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Don’t wing it: Here’s the best way to make chicken wings, according to science

Why it matters to you

Chances are good you'll be making chicken wings this weekend, and getting a little science know-how can only make them taste better.

Whether you’re hosting a Super Bowl party, a board game night, or simply want a bite for movie night, chicken wings are one of the great snack foods. There are lots of methods and endless recipes, but if you want to really make the ultimate, crispy wings, taking some science into account might help.

Spend some time around a chicken coop, and you’ll notice they’re not big on the flying. They can, but that limited wing use means their breasts and wings have lower levels of myoglobin compared to their thighs and legs. That myoglobin — a protein that helps deliver oxygen to muscles that are used for endurance — is what makes dark meat appear dark. Dark meat’s increased amount of fat and connective tissue means it needs more cooking time and higher heat. Breasts and wings — which are both white meat, according to the College of Agriculture at the University of Kentucky — should be treated a little differently when you’re cooking it.

The skin-ny

In Cook’s Science from Cook’s Illustrated, America’s Test Kitchen does a thorough look at what makes wings unique. They have a different ratio of meat to skin and bone than any other cut of meat on the bird, including the amount of collagen in the skin. “The amount — and nature — of this collagen greatly affects how chicken wings cook,” according to the book. At 135 degrees Fahrenheit, the collagen starts to turn gooey, keeping the meat juicy.

The perfect chicken wing, says the Test Kitchen team, has crispy skin and juicy insides: “When cooking them on their own — grilling, frying, or roasting — it’s important to dehydrate the skin and render the fat so that the skin can become crispy, not soggy.” Brining will make them moist but also add too much moisture to the skin. Salting is better, according to Cook’s. Some other tips include skipping the sauce coating and using a cornstarch-and-skim milk mix: The cornstarch “crisped up faster than bare skin” and the milk’s “protein and lactose quickly undergo the Maillard reaction, producing deep browning in record time.” The recipe also calls for letting the chicken air-dry in the fridge for up to 24 hours before cooking, to help the batter stick to the wings.

Double fry

That’s not the only way to do it, though. After a lot of experimenting, J. Kenji López-Alt, over at Serious Eats, decided double-frying his wings was the way to go. Either on the stovetop or in the oven, you cook the chicken in oil but don’t brown it. You can freeze the chicken until game day, then toss it in 400-degree oil until golden brown and crispy. López-Alt admits it’s extra work, but you can do the first fry the day before.

You can find his recipe over at Serious Eats, while the Cook’s recipe is below.

Crispy Fried Chicken Wings

Serves 6 to 8

After step 1, the wings can be frozen for up to one month; thaw at room temperature for 30 minutes before proceeding. Use a Dutch oven that holds 6 quarts or more for this recipe.

  1. Toss wings with 2 teaspoons salt and spread into even layer on wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet. Refrigerate wings, uncovered, for at least 8 hours or up to 24 hours.
  2. Add oil to large Dutch oven until it measures about 1 ½ inches deep and heat over medium-high heat to 375 degrees. In large bowl, whisk together cornstarch and baking powder; whisk in milk until smooth. Working with up to 8 wings at a time, dip wings into batter and carefully add to oil. Fry wings, adjusting burner as necessary to maintain oil temperature between 325 and 330 degrees, stirring occasionally until wings turn deep brown and crispy, 7 to 10 minutes. Drain wings on paper towel-lined plate, transfer to serving platter, and serve immediately with dip. Return oil to 375 degrees and repeat with remaining wings in batches of up to 8.

For the buffalo dip, Cook’s recommends using 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter, ½ cup hot sauce, 2 tablespoons Tabasco sauce, 2 teaspoons of cider vinegar, and 1 teaspoon cornstarch. Melt the butter over low heat, whisk the remaining ingredients together in small bowl, then whisk the mixture into the butter and bring it to a rapid simmer.