What Makes a Great Wing
I love Buffalo-style chicken wings. And they have been conspicuously absent from these pages. In fact, the first real post on the subject was just the week before last, where I discussed a judge’s perspective on the Albany Times Union’s Wing War.
But what was completely lacking in that post was any kind of background on what I consider to be a great wing.
There was a video. I do not know what happened to it. But at the Times Union judging a video camera recorded each of the judges describing their perfect wing. And frankly it was really interesting to hear the other responses, because while there were clearly some similarities across the board, there were also some major differences.
Likely your criteria for great wings will be different than mine, but maybe I can bring you over to my side of the fence.
For me it is all about the sauce.
I have chronicled a love for the classic version made from Frank’s Red Hot and butter. The day I discovered that it was Frank’s that gave traditional Buffalo sauce its signature flavor was huge. It opened up a door for making the sauce at home, and putting it on everything. Which ultimately may not have been a very good idea.
That is not to say great wings cannot diverge from the classic sauce. They most certainly can. But it is important that I let my prejudices be known. And other things being equal, I will prefer the traditional sauce every time.
But other things are rarely if ever equal, for there is the matter of the wing itself.
And here is where I really diverged from the other judges. Many of them wanted a big meaty wing. Seriously. I find this completely incomprehensible. Wings are small. They are not meaty. If you want a big meaty wing, you should get a drumstick (this, by the way, is part of the genius of Bon Chon). I shudder to think how a chicken might be raised to produce extra-large extra-meaty wings.
Chicken wings are about two things: skin* and fat.
Those who have the magic touch with the deep fryer can take these wings and do a miraculous thing. It is like a high-wire act that requires an amazing balance of time and temperature. These expert fry cooks are able to render out the fat beneath the skin while crisping and burnishing the wing’s exterior, but still maintaining its juicy, meaty core.
When great wings are served, the exterior skin should be crisp. The sauce should be well emulsified so that it is coating the wing, and not separated into a pool of fat on the bottom of the bowl. What little meat is buried beneath the skin and sauce should be juicy and tender, and provide the illusion that you are eating nutritious food. I suppose the meatiness does indeed provide a nice textural counterpoint to the crisp and the unctuous.
Vegetables and blue cheese matter too. Just not as much. They will neither make nor break a great wing place, but rather be the thing that edges a place up above a closely ranked competitor.
If you couldn’t tell, I take wings very seriously. And there are more posts on the subject coming.
* It should go without saying that when I am talking about Buffalo-style chicken wings that I am talking about unbreaded wings. Breaded wings can be tasty and delicious, but are really a whole different thing and not part of this conversation – and they certainly are not about skin.