Those of you who have encountered the phenomenon known as “woody chicken breast” will know exactly what we’re talking about. Even if you’ve never seen it, it’s a good idea to find out how to avoid woody breast chicken. That’s why we’ve put together this guide.
Woody Chicken Breast
When cooked chicken breasts have a crunchy texture that’s reminiscent of raw meat, they’re afflicted with the “woody chicken breast” phenomenon. These breasts are often discolored and hard to the touch. Experts aren’t sure yet what causes this issue, but it seems to be the result of enhanced muscle growth, which forces proteins out of the meat.
What is a Woody Chicken Breast?
As the name implies, a chicken breast is considered “woody” if it’s unusually hard to the touch. It may also be paler in color than the others on the shelf.
When some people hear the term, they envision the white striping that can also affect chicken breasts. However, that phenomenon is due to fat replacing muscle tissue, and it’s actually a separate issue altogether.
If you’ve never before encountered a chicken breast that could be classified as “woody,” you’ll understand the first time you bite into one. The meat will have a strange texture—either crunchy, rubbery, or chewy.
You might even suspect that the meat is undercooked. Woody breasts can have a texture that mimics raw chicken, even when it’s cooked to a safe temperature.
Since we expect chicken breast meat to be tender when we bite into it, the sensation is an unpleasant one. Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to affect the chicken wings, thighs, or any portion other than the breast.
Is It Dangerous?
The woody breast phenomenon doesn’t have a negative effect on the life and health of the chicken itself. As we’ll discuss in the next section, it seems to affect certain types of birds more than others, but it’s not harmful.
It also won’t do you any harm to consume a woody chicken breast. Although the texture of the chicken can be unpleasant, there are no health risks involved.
Interestingly enough, this is a relatively new phenomenon. Although chickens have been a part of humans’ diets for centuries, specialists have only been working on the woody breast issue for about eight years.
Scientists haven’t determined the exact cause of woody chicken breasts just yet. But many of them do agree on a theory.
Experts believe that rapid muscle development may be to blame. When the chickens are growing at a fast pace, there’s a great deal of strain on the muscles. That strain degrades the proteins in the meat, allowing fat and collagen to enter the muscle.
There is scientific evidence to support this theory. It appears that woody breasts can contain up to 2 percent less protein than normal ones. That indicates that the proteins have indeed made way for other compounds.
Woody chicken breasts seem to be more prevalent in birds that have been raised for commercial sale. That’s another indication that the rapid muscle growth may be the culprit.
With the demand for chicken breast on the rise, poultry farmers have experimented with creating larger and fatter birds. If the chickens are treated with antibiotics or synthetic hormones, they’ll get big and plump in no time.
By the year 2015, the size of the average chicken raised for commercial sale was more than double what it was just 60 years earlier. That should tell you all you need to know about the industry’s efforts to keep pace with the growing demand.
While the woody breast affliction can affect up to 30 percent of the chicken population, it turns up more often in larger, older specimens. Farmers who breed free range heritage chickens, for example, don’t encounter the problem very often.
Researchers are still trying to discover the true cause of woody breast. Once they’ve discovered what causes it, they may also find that there’s an easy fix.
How To Avoid Woody Breast Chicken
If the inspectors at the food processing plant notice that the chicken breasts have texture issues, they’ll discard them. Too often, though, the meat passes inspection and winds up on the shelves anyway. So how can you avoid it?
First of all, if you breed chickens, you should allow them to maintain their normal growth patterns. When you try to speed things along, you often wind up with inferior results.
Food producers and distributors are becoming more aware of the issue, which is good news for consumers. In the meantime, though, there’s a chance that the chicken breasts you find on the supermarket shelf will have this woody texture once they’re cooked.
You may be able to circumvent the issue by sticking with organic free-range chicken. Although you can expect to pay a great deal more for this product, you’re bound to be happier with the results.
It’s also a good idea to inspect the chicken breasts before you buy them. Try to select smaller breasts, for one thing. As we mentioned, the larger ones are more likely to be affected.
Press down on the wrapped chicken with the tip of your finger. Woody chicken breasts won’t yield to your touch as readily as normal ones. If they feel too tough, select another package.
You might also take a close look at the color of the chicken. Raw chicken breasts are typically pale pink in color, with a firm yet springy texture. Should you notice streaks of red or yellow, or any abnormal discoloration, it’s best to avoid those specimens.
Let’s say you’ve already bought the chicken and taken it out of the package, only to find that the texture is off. Is there any way to salvage woody chicken breasts?
It may be possible to offset the tougher texture by using a brine or a marinade made with a tenderizing ingredient, such as buttermilk or yogurt. The enzymes in the marinade should help make the meat more palatable.
If time allows, marinate the chicken in this mixture overnight. Ordinarily, it’s best to marinate chicken breasts for shorter periods of time, but woody breasts will benefit from a longer stint in the marinade. Aim for a marinating time of 12 to 24 hours.
Another option might be to use the food processor or meat grinder to turn the breasts into ground chicken. When the poultry is ground, the tough texture will be less noticeable. Try mixing the meat with capers, mustard, and herbs for a savory flavor kick.
Finally, since the breast seems to be the only woody portion of the chicken, you can sidestep this problem by purchasing thighs, wings, or drumsticks instead. The meat isn’t as lean, but it’s still an excellent source of protein.
There’s a chance that you might not notice the strange texture and appearance of the chicken until after it’s cooked.
While normal chicken breasts will turn opaque and white when cooked, the woody ones are darker in color. Often, there will be visible yellow or tan streaks on the surface, which should alert you to the tough texture.
Unfortunately, at this point, there’s not a lot you can do to save the meal. Your only options are to tough it out (pun intended) and hope for better luck next time, or feed the scraps to the dog and find something else to eat.
The Bottom Line
At this point, it appears that woody chicken breasts occur when the birds are encouraged to grow too quickly. The rapid muscle growth changes the chemical makeup of the meat, altering its texture.
Until experts discover the root cause—and with any luck, a cure—take care when selecting chicken breasts. You should also avoid any brands that you’ve had back luck with in the past.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!