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What Makes a Great Wing

February 17, 2010

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.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    February 17, 2010 11:52 am

    I even used to live near Buffalo, but I’ve never understood the whole wings thing. Deep-fried wings with hot sauce, paired with bleu cheese and celery–these things do NOT go together! Shows you can sell anything with the right marketing and the right timing. It’s like ham and pineapple on pizza. No, for the love of God, no!

  2. Sarah M. permalink
    February 17, 2010 8:19 pm

    I’d really like to see a review (Yelp or otherwise) of the Bombers wings in their natural habitat. Perhaps that experience could be the olive branch (celery stalk?) extended from you to the Baumgartner empire. (NB, theirs are the best I’ve had in the Capital Region. I ate all 12 by myself. And then a burrito.)

  3. Jimbo permalink
    February 17, 2010 9:13 pm

    You heard it here first.
    SCUBBERS is coming back !!
    I can’t get into details but they’re going to open a new location this Spring. As the details are finalized I’ll post them here and with “Table Hopping”.

    I thought you would want to know.
    I can’t wait, I haven’t eaten a good wing since they closed their doors.

  4. Elyse permalink
    February 18, 2010 7:51 am

    Skin, fat AND cartilage. That’s my favorite part. Or maybe I’m just a caveman.

    Mr. Sunshine- hotsauce and bleu cheese go together like peanut butter and chocolate!

  5. llcwine permalink
    February 18, 2010 10:18 am

    I agree, skin fat and cartilage is where its at…which I think is another reason I like chicken feet. I usually buy them in one of the oriental markets for my soup stock, but then after I take them from the stock, douse with some hot sauce….not crispy like wings….but ohhhhhhh so yummy.

  6. Kate permalink
    February 18, 2010 11:05 am

    Due to trying to keep the fat content down, I’ve been doing my wings on the grill – they are not as great as when I fried them but they’re pretty delicious. The skin still gets nice and crispy and the meat stays juicy.

    AND I’M STOKED ABOUT SCUBBERS – they were always my friday night takeout – hopefully it will happen soon.

  7. kerosena permalink
    February 18, 2010 1:02 pm

    But of course they go together! The bleu cheese cools down the spiciness and the celery breaks up some of the fattiness. I dip veggies in Frank’s and BC even when I’m not having wings.

  8. February 18, 2010 3:51 pm

    Having lived in Buffalo through college I think I can safely make a few assertions about wings:

    1. They are not “Buffalo Wings” they are wings or chicken wings or hot wings. At no time should Buffalo come up — if you order it like that in Buffalo they will know you are from out of the area.

    2. Extra crispy. That is the way it is, none of this soggy stuff.

    3. Wings in this area come no were close to Buffalo’s wings. The only time they are remotely good is if a Buffalo native moved here and is making the wings (The Ruck in Troy being a prime example)

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