Anybody who thinks that a baked Buffalo wing is any healthier than the deep-fried real deal is about as delusional as Luigi thinking he's got a shot with the Princess while Mario is still around.
A Buffalo wing is a piece of skin-coated, bone-in chicken fat that's deep-fried and doused in butter before being dipped in mayo, blue cheese, and sour cream. It's fat on fat on fat on fat on fat on fat on fat. Is taking one of those fats out of the equation really going to make a difference? Unlikely. Want to allay your unfounded guilt? Load up on negative calories by eating an extra celery stick or two and call it a day.
That said, there is a large percentage of the home cook population that's hesitant to heat up a few quarts of oil in their kitchens. (I'd be willing to wager my negligible income that the Venn diagram of people scared of frying and people who own well-seasoned cast iron woks looks like two non-overlapping circles.) It's a group of people who have had to be content with one of two categories of "oven-fried" chicken wings:
- The flour-coated kind that stays crisp and absorbs sauce, but is more akin to KFC in texture than the thin-skinned original.
- The naked kind that is juicy and tender, but lacks the blistered, crispy crust that crackles under your teeth and retains sauce so nicely.
Neither method is bad per se. Indeed, if Blake taught us anything with his recent baked-versus-fried wing taste test, it's that, depending on how you like your wings, these kinds can actually be better than their deep-fried counterparts.
Is it possible, though, to make Buffalo wings in the oven that are not "different but just as good," but actually indistinguishable from the deep-fried version?*
*Hint: If it wasn't, I wouldn't be writing this right now.
Now, I'm well aware of the fact that, by definition, anything other than deep-fried wings tossed in a mixture of hot sauce and butter can never be called "Buffalo wings." So if you're the type of person who needs to point out authenticity rules like that, you might as well stop reading right now and find something more interesting to do.
For the rest of you, read on.
Wings and Prayers
My first step: set a benchmark by deep-frying and analyzing a batch of wings.
As you can see, the key characteristics are the well-rendered, blistered, bubbly, crackly skin and the moist, fatty meat underneath. Without this ultra-crisp skin, the wings would quickly become saturated in sauce and soggy. At the same time, blistered skin boasts much more surface area than smooth skin, leading to better sauce adhesion and packing more flavor into each bite.
A baked wing, on the other hand, has a problem:
Despite near hour-long cooking times for some recipes, the skin never blisters in quite the same way—it stays smooth and tight. What little sauce can adhere to it rapidly causes it to turn soft and soggy.
So what does it take to get skin crisp? There are a few factors involved:
- Dehydration and rendering: The crisp skin of a fried wing is made up of a hardened matrix of proteins, with some amount of liquid fat trapped in the interstitial spaces. Before this matrix can crisp, two things must happen: The water must be fully driven from it, and the subcutaneous fat from the chicken must liquefy, some of it draining out, some of it soaking into the meat, and some of it taking the place of the liquid. Frying, which takes place in an environment well above the boiling point of water, accomplishes this rapidly. Hot oil also transfers heat much more rapidly than hot air in an oven, causing this dehydration to proceed at an accelerated rate.
- Browning: The Maillard reaction—the complex series of chemical reactions that create "brown" flavors and colors—occurs at a heightened rate at higher temperatures. In a pot of oil, this takes about 12 minutes. In an oven, it can take over an hour.
- Blistering: As the chicken cooks, small bubbles of air or water trapped in the skin rapidly expand due to the heat. As this happens, it causes small, protein-reinforced bubbles to form. Some of these bubbles are lucky enough to simultaneously finish cooking and hardening as they form, increasing the skin's surface area and creating the familiar nooks and crannies on a well-fried wing.
So clearly, in order to achieve baked-chicken-wing perfection, my goal should be to find ways to increase the rate at which all three of these reactions occur.
My first thought was simple: Why not fry them in the oven? To this end, I preheated a rimmed baking sheet, with a half cup of oil coating the bottom, in a 450°F (230°C) oven.
Once it was hot, I placed the chicken wings directly into the oil, where they immediately started sizzling, then placed them back in the oven. One flip and 25 minutes later, I had a batch of perfectly fried wings—along with an oven interior coated in grease, and an array of microscopic burns all along my arms from hot oil spitting out of the pan. What's the point of oven-frying if it ends up even messier than stovetop frying? I'd need to find a better method.
Blistered, Browned, and Burnt
So what factors can affect browning? Well, temperature and time are the most obvious answers. But I knew that pH also had something to do with it.
For instance, adding a bit of extra baking soda to pancake batter—thereby making the batter more alkaline—improves its browning capabilities. Would the same trick work on my chicken wings? I baked five batches of wings on a rack set in a rimmed baking sheet: the first straight out of the package, the second tossed in salt before baking (in the hope that the salt would help draw out some of their moisture), one tossed in baking soda, one tossed in baking powder, and one soaked for two hours in a baking soda and water solution.
As you can see, there is something to the notion that adding baking soda to raise the pH (thus making the wings more alkaline) indeed does help with browning—the baking soda–treated wing in the center is significantly browner than the plain wing on the left. The baking powder–treated wing is also browner, though to a lesser degree. (Baking powder is made of baking soda mixed with a powdered acid, and its overall makeup is only slightly alkaline.)
Unfortunately, the baking soda wings had a very distinct metallic bitterness that immediately eliminated them as an option. Baking powder was promising for its effect on browning, but did nothing to aid rendering or blistering.
What about a different cooking method? Would broiling work? Perhaps coating the wings in oil or butter in order to more efficiently transfer heat to them? What if I simply extended the cooking time until the damn things were crisp?
Well, extending cooking time doesn't work. Turns out that it is possible to overcook chicken wings—even after I'd brined them in salt water, they dried out to a state beyond edible by the time the skin crisped significantly. Broiling on its own led to wings that were burnt on the outside and raw in the center.
I tried slow-cooking the wings in a low oven, followed by broiling, but it proved nearly impossible to get the wings to crisp evenly—all I got was wings that were crisp on the top and bottom, but soft around the edges. Desirable for an Oreo, maybe, but not for chicken wings. Similarly, brushing the wings in oil or butter proved to ultimately have a negligible impact on the result.
The real problem? Moisture and fat loss. Well into their baking, the wings steadily release steam and drip rendered fat, showing absolutely no signs of browning until around 40 minutes in, when all the moisture and fat is finally expelled. I decided to shift gears: My goal would be to eliminate as much moisture and fat as possible before baking them.
A Rendering Bender
Fans of Alton Brown (including me!) may have seen his Buffalo wing episode, in which he suggests steaming the wings over a pot of water before drying, chilling, and baking them.
The goal? The steaming process supposedly helps some of the excess fat render out of the skin, decreasing the time they need to crisp in the oven. Also, when the hot wings are placed on a rimmed baking sheet fresh out of the steamer, their retained heat helps their moisture evaporate, leaving you with wings that are in fact drier than un-steamed wings fresh from the package. Very clever, Alton. I compared these wings to plain baked wings, and, for good measure, I also included a batch of wings that I'd given the Peking duck treatment: pouring a hot pot of boiling water over them prior to drying, supposedly to achieve similar goals.
I was very hopeful about this method—after all, hordes of internet followers blogging about their success can't all be wrong, can they?
While Alton's methods are always interesting, and often spot-on, my guess is that none of the supporters of the steam-and-bake technique actually performed a side-by-side test. When push came to shove, the three batches were virtually indistinguishable from each other.
Giving It a Rest
It was time to call in the big guns. Sure, it'd be nice if I could pick up a package of wings on game day and have them ready for dipping in blue cheese a few hours later.* Then again, it'd also be nice if my book were done being written, if my wife were as understanding as she is beautiful, and if I could remember her birthday each year.
Wishing it ain't gonna make it happen. As I discovered yet again, good results require careful thought, a bit of work, and plenty of time.
** Side note: I have a friend whose admirable resolution this year is to discover more ways to dip cheese into cheese. Mozzarella sticks into blue cheese dressing works, as does a Shake Shack cheeseburger dipped into cheese fry sauce. Any other suggestions?
I decided to use a method that works wonders on whole birds and red-meat roasts alike—air-drying. Hopefully allowing the wings to dry on a rack overnight would dehydrate them enough that rapid browning could happen in the oven.
I set three new batches of wings on a rack set in a baking sheet and placed them, uncovered, in the refrigerator overnight. One was tossed with baking soda (a smaller amount than what had previously given me a bitter aftertaste), one was tossed with baking powder, and one was plain.
The next day, I removed the desiccated wings and baked them in a 425°F (218°C) oven, on the same rack that I'd dried them on. The results were even better than I'd expected:
Check out the hole structure on that, baby!
Although the baking soda–laden wings still had an off flavor, both the baking powder– and baking soda–treated wings showed markedly more bubbling and blistering than their untreated counterpart—just as much as a regular fried wing, in fact!
Could such a dramatic difference be attributed merely to improved browning because of the Maillard reaction? That's part of the answer, but some research revealed that, most likely, it's a combination of factors.
Raising the pH does indeed improve browning, but it also creates an environment that weakens the peptide bonds naturally present in proteins. In theory, this means the proteins can break down more easily into shorter pieces, creating a texture that is less leathery or papery and more crispy. Is it true in reality? Well, my teeth tell me "yes," but my lack of an electron microscope tells me "maybe."***
*** Note to editors: The Food Lab could use a budget increase, a small key-card-secured loft, and a hazardous-materials license.
One final advantage from the baking powder: During its overnight rest on the chicken, it soaks up some of the protein-laden chicken juices from within. As it heats, it forms carbon dioxide gas in the same way that it would in a cookie dough or cake batter, inflating these juices into bubbles, which are then naturally hardened by the heat of the oven. And, as we all know, extra bubbles mean extra surface area, which means extra crunch!
My wife used to be such a good eater, but I'm slowly weaning her off of all of her favorite foods—eating a lifetime's worth of chicken wings over the course of a week has a way of doing that. My goal is that, by the time The Food Lab's finished its run, she'll shudder at the thought of eating anything but Friendly's Ice Cream and bananas (two foodstuffs that are guaranteed to be safe from my probing).