Chicken wings have got a bad reputation for hanging around sketchy bars. It's time to intervene. Because you can make chicken wings that are crispy and tender, that are doused in homemade hot sauce butter or your favorite spices, that are actually addictive and not at all dubious.
Our test kitchen director, Josh Cohen, shares his go-to method when making chicken wings for a crowd: He dry-brine-spice-rubs the night before, and slides them into the oven while "refreshing everyone's drink." Baking them on a foil-lined sheet keeps cleanup minimal, and his make-ahead blender BBQ sauce has guests saying, "Frank's who?"
1. Prep your wings.
As always, the better quality meat you get the better dinner is going to taste—and in the case of chicken wings, your wallet won't be harmed in the process. As Josh explains in the video, while you can serve them whole, broken-down wings are easier to eat. Buy whole chicken wings and break them down into three parts yourself; not only will the meat be even less expensive, but also the butchering is quick work and you'll have the added bonus of getting some wing tips in the mix. (Wait, wing tips??)
A whole chicken wing has three parts, not just two: the drumette (with a large end like a club), the wingette (flat, with two bones), and the tip (pointy, wing-like, and too-often discarded). To break a wing down into these parts, slip your knife into one of the two joints, rocking it side to side until the blade slides through and separates the parts. You shouldn't have to cut through bone, only cartilage, and you'll get the hang of it after a few wings. Continue until all your drummettes, wingettes, and tips are free agents.
A note about handling raw chicken: Josh usually works with latex gloves, but tossing the wings with tongs works just fine too. If you're working with gloves, try to keep one hand as "the wet hand"—handling the raw chicken—and the other as "the dry hand" (sprinkling the spice rub into the bowl of raw chicken). It keeps the rub from getting unnecessarily clumpy, and keeps you slightly cleaner.
2a. Dry-rub the night before.
Tossing the wings in a dry-rub the night before means that Josh can spend time with family and friends—not in the kitchen. Though Josh's go-to wing is a grilled wing, he found he was able to cheat that smoky flavor with the addition of smoked salt. Also in his not-so-secret magic rub: smoked paprika, garlic, onion, thyme, oregano, cumin, and coriander. Josh likes blitzing dried oregano and thyme in a spice grinder, as the herbs then better disperse in the rub. (Also, no one like flecks of green stuck in their teeth!)
While you could bake the wings right after seasoning, the overnight rest ensures that the wings get deeply seasoned inside and out. When taking the wings out of the fridge after their overnight rest, Josh noted that the wings appeared to be glistening—a good sign that the salt and spices had thoroughly permeated the wings.
2b. Or, enlist the crisping powers of baking powder.
This method is for when you don't have time for a full overnight rest (the people want their wings now). Toss your wings in a little salt and a bit of baking powder, which will both up the pH (encouraging the Maillard reaction and browning) and create bubbles on the surface of the chicken (more bubbles mean greater and thinner surface area, which means a higher chance of getting crackly). For each pound of wings, toss with one scant teaspoon of baking powder before setting out to dry.
3. Let's bake!
When ready to bake, spread the wings out on a foil-lined baking sheet. Using foil, while not entirely necessary, makes cleanup a breeze later. Avoid overcrowding the wings—overcrowding creates steam which creates soggy wings; use multiple baking sheets, or cook in batches, if you must. For the crispiest skin, Josh likes to bake his wings at a high heat (500°F) for the first 20 minutes, then lowers the heat to 350°F to finish cooking them without burning the spice rub.
If you must, must fry your wings, do so twice—as you would a French fry—for maximum crispness: 20 minutes in oil that's about 250ºF, and then after removing and resting, again for 10 minutes in oil that's about 400ºF, or until brown.
4. Jar sauce? More like blender-jar sauce.
While some may say the humble chicken wing reaches peak deliciousness when doused in equal parts butter and hot sauce (triple points if you make the latter from scratch), Josh offers an enticing alternative: wing sauce that comes together in a blender. Charred onions and cherry tomatoes get blended up with even more spices and a wee bit of Frank's until thick and spoonable. It's way more exciting-tasting than bottled BBQ sauce, but not that much effort.
Josh's recipe, while solid as is, is certainly not the end-all-be-all sauce. Here are some ideas to get you riffing:
- For heat: Warm-colored hot peppers (cherry peppers, cayenne peppers, red jalapeños, habanero peppers, etc.); dried chiles, reconstituted in warm water
- For freshness: Citrus (blood orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime, etc.) juice or zest
- For heft: Red or yellow bell peppers; tomatoes; carrots
- For richness: Garlic; shallots; onion
- For sweetness: Honey; molasses; brown sugar
- For pizzaz: Ginger; horseradish root; lemongrass; fresh turmeric; smoked paprika
Whiz your concoction in the blender with enough vinegar to make it smooth—something mild, like rice vinegar, will let the vegetable flavors shine, but something punchier (apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar) would impart much more tang.
Whether you choose to serve sauce alongside the wings, or toss and coat them, don't forget carrot and celery sticks—which as I'm sure you know are there not just for balance but, dunked in a creamy sauce, provide a nice cooling counterpoint. Do consider adding other crisp vegetables and fruits to the mix: jicama, peeled broccoli stems, green pepper slices, apples, and even pears.
This article originally appeared on February 1, 2016. We're rerunning it now with new information in honor of playoff season (and because wings are a surefire touchdown).
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