands, so cooking to the correct temperature is very important! For someone so concerned about food safety, I can’t believe you wrote “bake until brown.”

  • Alexandra

    Please stop perpetuating the myth that eating fat, staturated or otherwise, is unhealthy and makes one fat.. it does not, never has.

  • Thanks for the blog. I love food.

  • Tom

    I believe cooking in a pressure cooker is healthier than baking.

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  • Benboom

    Marion, I would really like to see you state your position formally on this whole saturated fat issue. I say this because articles like this certainly place you in the old school of “fat is bad for you” nutritionists and yet somehow you seem to avoid talking about the subject directly. You can’t really tread this tightrope forever. But I like your posts and I respect you, so I would like to see your arguments behind this apparent stand.

    And yes, I realize I will attract the ire of the resident troll with this comment because anything that even remotely suggests that people like Gary Taubes should be taken seriously always does.

  • Marion

    @Benboom: I have commented on this issue, with literature reviews, extensively. Click on Fat in the cloud or search for saturated fat and the posts should pop up. Bottom line: when substituted for polyunsaturated fat, saturated fat raises blood cholesterol levels to a small extent.

  • Sally Smith

    love the blog! so much good information i will pass this on to my sister.

    Thank you.

  • Weiwen

    Poaching is an alternative.

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  • very nice. I love chicken too. screw oil press