It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.
Disclaimer: Before anyone gets into a hissy fit over me writing about and testing Buffalo wings during my month-long foray into veganism, let me preface this post by saying that 100% of the research was done prior to the start of the diet. The magic of the internet means that we can both respond to readers in real-time, yet plan out our stories weeks or months in advance just like a real magazine. But that's neither here nor there.
What is here is this: Buffalo wings are pure, unadulterated, crispy, greasy, hot & vinegary nuggets of awesome. Whether you believe the apocryphal (or at least wildly inaccurate) account of their creation as an impromptu late-night snack at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo New York, or the equally apocryphal story Calvin Trillin tells of a John Young and his "wings in mambo sauce," there's one thing that we can all believe: you will be eating Buffalo wings this coming Sunday.*
*Assuming that you, like me, are not bound by dietary choices to avoid them
As a country, we consume an insane amount of Buffalo wings. If you take the word of the National Chicken Council, we'll be digging into 1.25 billion wing portions over Super Bowl sunday alone. For the record, that's 625,000,000 whole wings, or 312,500,000 chickens. That's enough for every man, woman, and child in the country to adopt one as a pet and still have enough birds leftover to fill every seat in Lucas Oil Stadium 78 times.
Heck, we eat so many of them that if Perdue could figure out how to breed a six-winged chicken, it would. Once expensive white breast meat is now routinely hacked up and sold as "boneless wings" simply to satisfy our craving for the deep-fried flavor bombs.
So given that we're going to be eating so many of the suckers, isn't it our national duty—whether we are drumette supporters or flat upholders*—to make each and every one the best it can possible be? To not—pardon the terrible pun (and all the terrible puns to follow)—simply wing it? I've had my share of greasy, dry, flaccid, burnt, tough, gristly chicken wings. My only goal today is to figure out how to get the best out of each and every wing. No oven-frying, no fancy sauces, no gimmicks. Simply to create a Super Bowl snack worthy of its American heritage. A bird we could really flip for.
*I don't want to talk politics here, but clearly the flat-crusaders are superior
Path To Perfection
First off, let me tell you my criteria for a perfect wing. I think there's a few things we can all agree upon:
- The Perfect Buffalo Wing shall have no artificial coating. No breading, batter, starchy dusting, nothing. It shall be skin, and skin alone that gives it its crispness.
- The Perfect Buffalo Wing shall be shatteringly crisp, with a blistered, bubbly surface that crackles and crunches with each bite.
- The Perfect Buffalo Wing shall be moist and juicy within, with a distinct fattiness and a greasiness that is present, but not overwhelming.
- The Perfect Buffalo Wing shall be doused in a tasty sauce consisting of nothing but vinegary cayenne pepper sauce, butter, hopes, and dreams.
Agreed? Good, let's move on.
To start my testing, I first cooked up a batch of regular old Buffalo wings. That is, I put raw wings directly into a pot of 400°F canola oil and cooked them until they were crisp on the outside. This took about 12 minutes. After that, I tossed them in a mixture of Frank's RedHot sauce and butter.
Tasty? You betcha. As crisp and tender as I could possibly imagine them being? Not by a long shot
Here's the deal: sure this wing is crisp—enough moisture has been driven away from the skin and its proteins have set-up hard enough that a crackly shell has formed. The problem, however, is with surface area. Aside from its darker color, this wing doesn't look significantly different from a raw wing.
Indeed, take a look at what happens when you apply some sauce to it:
It becomes a glossy, near texture-less surface.
I know that something better is possible. Take, for example, this other wing from the exact same batch:
Notice how the skin has blistered and bubbled a bit more? Eat these two wings side-by-side, and you find that the more blistered the wing, the crisper and crunchier it is. See, every time the skin blisters out like that, two things happen.
First, it increases its own surface area, and more surface to crunchify = more crunch (crunchify is a very technical term). Secondly, as it stretches out into bubbles, it becomes much thinner, and the thinner the skin stretches, the more delicately crisp it becomes.
We've already seen that even within one batch of chicken wings, the amount of bubbling you get can vary. The question is, how can you maximize the blistering and guarantee consistency between each and every one in the batch? Let me take you under my wing as we forge ahead.
Crunch = Dehydration + Proteins Setting
Pop quiz: How is a chicken wing like a loaf of bread?
Answer: Both of them rely on three occurrences in order to give them a desirable structure.
- Occurrence The First: Expansion. With bread, this expansion occurs when tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide gas expand into bigger bubbles of carbon dioxide gas (thanks to Charles's Law), or when water transforms from a liquid state into water vapor, forming large, hole-y bubbles in your bread's internal structure (this is called oven spring). Similarly, a chicken wing forms tiny bubbles when water trapped within cells in the fatty tissue under the surface of the skin rapidly expands.
- Occurrence The Second: Dehydration. Bread doesn't lose much internal moisture as it bakes, but it loses plenty on its surface. Until surface moisture is driven off, there's a maximum temperature it can reach since most of the energy being pumped into it is going into converting water into steam. Once the surface has dried, then it begins to harden and set, preventing further expansion. For this reason, many bakers use a moist oven in order to allow their bread maximum time for expansion, leading to a hole-ier finished structure. Again, with chicken wings, we get the same thing: in order for the skin to crisp up, moisture needs to first be driven from it. The rate at and degree to which this occurs is directly proportional to oil temperature.
- Occurrence The Third: Proteins setting and browning. When surface moisture has been mostly driven off and the proteins reach a high enough temperature they begin to brown and to firm up. In bread, they form a robust, crisp crust. With chicken wings, they do the exact same thing.
Here's the game: with bread dough, you have quite a bit of control over how easily bubbles form when the dough is heated. Add more water, you get more steam and more easily stretched dough. This leads to faster, bigger bubble formation when the dough is finally heated. With chicken skin, you get close to zero control over its water content*, and absolutely no control over how easily bubbles are formed... unless...
*Ok, ok. So brining or soaking may get you a bit of extra moisture, but it's all in the interstitial spaces, not where it counts.
Wings And Some Prayers
Suddenly, I'm reminded of last summer when I had a bite of one of the most spectacular chicken wings I've ever had at Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco. It wasn't so much the spicy and numbing Sichuan flavorings that made them great (though those were indeed great), but it was the texture. Juicy and tender, with a paper-thin, ultra-crisp, super bubbly crust.
I'd asked the chef Danny Bowien how he did it, and his answer was that he fried them twice: Once the day before, after which they'd go straight into the freezer, and the second time the next day (or whenever he needed to), straight from the freezer into the fryer.
At the time, I wasn't exactly sure how that would possibly help a wing become extra crisp. Perhaps it's like Korean Fried Chicken or Double-Fried Popeye's (another idea cribbed from the Mission Chinese team), in which the first fry begins the dehydration process, the cooling session allows the interior to cool to prevent overcooking and drying, then the second fry finishes off the crisping process.
It's a viable theory, but that doesn't explain the extra-thin and bubbly skin.
To figure out what was going on, I performed a number of experiments, testing various temperature and time combinations. Here's what I did:
- Fried at 400°F until crisp and brown (control)
- Fried at 400°F for 3 minutes (minimal browning), frozen, fried at 400°F until crisp.
- Fried at 400°F for 6 minutes (moderate browning), frozen, fried at 400°F until crisp.
- Fried at 400°F for 10 minutes (significant browning), frozen, fried at 400°F until crisp.
- Fried at 325°F for 5 minutes (minimal browning), frozen, fried at 400°F until crisp.
- Fried at 325°F for 8 minutes (moderate browning), frozen, fried at 400°F until crisp.
- Fried at 325°F for 12 minutes (moderate browning), frozen, fried at 400°F until crisp.
- Fried at 250°F for 7 minutes (minimal browning), frozen, fried at 400°F until crisp.
- Fried at 250°F for 11 minutes (minimal browning), frozen, fried at 400°F until crisp.
- Fried at 250°F for 15 minutes (minimal browning), frozen, fried at 400°F until crisp.
Right off the bat, it was clear that every sample 2 through 10 was significantly crisper than the control group (1) However, the wings that had their initial frying at a higher temperature (batches 2 through 4) ended up the driest of the lot. This told me two things: First, that the double fry was having some sort of effect on the crisping of the skin and secondly, the theory that allowing the wings to cool down in between fries in order to prevent excess moisture loss was bunk.
So what exactly was going on?
Some further thought led me to this idea that perhaps there's a fourth occurrence during frying that can play a role in crispness, and it's this: the breakdown of collagen.
See, collagen is the connective tissue that gives tough meat some of its stringiness as well as skin its resilience. We already know that low, slow cooking can help convert collagen into gelatin when stewing tough cuts of meat. The same thing must be going on in my chicken wings during their initial fry.
Even at low temperatures collagen in the chicken skin slowly converts into gelatin, making the entire thing softer. At the same time, at a low temperature, there's not enough energy to drive out a significant amount of moisture, nor is there enough energy to cause significant browning or crisping of the skin. Heck, at 250°F, you can fry a chicken wing for a full half hour, and it'll still come out just looking like this, with a moisture loss of only a few percent:
Pale as a slightly tanned ghost, but extraordinarily tender.
So what happens when you let this guy cool then drop him into very hot (400°F) oil?
Exactly the same thing that happens to very tender, loose, moist bread dough: a rapid, and sudden expansion of water vapor coupled with a very soft, malleable network of proteins combines to give you a whole bunch of very thin-skinned, blistered, crackly bubbles.
Ta-da! The best fried chicken wing you'll ever have.
A Confit By Any Other Name
To be perfectly honest, it was at this point that I realized I'd accidentally re-discovered confit. Yep, there's absolutely nothing new about this technique. Even beyond French country cooking, it's used by chefs the world over in fancy restaurants.
It just never occurred to me that it could be a useful way to cook chicken wings.* Learn something new every day. Or at least, you learn something very, very old in a new way every day.
*Though now that it has, I'm tempted to do the initial slow cook in duck fat inside the Sous-Vide Supreme
With further testing, I found that essentially, the lower the temperature you do the initial fry at (I went as low as 210°F—the wings don't bubble at all but slowly soften), the better the effect, though at some point it takes an unreasonably long period of time. 250° to 275°F for about 20 minutes as the initial fry gets you excellent results. Moral of the story: you've got to keep waiting on the wings.*
*Man, that's a bad one
What about the freezing? Is that step in the process essential? Turns out it's not really. I did a blind tasting at the office comparing wings that were frozen after the initial fry, refrigerated after the initial fry, and held at room temperature after the initial fry.
So long as I let the frozen ones thaw just slightly before frying (long enough so that the skin was soft enough to bubble when dropped in the fryer), the differences between them were negligible enough that nobody could tell one from the other.
Of course, there are advantages to having the flexibility of being able to freeze your wings if you'd like. See, since the initial fry takes place at such a low temperature, the old rule about not crowding your oil when deep frying doesn't really apply. You can shove as many suckers as you can inside that wok or Dutch oven and so long as they're submerged and you give them the occasional stir, they'll soften up just fine.
This means that you can par-fry a whole mess of wings, lay them out on a tray*, freeze them, then bag'em up. From then on, whenever you want a batch, just pull out as many or as few as you want, let them thaw at room temp for a few minutes, and fry at 400°F until crisp.
*Uh... that'd be spread your wings? (they just keep rolling today)
As for the sauce, well, I go with the classic: Frank's RedHot and butter (stay tuned for a taste-off between Frank's and the new Tabasco brand Buffalo-style sauce later today).
Are these wings more work than your standard wing? Sure, but all of the extra work can be done hours, days, or even weeks in advance. Come game day, all you've got to do is heat up that pot of oil and fry as many or as few wings as you want. And believe me, it's worth the extra effort.
Full-on crisp, crackly, ever-so-slightly greasy, perfectly juicy and succulent, sauce-coated, tangy, vinegary Buffalo wing perfection in every lick-lipping, finger-dripping bite.
Those regular single-fried Buffalo wings? Sorry folks, they're for the birds.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.