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Taste Test: Baked vs. Fried Buffalo Wings

Can Buffalo wings be baked instead of fried and still retain all their finger lickin' flavor and crispy skin?

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[Photographs: Blake Royer]

Buffalo wings are serious business, and Buffalonians are even more so. They seem to troll the internet in packs looking for posts about hot wings, and if the recipe does not meet authentic standards, it is deemed a "CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY" (the commenters tend to favor capital letters). One has even suggested that anyone who deviates from the strict rules of Buffalo wing authenticity ought to "sharpen a pencil and stab yourself in the eye."

Maybe they have a right to be so uppity. There doesn't seem to be much objection to the fact that the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, invented Buffalo wings, which have since become a staple American food.

As Calvin Trillin noted in his 1980 New Yorker article on what was then an emerging local specialty, there is "no serious quarrel with the basic story of how the Buffalo chicken wing was invented," though there are a couple variations about the exact circumstances.

Suffice it to say that the wings were a one-off accident, put together with a mistaken order or the odds-and-ends left over in the kitchen. The accident, however, was so delicious that everyone started asking for wings and soon every bar in Buffalo was serving them. The rest is history.

What It Takes to Be a Real Buffalo Wing

There are two essential aspects of authentic Buffalo wings: they must be deep-fried and cooked without any kind of breading. In Buffalo, the wings are put directly in the oil until cooked through and golden, then tossed in a sauce made of half butter and half hot sauce, with perhaps a few other secret seasonings thrown in there.

The wings should be infused with "Buffalo flavor" in every bite: vinegary, buttery, spicy. The purpose of deep-frying is to achieve a tender interior and crisp exterior, which remains crisp even as it soaks up the tangy sauce.

But chicken wings have plenty of interior fat already (delicious, delicious chicken fat). They baste themselves quite effectively as they bake. In fact, it's rather hard to dry them out, which in theory makes extraneous frying fat seem superfluous.

The Million-Dollar Buffalo Wing Question

Could Buffalo wings, a Super Bowl finger food staple, be baked instead of fried and still retain all their finger lickin' flavor? Would they still crisp up in the oven and be as delicious as Buffalo's original fried version?

The Baked vs. Fried Wings Project

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The baking method, besides just the healthier (well, slightly) perk, is also far more appealing when serving to guests. Who wants to man a dangerous pot of bubbling oil—sweating and inhaling vaporized fat—while everyone else is nursing a beer on the couch? Wouldn't it be better to put the wings in the oven, know they're cooking at the perfect temperature, and relax?

To get to the bottom of the issue, I prepared four batches of wings (with slightly variations in procedure) then cooked them side-by-side in the same oven to ensure consistent temperatures and cooking times.

The results were surprising.

The Batches

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The original Anchor Bar recipe. [Image: anchorbar.com]

Batch 1: The Anchor Bar's Original Frying Method. My first batch was drawn directly from the Anchor Bar's website itself. They suggest frying in oil, but offer the alternative directions: "Bake at 425°F for 45 minutes until completely cooked and crispy. Put in bowl, add sauce and toss." Done.

Batch 2: Frying then Sauce-Painting. My second batch was almost the same as the first but with one change: with ten minutes remaining in the cooking time, I painted the wings with sauce in hopes that the flavor would bake into the meat and form a glaze.

Batch 3: Marinating then Baking. For the third batch, I tossed the uncooked chicken in Buffalo sauce and let it marinate for an hour or so, then baked them, hoping the sauce would not only form a delicious glaze, as in batch 2, but also flavor the interior of the meat.

Batch 4: Flour-Coating then Baking. Maybe just because I'm spiteful of "authenticity" claims, I did a final batch tossed with flour before baking. Spitefulness aside, many recipes call for flour and I liked the idea of creating an even crisper exterior to soak up the sauce.

The Results

Batch 1: The Most Disappointing. The wings prepared according to the official Anchor Bar recipe were the most disappointing. They crisped up well but when I tossed them after cooking, the sauce didn't penetrate the meat enough. They tasted great (because chicken wings tossed in a tangy buttery sauce always will) but I found myself dipping half-eaten wings into the puddle of sauce because I wanted more flavor.

Batch 2: Also Very Disappointing. The batch where I painted sauce on for the last ten minutes tasted practically the same as the first. Originally I thought this step would infuse them with spicy flavor, but the sauce is butter-based and melted away in the high heat of the oven, carrying with it most of the flavor. It was also a hassle to interrupt the cooking, pull out a hot baking sheet, and mess with sauce-painting.

Batch 3: Flavor-Packed Meat. This batch got a one-hour bath in the tangy Buffalo sauce before cooking. In reality, I don't think this really did much to penetrate the meat. Since the marinade was butter-based, it actually began to solidify as I tossed it with the cold, raw chicken wings and probably didn't seep much flavor into the meat during the hour. But in the oven, this method proved its worth and more. As the wings cooked, the sauce melted slowly into the meat, penetrating it with flavor all the way to the bone. Then it created a glaze that turned crisp, encasing a tender interior infused with flavor.

Batch 4: Wonderful Crust. Though not true Buffalo wings to anyone from Buffalo, tossing baked wings with flour is a common technique. (If you simply call them "hot wings" and skip the "Buffalo" part, no one will come chasing you. So you're welcome to do so.) I used 1/3 cup of flour per pound of wings and tossed them thoroughly to coat. As the wings baked they developed a wonderful crust. After they were through cooking and tossed with the sauce, the thin outer layer absorbed loads of sauce without getting soggy.

The Verdict

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By a good margin, Batches 3 and 4 were clear winners. I'd give the edge, though, to Batch 3 for the penetrating, tangy flavor the wings possessed. Most important, this method is perfectly suited to the oven and actually has a distinct advantage over the original deep-frying method.

The buttery sauce melted into the wings, which would never work in a pot of bubbling oil—the marinade would simply dissipate and disappear. So I like that this one-ups the deep-fry-only authenticity-mongers.

However, those looking for a wonderful crisp exterior—and who aren't concerned as religiously with authenticity—might prefer the floured version. It was delicious, too, and in a different way.

Baked Wins?!

Indeed. Here are the recipes you need:

Baked "Buffalo" Chicken Wings »
Homemade Blue Cheese Dip »

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