The absolute best way to make buffalo wings, according to so many tests

Who will win the crispiest of them all?

By Ella Quittner

Published February 12, 2022 1:30PM (EST)

Prop stylist: Alya Hameedi. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. (Rocky Luten / Food52)
Prop stylist: Alya Hameedi. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. (Rocky Luten / Food52)

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The world's largest chicken wing hangs from a hook outside of a Hooters in Madeira Beach, Fla. According to a blog post published by national chain restaurant Wings & Rings, the wing weighs half a ton and hangs from a 14-foot-tall crossbeam, over three buckets of hot sauce.

It is a replica of a drumette made from plastic, and when I called the establishment to inquire about why, the woman who answered the phone said simply, "It's just a gimmick, a joke."

I suppose I'd been hoping for more. The colossal drumette caught my eye because it captures something about the humble wing I've always felt quite deeply — that while it may be the smallest unit of a chicken carcass, it has the biggest range.

Wings can be enjoyed in endless permutations. There is of course the Buffalo wing. But there are also battered and deep-fried wings, like the ones served at New York City's Bar Goto, which come with a crunchy coating, brushed with a miso glaze. There are barbecued wings, like the standout specimens at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. There are wings stewed or braised in all sorts of savory elixirs. There are wings low-cooked in a different animal's fat.

Wings have so much to offer. Their skin-to-meat ratio is unbeatable. A single one is a perfect handheld two-bite snack. The bones from several dozen consumed in haste make for an excellent stock. And they are a sort of hybrid between white and dark meat, which feels like a win for anyone who claims to have a preference.

So, yeah. I guess when I called the Hooters in Florida to ask why they had a half-ton drumette hanging in front of their entrance, I hoped the woman who answered the phone would say all that.

Controls

I used the same size of wings for each trial, and tested both flats (aka wingettes) and drumettes for every method. All were chicken, and none were made of plastic or "a gimmick" or "a joke." I adapted techniques from a variety of sources (linked below), but to make the flavor profiles consistent, I tossed all wings with the sauce from Minimalist Buffalo Chicken Wings: a blend of butter, relatively mild hot sauce (I used Louisiana Hot Sauce and it was fantastic), sherry vinegar, and garlic.

Methods and Findings

Baked

Adapted from Bon Appétit.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds chicken wings, tips removed, drumettes and flats separated 
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for sauce as needed 
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for sauce as needed 
  • 1/3 cup hot sauce 
  • 1/4 cup melted unsalted butter 
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or white vinegar 
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic 

 

Directions

  1. Pat dry the wings with clean kitchen towels. Heat the oven to 400°F.
  2. Set 2 wire racks inside 2 large rimmed baking sheets if you have them — if not, just grab 2 large rimmed baking sheets. (The racks will increase crispiness.)
  3. Toss the wings, oil, salt, and pepper in a large bowl to coat. Divide the wings between the prepared racks and spread out in a single layer. Bake until cooked through and the skin is golden and crispy, 40 to 50 minutes.
  4. In a large bowl, combine the hot sauce, melted butter, vinegar, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste (you won't need much). Toss the wings in the prepared sauce.

 

The high point of the Baked wings was juicy meat right after they were removed from the oven. The wings shrunk less than some of the other especially crispy batches, and that retained moisture was definitely perceptible. They did however dry out relatively quickly, probably 20 minutes after they came out of the oven. And while they were somewhat crispy, with an even, golden exterior, they weren't quite as browned as the Air Fried or Deep-Fried or Broiled batches. The sauce coated them beautifully, like a velvet blanket over a strip of velvet.

Broiled

Adapted from Food52.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds chicken wings, tips removed, drumettes and flats separated 
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for sauce as needed 
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for sauce as needed 
  • 1/3 cup hot sauce 
  • 1/4 cup melted unsalted butter 
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or white vinegar 
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic 

 

Directions

  1. Pat dry the wings dry with clean kitchen towels. Toss the wings with oil to keep them from sticking. Add the salt and pepper and toss again. Spread them on a sheet pan, leaving at least an inch of space between each wing.
  2. Heat the broiler with a rack 4 to 6 inches from the flame. Broil until the wings are evenly browned and crisp, flipping them midway through. This should take 20 to 25 minutes total, but will depend on the strength of your broiler, so peek often!
  3. While the wings cook, in a large bowl, combine the hot sauce, butter, vinegar, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste (you won't need much).
  4. When the wings are browned and crisp, add them to the bowl with the sauce and toss to coat. Return the wings to the pan, leaving the excess sauce in the bowl, and broil for a few minutes until sizzling and nicely browned on both sides, flipping once.

 

While the Broiled wings did get quite crispy in some spots — and more quickly than with the Bakedor Air Fried techniques — it should be noted that the method caused my kitchen to become incredibly smoky. Even after I battened down the hatches (put on my glasses, opened all the windows, shut the door to my bedroom), my eyes watered so profusely when I briefly waded into the kitchen to flip them that afterward, I continued sobbing because the hard part (starting) had already been done for me.

Anyway!!! The wings were OK. The spots that browned on the skin were extremely crispy, but the browning was erratic. The meat of the wings was pretty juicy, maybe a touch more succulent than the Baked batch and a touch less succulent than the Deep-Fried batch. Throwing the sauce back under the broiler did make for a delicious, caramelized coating, and I would definitely turn to this method again if I were in a rush, because it was the least fussy.

Deep-Fried

Adapted from Food52.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup Wondra flour (or 1 cup all-purpose flour plus 1 tablespoon cornstarch) 
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt 
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 
  • 2 pounds chicken wings, tips removed, drumettes and flats separated 
  • Neutral oil, as needed for frying 
  • 1/3 cup hot sauce 
  • 1/4 cup melted butter 
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or white vinegar 
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic 

 

Directions

  1. In a large bowl, whisk Wondra flour, salt, and pepper to combine. Dredge the chicken wings in the flour mixture.
  2. Pat dry the wings dry with clean kitchen towels. Heat roughly 5 inches of oil in a deep Dutch oven or deep-fryer until it registers about 350°F on an instant-read thermometer. (Or do the wooden spoon trick: Stick the handle into the oil, and if little bubbles immediately form around it, you're good to go.)
  3. Fry the chicken wings, in batches if necessary, about 6 minutes each, until just cooked through. Remove to a wire rack to drain and cool. Then, re-fry the wings until crispy and golden brown, about another 5 or so minutes. Drain again.
  4. In a large bowl, combine the hot sauce, butter, vinegar, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste (you won't need much). Dredge or brush on, or toss the wings in the sauce to serve.

 

These Deep-Fried wings were wan and anemic-looking after the first fry, so I was pleased when they turned fairly golden after their second dip into the oil. They were delicious even before they were sauced, thanks to their seasoned coating — though, if I weren't conducting head-to-head tests, I would have definitely added extra spice and flavor to the flour dredge. I was a little disappointed by the resulting crust, and think experimenting with a dry-wet situation or a batter might make sense next time, because for all the work of deep-frying, the flour dredge didn't produce all that much more substantial a crisp-layer than the air fryer or oven or broiler. The meat was fairly tender, though I think I overcooked them in an effort to achieve a golden exterior, which again could be mitigated by a thicker batter providing more insulation.

Grilled

Adapted from Food52.

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup hot sauce 
  • 1/4 cup melted butter 
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or white vinegar 
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic 
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for sauce as needed 
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for sauce as needed 
  • 2 pounds chicken wings, tips removed, drumettes and flats separated 
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 

 

Directions

  1. Prepare a charcoal grill with a medium-high fire. While the grill heats, in a large bowl, combine the hot sauce, melted butter, vinegar, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste (you won't need much).
  2. Pat dry the wings with clean kitchen towels. Toss the wings with oil to keep them from sticking. Add the salt and pepper and toss again.
  3. Grill the wings over direct heat, flipping and rotating as needed for even cooking, until nicely charred on all sides, 5 to 7 minutes. Move the chicken pieces to indirect heat, close the grill, and continue to cook, turning often (and closing the grill lid in between), until cooked through, 20 to 25 minutes.
  4. Place the hot wings in the bowl with the sauce and toss vigorously until well coated, then serve immediately.

 

The thing about any Grilled trial in an Absolute Best Test is that it always spawns the same observation: There's no way to otherwise replicate that charred flavor in a natural, delicious way.* The same was true for these chicken wings. Other than that, their meat was a pinch drier than some of the other methods, and their skin got crispy in spots but began to blacken in others before it could become consistently golden. The charred flavor complemented the sauce especially well.

*Do NOT try me today in the comments section about liquid smoke.

Air-Fried

Adapted from Food52.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds chicken wings, tips removed, drumettes and flats separated 
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for sauce as needed 
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for sauce as needed 
  • 1/3 cup relatively mild hot sauce 
  • 1/4 cup melted butter 
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or white vinegar 
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic 

 

Directions

  1. Turn the air fryer to its highest temperature (with the model I used, this was 400°F).
  2. Pat dry the wings with clean kitchen towels. Toss the wings with oil to keep them from sticking. Add the salt and pepper and toss again.
  3. Add the wings to the basket of your air fryer, tossing it once midway through to keep the wings from sticking. Cook for about 25 minutes, until golden brown and shatteringly crispy.
  4. While the wings cook, in a large bowl, combine the hot sauce, butter, vinegar, garlic, salt, and pepper to taste (you won't need much).
  5. Place the crispy wings in the bowl with the sauce and toss vigorously until well coated.

 

I have talked a lot of shit about air fryers in this column over the years, and I am thrilled to say that I spoke too soon. There is an excellent use for the air fryer, and it's chicken wings. Not only was the prep time the shortest of any method — my cheap air fryer, proffered in a rush from Amazon, took some two minutes — but the clean-up was de minimis, and the Air Fried wings were by far the crispest and the most consistently browned of any batch. Not that the meat suffered, either. While they appeared visually more shrunken than the Baked batch, they were only very slightly less juicy — like an indiscernible amount less juicy to a drunk person watching a football game. And the skin! It was so blistered and crispy, it was detached from the meat like an exoskeleton, and when I bit into it, flakes flew into the air.

Seared

Adapted from Better Homes & Gardens.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds chicken wings, tips removed, drumettes and flats separated 
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided, plus more as needed 
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for sauce as needed 
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for sauce as needed 
  • 1/3 cup hot sauce 
  • 1/4 cup melted butter 
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or white vinegar 
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic 

 

Directions

  1. Pat dry the wings with clean kitchen towels. Toss the wings with 1 tablespoon of oil to keep them from sticking. Add the salt and pepper and toss again.
  2. In a very large nonstick skillet, cast-iron skillet, or a wok, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil and cook over moderate heat until shimmering. Add the chicken wings and cook, turning once, until golden, about 8 minutes. Lower the heat to medium-low and continue to cook about another 8 to 10 minutes. If things get too dry, add another splash of oil.
  3. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the hot sauce, butter, vinegar, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste (you won't need much).
  4. When the wings are cooked through, place the hot wings in the bowl with the sauce and toss vigorously until well coated, then serve immediately.

 

Skip the sear, if you can help it. Caveat: I am sure if there was a sauce reducing in the pan while they were cooking, the results would've been delicious. But to simply flip wings in a hot oiled pan over and over until they're cooked through produces drier meat than other methods, because the lack of a consistent or immersive heat source (i.e., sans the surround sound of an oven, or pot of hot oil, or closed grill) means you're basically cooking them a little at a time, most similar to the Grilled batch (which was also on the drier side) but without the added char flavor.

Braised and Fried

Adapted from The New York Times.

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup rice vinegar 
  • 3/4 cup soy sauce 
  • 6 to 8 cloves garlic, crushed 
  • 3/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorns 
  • 2 pounds chicken wings, tips removed, drumettes and flats separated 
  • 1/4 cup neutral oil (such as vegetable) 
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for sauce as needed 
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for sauce as needed 
  • 1/3 cup hot sauce 
  • 1/4 cup melted butter 
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or white vinegar 
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic 

 

Directions

  1. In a large saucepan, combine the vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and peppercorns. Stir in 1 1/4 cups of water. Add the chicken wings and marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes.
  2. Cover the pan, place over high heat, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, until the wings are tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove the chicken from the braising liquid and set aside on a rack to drain and dry.
  3. In a large skillet, heat the oil, add the wings, and fry until golden brown.
  4. In a large bowl, combine the hot sauce, butter, vinegar, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste (you won't need much).
  5. Toss the wings in the sauce.

 

These wings were top-notch. The braising liquid imbued the meat with more flavor than any other method, and the stovetop fry after they were already cooked through, just to crisp the skin, worked wonders (and didn't dry the meat out as I'd feared after the Seared batch, because it had extra moisture from the braising liquid). The tangy, savory liquid was so delicious, I did literally sip it like a consommé while the wings were crisping, and then I used it as the base of a chicken stock once all my trials were done, with extraordinary results.

The absolute best way to cook chicken wings

  • For the most delicious wings, Braise then Fry
  • For the most efficient wings, Broil
  • For the crispiest and most consistently golden wings, Air Fry
  • For the juiciest wings, Deep-Fry (but consider battering first)
  • For the world's largest wing, go to the Hooters in Madeira Beach, Fla.

Ella Quittner

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