Why It Works
- Cooking the wings sous vide tenderizes the meat and melts the collagen-rich connective tissue without drying it out.
- This recipe lets you choose the temperature and time to get exactly the results you want.
- Air-drying the wings before frying ensures they crisp up properly.
If anything could make me believe in an omnipotent creator, it would be the chicken wing. Everything about it is 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 demand you pick it 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 it right. Second, you need to 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 even cook them that way.
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 that you don't.)
There are scenarios in which sous vide can do amazing things, delivering unparalleled consistency of doneness (as in 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 justifies breaking out the immersion circulator. 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 in which using the 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. (If you ultimately decide it's worth it to you and you need equipment recommendations, you can read our in-depth review of the best immersion circulators here.)
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 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; and 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 with 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. That means you'll 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 or on the grill.
What Temperature and Time to Use for Sous Vide Wings?
I ran multiple batches of wings through a string of temperatures (150°F/66°C, 160°F/71°C, 165°F/74°C, 167°F/75°C, 170°F/77°C, 185°F/85°C) and times (one hour, two hours, three 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 for two hours.
- If you want the juiciest, most tender wings that still have a little springiness in the meat and don't separate from the bone quite so immediately, cook them at 165°F for just one hour.
Tips for Sous Vide Chicken Wings
Always Air-Dry the Wings
Once cooked sous vide, the wings come out of the bags quite wet. If you were to fry them right away, not only would you get a lot of spitting and spattering as the excess water on the surface cooked off, you'd also prolong the cooking time, which risks ruining the positive effects of using sous vide to cook them.
Instead, after you remove the bags from the water bath, remove the wings, blot them dry on towels, then arrange on wire racks set over rimmed baking sheets. Then, move them to the fridge, uncovered, and allow them to air-dry overnight or for about eight hours. (The wire rack is important to allow for maximum air circulation around the wings.)
Sauce the Wings However You'd Like
In this recipe, 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 wing recipes using this same process of cooking them sous vide first, air-drying them, and finishing them off with a quick dunk in hot oil. (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.
4 pounds (1.8kg) chicken wings, cut into drumettes and flats, wing tips removed and saved for stock or discarded
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick; 110g)
1 cup (235ml) Frank's RedHot Sauce
3 quarts (2.8L) peanut or canola oil
1 1/2 cups Blue cheese dressing, for serving
Celery sticks, for serving
Set Up the Immersion Circulator: Set up an immersion circulator and preheat the water bath to either 160°F (71°C) if you want fall-off-the-bone wings or 165°F (74°C) if you want juicy and tender wings that still retain some springiness.
Meanwhile, season wings all over with salt. Place wings in zipper-lock bags (you may need multiple bags to easily hold all the wings). Alternatively, slide wings into vacuum bags and seal according to vacuum-sealer manufacturer's instructions. If using zipper-lock bags, seal using the water-displacement method. Add bagged wings to immersion circulator and cook for 2 hours if cooking at 160°F or 1 hour if cooking at 165°F.
Remove wings from bags and pat dry; discard juices. Arrange wings on wire racks set on rimmed baking sheets and refrigerate, uncovered, for 8 hours or up to 2 days.
When ready to serve, in a small saucepan, combine butter and Frank's and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until butter is completely melted. Transfer to a large bowl.
Meanwhile, in a wok or Dutch oven, heat oil to 400°F (205°C). Working in small batches, carefully add chicken and cook, stirring and flipping occasionally while adjusting heat to maintain a temperature of 375 to 400°F (190 to 205°C), until golden brown and crisp, about 3 minutes per batch. Using a spider or slotted spoon, transfer wings to paper towels to drain. When all the wings have been fried, transfer to bowl with sauce, toss to coat, and serve with blue cheese dressing and celery.
Make-Ahead and Storage
You can cook the wings sous vide up to 2 days in advance. Keep them uncovered on the wire rack in the fridge until ready to fry.