January 08, 2005
Best Chicken Wings EVER
posted by Nadia

This is not like those pizza places that advertise "Best Pizza in Philly." This is for real. Carl and I made The Best Chicken Wings Ever. EVER. In our very own home, no less.

Dedicated readers, of course, are probably itching to remind me of my prior conviction that deep-frying is one of those activities better left to professionals, and they are right to do so. I stand corrected. From now on, my official position is that it IS possible for amateurs to make excellent fried food -- they just need to have the right tools.

The secret to our recent success is a deep-fat fryer -- a Christmas gift from my aunt, whose son has a deep-fat fryer of which I had been, until now, insanely jealous. Before our household included a deep-fat fryer, Carl and I occasionally made french fries, fried calamari, jalapeno poppers, and chicken wings via the good old "lots of oil in a big Le Creuset" method. The outcome was mostly delicious, quite often greasy, and always a huge freaking mess. For me, at least, making fried food in a pot of hot oil on the stove always involves a degree of frustration and hurry bordering on desperation. Plopping in battered items quickly so your hand doesn't get scorched, making sure the oil gets back up to temperature once you drop the cold food in, reaching across the kitchen for the splatter screen so droplets of oil don't get all over the stove (why bother? they always do!), getting the brown paper bags ready for draining, the desparate skimming of loose particles from the oil to keep it from burning, opening all the windows when the room starts smelling like grease ... you get the picture. The deep-fryer, magically, solves most of these problems.

First, it's electric, controlled by a thermostat, which means that the temperature of the oil is self-regulating. Once you drop cold food in, the heating element will kick in to get the oil back up to temp, with no effort expended on your part.

Second, it has a cover. The instruction manual suggests that you fry with the cover on, which initially weirded me out but is actually the right way to go. The cover keeps your kitchen walls from getting splattered, and has an exhaust filter which releases steam without flooding your kitchen with that greasy smell. An added bonus is that if the fryer is on the countertop underneath a dirty cabinet, the released steam makes it super-easy to clean the cabinet while you cook. Just like those as-seen-on-TV steam cleaners!

Third, there's a basket. It's so simple, but I'm convinced that this makes the biggest difference of all, particularly in terms of keeping your oil clean. Rather than quickly dropping your food items (especially the battered ones) in the hot oil willy-nilly, jumping your hand back so it doesnt get splattered with oil, you can place your food into the basket and then lower the whole thing calmly into the fryer. This avoids the whole burned-fingers issue, simplifies removal (since everything goes in at the same time, everything comes out at the same time, too), and gives your battered foods an opportunity to drip off any extra batter BEFORE they go in the oil, thus keeping your oil free of stray particles and making it easier to reuse.

The outcome of all this, as Ive already indicated, was utterly and truly delicious. With apologies in advance to all you non-meat-eaters, I must describe this in greater detail. The skin of these chicken wings was shatteringly crisp (a term Id often heard used by food writers, but which Id never fully experienced until now), rather than simply crispy or crunchy or, as is often the case, downright flaccid. The meat, likewise, was cooked to absolute perfection. Again, food writers often describe meat as juicy, but this was the real deal. The chicken was juicy in the truest sense of the word - meaning that there were actual juices trapped under the shatteringly-crisp skin, moistening the meat and releasing as steam when you bit into it.

And finally - dare I even speak of this? - there was the fat.

Yes, we all know chicken wings are the fattiest cut of chicken you can eat, and yes, its very bad for you and so on and so forth. This is one reason why people avoid eating fatty foods. The other, and in my opinion, more prevalent reason, is because nobody likes biting into a mouthful of rubbery fat. Its just gross, even if youre a dedicated meat-eater. However (and this is a big However), there is some fat that is truly brilliant. When you cook a ribeye steak perfectly, such that the meat is still pink, but the fat is warm and melty and crusted with pepper? That is brilliant. The fat under the skin of a perfectly-cooked duck breast? Brilliant. Likewise with these chicken wings, which offered, for a far lower price, the same exciting contrast between crisp skin, juicy meat, and meltingly tender fat.

If there's one "healthy" aspect to this luxury, it's the fact that the food we've cooked in the new fryer comes out with nary a drop of excess oil, probably thanks to the temperature regulation. When we filtered the oil we used to fry these chicken wings, some sweet potato fries, and some french fries (not all on the same night, of course), we were left with nearly as much oil as when we started. They do say, after all, that foods which are impeccably fried actually absorb less oil than those which are poorly sauteed. And given how rare it is to find a true sauté in this day and age ("sauté" comes from the French, meaning "jump in the pan"), I'm glad to have these newfound frying credentials.