The Food Lab: Crispy Oven-Fried Chicken Wings With Xi'an Flavors Bring the Heat

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Crispy, juicy, hot, spicy, and numbing chicken wings. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

I'd put chicken wings right up there with pizza and nachos as official candidates for foods-that-should-be-their-own-food-group, and while Buffalo-style wings, with their hot, drippy, tangy, buttery, garlicky sauce, might be the reigning champion of the category,* there are an awful lot of scrappy contenders trying to bootstrap their way into the major leagues.

* And if it's Buffalo wings you want, I've got you covered with the best double-fried, extra-crispy buffalo wings or the best oven-fried Buffalo wings.

The concept of a hot and numbing crisply fried chicken wing was inspired by the ridiculously tasty Chongqing Chicken Wings I've had at at Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco and New York. As anyone in Sichuan or Chongqing can tell you, crisply fried chicken, hot chilies, and numbing Sichuan peppercorns go together like cereal and milk. Really hot milk that will burn your face off in the most pleasurable way imaginable.

Starting from that idea, I decided to take a cue from my recent trip to Xi'an, where warm spices take over for more typical Chinese flavors. The result is a crisp chicken wing with a full-on assault of flavors.

I played around with a number of spice blends until I settled on doing it the easy way: an equal amount by volume of Sichuan peppercorns, cumin seed, fennel, and dried red chilies. Regular old red pepper flakes will work, but if you can get your hand on some dried Chinese red chilies or those smoky northern Thai dried chilies, your wings will be all the better for the trouble.

As you bite your way through them, the first sense you get is the sweet, warm spices with just a hint of heat. But it's a slow-smoldering heat that grows and grows, eventually supplanting the other flavors until your mouth is nearly to the point of crying out for water. It's then that the numbing Sichuan peppercorns finally kick in, offering a bit of reprieve and giving you that distinctive lip-tingle. The one that whispers to you with a Jedi mind trick-like level of persuasion: Go ahead. Reach out and grab another one.

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For the spices, I always recommend starting with whole spices instead of pre-ground. There are a few reasons for this, all of them coming down to flavor:

  • First, ground spices have a much higher surface area to volume ratio, which makes it easier for volatile flavor compounds to escape into the air. Ground spices simply lose flavor faster.
  • In my experience, most ground spices are made from lower quality spices and have inferior flavor to begin with.
  • Toasting whole spices develops and retains more flavor. Again, it comes down to surface area. Toasting ground spices very rapidly drives off aromatic compounds. Toasting whole spices, on the other hand, helps boost and develop their flavor without sending nearly as much out into the air. The result is more flavor in your finished dish.

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Grinding in a mortar and pestle isn't strictly necessary here, but I find it faster and easier to clean than a spice grinder, so I use it. In addition to the spices, I also add salt and a good amount of brown sugar to tame and balance some of that chili heat. If you're so inclined, a bit of MSG wouldn't be out of place at this stage either.

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The wings themselves can be deep fried, but for convenience, I prefer to use my oven-fried Buffalo wings technique: start by tossing the chicken wings in salt and baking powder, then let them rest uncovered in the fridge overnight. The overnight rest allows the skins to dry out a bit so that they crisp up much more efficiently in the oven. That way you can get them crisp before the meat underneath has a chance to dry out. Meanwhile, the baking powder slightly raises the pH of the wings, improving browning, while also creating teeny tiny micro-blisters that add surface area and crunch to the wings.

Once the crisp wings are out of the oven (and look, by the way, at how damn crisp those wings are!), all you've got to do is toss them with the spice blend along with some scallions and chopped cilantro. I just use a bowl for convenience here, though I've also had excellent results by heating up about two tablespoons of oil in a hot wok, adding the wings and spices, and tossing in there until everything is coated. The wok delivers a slightly different, more smoky flavor than just plain old tossing (and affords you the chance to add the giant handful of whole chilies, Mission Chinese Food-style, if you like that aroma and presentation).

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These are just about the most flavor-packed wings you're gonna find anywhere, not to mention that they're going to get you addicted to that spice blend. Toss it on popcorn or on potato chips or sprinkle it onto grilled meats. It'd also make a mean addition to a burger or veggie burger!

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Now you tell me: When was the last time you saw a chicken wing this crispy, from the deep fryer or not?