Why Is Red Meat Red and White Meat White and Where Does the Color Come From?

There is virtually no blood in red meat. Most of the blood that circulates through a cow’s veins and arteries never makes it to the butcher shop, much less to the dinner table.

Not to get too graphic about it, but down at the slaughterhouse, just after the critter is dispatched, most of the blood is drained out, except for what remains trapped in the heart and lungs which, you will agree, are of minimal gastronomic interest.

Blood is red because it contains hemoglobin, an iron-containing protein that carries oxygen from the lungs to the muscle tissues, where it is needed for movement. The color of red meat, however, doesn’t come primarily from hemoglobin. It is mainly due to another red, iron-containing, oxygencarrying protein called myoglobin.

Myoglobin’s job is to store oxygen right in the muscles, where it will be available for instant use whenever a muscle receives a call to action. If it weren’t for that onthe-spot myoglobin, the muscle would quickly run out of oxygen and have to wait for more blood to get there. Prolonged, strenuous activity would therefore be impossible.

When cooked, myoglobin turns brown, just as hemoglobin does. Well-done beef will therefore be grayish brown, while rare beef will still be red. But in France, when you want your steak to be very rare, ask that it be bleu. Yes, that means blue, but since when do the French have to be logical?

(Okay, to be fair, fresh, raw beef is actually the somewhat purplish color of myoglobin.)

Various animals contain various amounts of myoglobin in their muscle tissue, because they have varying degrees of need for a reservoir of strenuous-activity oxygen. Pork (those lazy pigs) contains less myoglobin than beef, which allows the pork pushers to advertise it as “the other white meat,” even though it’s really pink.

Fish contains even less. So animal flesh can be inherently red, pink, or white, depending on the evolutionary need for sustained muscular activity in different species. Tuna meat, for example, is fairly red, because tunas are strong, fast swimmers who migrate for vast distances across the world’s oceans.

Now you know why chickens’ breast meat is white, while their necks, legs, and thighs are darker.

They exercise their necks by pecking and their legs by walking, but that huge breast is nothing but excess baggage. It has been bred into them because compared with the rest of the world, Americans have a stronger preference for white meat. In fact, unless they are given free range, today’s American-bred chickens are so pampered that even their “dark meat” is as white as their breasts.

When I have leftover rare meat such as steak, roast beef, or lamb, I want to warm it up the next day but I don’t want it to cook any further. Even a quick shot in the microwave oven would kill its rareness because microwaves penetrate deeply.

Instead, I put it in a sealed zipper-top plastic bag with all of the air squeezed out and soak it in a bowl of hot water from the tap. The water will warm the meat, but it isn’t hot enough to cook it.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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