CRISPY HOT WINGS: HEAT, TANG, AND CRUNCH
The restaurant business is driven by constant shifts in trends lending to a barely predictable supply and demand market. When dealing with perishable goods, chefs are constantly trying to find a way to unload surplus products, or create a long term demand for poorly perceived cuts that might otherwise build up in the freezers. As a result, these leftover products can sometimes find limelight on menus across the world, and even become the main focus of global restaurant chains.
The chicken wing is one such product, and it has become a mainstay in modern food culture. The wing was once a tough sell for restaurants, usually discarded into the stock pot with the backs and frames and other discarded bones. There isn’t a lot of meat on the wing, and what little is there is usually tough and riddled with connective tissues. Given all of these shortcomings, the demand for chicken wings has continued to grow, and the reasoning is simple: well prepared chicken wings are full of flavor.
Throughout my many years of professional cooking, I’ve employed several different cooking methods in search of the perfect chicken wing. The goal is to render a good amount of the fat under the skin so that the exterior can develop a crispy texture, while keeping the rest of the wing tender and juicy. Twice-cooked wings are the best route to successful wing cookery. Let’s break down the step-by-step process to achieving chicken wing nirvana.
1. Brine the wings.
Brining is essential to retaining moisture and ensuring the meat is flavorful throughout. Using a brine higher in acidity will help tenderize the meat, yielding optimal results. For wings, I like to use a brine rich with vinegary hot sauce, honey and herbs.
For every pound of chicken wings, use:
2 cups water
1/2 cup honey(alternatively use 1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar or 1/4 cup sorghum or pure maple syrup)
1/4 cup kosher salt
1 bunch fresh parsley
1 bunch thyme
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon each of whole black peppercorn, mustard seed, and coriander
2 cups of ice to finish
In a medium sauce pot, bring all ingredients except ice to a boil. Remove from heat before the brine has a chance to reduce. Pour the brine into a large bowl/container and add the ice. Stir until the ice melts and the brine is cooled down. Add the chicken wings and let them brine overnight. Remove the wings from the brine and let them air dry on a rack in the refrigerator for at least an hour before cooking.
2. Initial Cook
The purpose of the first cook is to render the fat and help breakdown the connective tissue in the wings. This will require a longer cook time than expected for such a small cut of meat. Baking is the easiest no-fuss method. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lay the wings out on a roasting rack side by side. Place the rack on a sheet pan and bake for 45 minutes. A good amount of fat will have rendered from the wings and they will be cooled through. It’s possible to eat the wings at this time, but they won’t have a crisp exterior.
2. Finishing Cook
The second cooking method is used to crisp up the skin and give the wings a bit more texture. The best method for this step is frying. Pour 2 inches of peanut or canola oil into a large pot and heat on medium heat until it reaches a temperature of 350 degrees. While waiting for the oil to reach the proper temperature, dredge the cooked wings in corn starch, just enough for a thin and even coating on each wing. The corn starch will give an added layer of crispness. Working in batches, fry the wings in the hot oil until they develop a deep golden brown color. Remove from oil and place on a paper towel lined sheet pan to absorb any extra grease.
3. Sauce the Wings
Most often wings are drenched in sauce or glaze. This step isn’t absolutely necessary, but it can take already delicious wings to the next level. In a small skillet or sauce pan, heat 2 cups of your favorite hot sauce to a simmer. Cube a stick of butter and little by little, add the butter cubes to the simmering sauce until incorporated. Add a little sugar or honey to balance out the heat and tang of the hot sauce and toss the wings and sauce together in a large mixing bowl. Serve immediately.