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If anything could make me believe in an omnipotent creator, it would be the chicken wing. Everything about it says perfection. There's the ideal ratio of skin to meat, the abundance of moisture-laden, collagen-rich connective tissue at the joints, and a shape and size that demands you pick them up with your hands—and as any real food lover knows, everything is better when eaten with one's fingers.
A perfect food needs to be honored in two ways. First, you have to cook right. The second is that you eat it right. I've already told you what I think about the eating-it-right part, so today we'll focus on the cooking part. Specifically, how to cook chicken wings sous vide. Before we answer that, though, we first need to ask if we should.
Are Sous Vide Chicken Wings Worth It?
Sous vide fanatics don't often stop to ask this question, which is why we at Serious Eats frequently find ourselves on the receiving end of misguided queries like, How do you make sous vide cookies? (The answer, in case it's not obvious, is, "You don't.") There are scenarios when sous vide can do amazing things, delivering unparalleled consistency of doneness (like these steaks), producing textures otherwise impossible (eggs are a great example), and offering a level of ease and convenience that traditional methods simply can't (thank you sous vide duck confit).
But there are also plenty of foods that get little to no benefit from being cooked sous vide, and in some cases sous vide is just a terrible idea. As anyone who's attempted the cinnamon challenge will tell you, just because you can doesn't mean you should.
It's therefore important to ask whether the quality of sous vide chicken wings justify breaking out the immersion circulator (read our in-depth review of the best immersions circulators here). My answer is a qualified yes. The results are marginally better than any other method I've tried, including our favorite double-fry method, but the improvements are subtle, and it takes a lot more time. This is not a case where using a sous vide approach radically transforms the results, nor does it deliver obvious improvements. Without a side-by-side comparison, one might not notice the differences at all.
So let me sketch out what sous vide can do for chicken wings, and what it can't—as is often the case with sous vide, it's a useful tool to have in your chicken-wing toolbox and not, as some so desperately want, the ultimate solution to all tasks.
The Pros and Cons of Sous Vide Chicken Wings
Because of the high ratio of skin to meat, chicken wings can seem moist and tender even when cooked until very well done, which is one of the great things about them. This can lead many to assume that the meat on a wing is dark meat like the legs, which are similarly tolerant of high heat. But the muscle on wings, especially on the drumette that connects to the breast, is more like white meat, as prone to drying out as the breast itself.
Therefore, while well-done wings are still a pleasure to eat, they do in fact suffer in subtle ways. The challenge is that it's hard to avoid overcooking wings, since we typically want to crisp the skin and crispy skin won't happen without plenty of intense heat. Because wings are small, that extended exposure to heat is bound to take a toll on the meat within. Wings are resilient little suckers, so this nearly unavoidable overcooking hardly makes them unenjoyable to eat, but the dryness, if you're looking for it, is there—especially on the drumette.
Cooking the wings sous vide can help mitigate this, since the method allows you to first cook the wings at a lower temperature, fully tenderizing the meat and ample connective tissue while keeping it all supremely juicy. Since crisping isn't possible inside a plastic bag, the wings still have to be cooked a second time. Compared to wings made using our preferred double-fry method—cooking the wings first in oil at a lower temperature like confit and then a second time at a higher one—the sous vide–then-fried wings were slightly more silky, tender, and juicy. It wasn't a radical difference, but it was there. Sous vide is, therefore, a win for wings, just not a big one.
On the downside, sous vide wings take much longer to make, though this can work to your advantage if you're able to plan ahead. To cook wings sous vide, you need to first cook them for one or two hours (depending on the texture you're looking for); then you need to air-dry them for about eight hours to ensure good crisping during the frying stage; finally, you have to fry them. Compare that to the double-fry method, which can be done in the span of a couple hours start to finish.
While the sous vide method takes many more hours, they're very easy, hands-off hours, followed by a brief frying step. There's a lot to be said for that, especially when combined with the fact that you'll get (very marginally) better results. But there's also a lot to be said for setting up a deep fryer and running all the wings through it twice in a much shorter amount of time. Depending on your situation, cooking wings sous vide may be worth doing or not.
Sous Vide Chicken Wings: Grill, Roast, or Fry?
Wings that are brown and crispy on the outside are typically cooked one of three ways: fried, roasted, or grilled. If you decide to start with a low-temperature sous-vide step, though, only frying makes sense for the second high-heat step because it delivers the most intense blast of heat possible. You need that maximum heat because it's the only way to sufficiently crisp the skin before the meat inside starts to overcook.
If you start in an immersion circulator and then move the wings to a hot oven or grill, as I attempted in my tests, by the time they've become brown enough on the outside, they'll have overcooked on the inside, meaning you end up with wings that taste exactly the same as ones that were cooked in the oven or on the grill the whole time. Any advantage sous vide might have offered is undone during the longer cooking time in the oven and on the grill.
What Temperature and Time for Sous Vide Wings?
I ran multiple batches of wings through a string of temperatures (150°F, 160°F, 165°F, 167°F, 170°F, 185°F) and times (1 hour; 2 hours; 3 hours) to find the best combination of the two. Which you pick will depend on your preferred result.
- If you want wings that literally fall off the bone while remaining juicy and tender, cook them at 160°F (71°C) for two hours.
- If you want the juiciest, most tender wings, but ones that have a little springiness remaining in the meat and don't separate from the bone quite so immediately, cook them at 165°F (74°C) for just one hour.
Sous-Vide Wings Step-By-Step
Step 1: Preheat Water Bath, Season the Wings, and Bag
Set up your immersion circulator to your desired temperature (as described above) and allow it to fully heat the water. While you're waiting, season the wings all over with salt.
Place the wings in one or more plastic bags. Because of the quick cooking time, I find using zipper lock bags with the water displacement method less of a chore than dealing with my vacuum sealer (vacuum bags tend to be more durable, which is something I want for longer cooking times, but not something I worry about for the hour or two the wings need).
Step 2: Submerge and Cook
Fully submerge the wings in the hot water bath and cook for one or two hours, depending on the water temperature.
Step 3: Remove from Bag and Air-Dry
Remove the bags from the water bath, open, and remove the wings. Blot them dry on towels, then arrange on wire racks set over rimmed baking sheets.
The wings come out of the bags quite wet, and if you were to fry them right away, you'd not only get a lot of spitting and spattering as the excess water on the surface cooked off, but you'd also prolong the cooking time, which risks ruining the positive effects of using sous-vide to cook them.
Instead, move them to the fridge, uncovered, and allow them to air-dry overnight or for about eight hours (the wire rack is important for maximum air circulation around the wings).
Step 4: Deep Fry
When you're ready to finish the wings, set up a deep fryer, heating the oil to 400°F. Working in small batches, fry the wings until golden and crispy.
Transfer the fried wings to paper towels to drain.
Step 5: Finish as Desired
The wings are now ready to be finished. In the linked recipe at the top and bottom of this article, I show how to make Buffalo wings by tossing them in that classic combo of Frank's RedHot and butter, but you can follow many other deep-fried wings recipes by cooking them sous vide first, air-drying them, and then following with a quick dunk in hot oil to finish them off (one exception: battered or breaded wings, since it is difficult to get a batter or breading to stick to fully cooked wings).
When your friends eat your multi-hour, multi-method chicken wings, will they be able to tell that they were cooked sous vide? Almost certainly not. But you'll know it worked as planned based on their endless raving about how good they are.