Building a better wing.

From R., 28 January 2010, Bland chicken wings: can we spice them up?

Q: I had a potluck dinner to go to and I wanted to bring something hearty-ish that could be served at room temperature. I opted to try out Gourmet’s (RIP) Balsamic Soy-Glazed Chicken Wings, following several reviewers’ advice to use brown sugar instead of white and add garlic. I figured they’d be tangy, but not too spicy for the toddler set.

Well, I LOVED the cooking technique (albeit a smoky one!). It produced very crunchy skinned, non-flabby little wings/drummies that kept their texture throughout the dinner party. BUT, they were so really bland — not the crowd-pleaser I hoped for. (They were eaten, but not greedily gobbled up. YKWIM?)

So, if you were going to roast lil’ chickunz at super high temps for a party, what kind of glaze/marinade would you use? Is it worth jazzing this one up? Or just go in a total different direction?

A: Thanks for your question. I love chicken wings, which cook on the bone and contain enough fat to taste genuinely chickeny. I applaud your desire to try a wing recipe that departs from the traditional buffalo wing – although I love that spicy, buttery taste, the wing adapts well to many seasonings.

I read the recipe and it seemed likely to be bland because the sauce is really one-note. This is my opportunity to rail against “balsamic vinegar.” True balsamic vinegar – aceto balsamico tradizionale – comes from Modena and Reggio Emilia, and is a reduction of Trebbiano grape must (mosto cotto), aged in successive wood barrels of chestnut, acacia, cherry, oak, mulberry, and/or ash, to yield its concentrated, distinctive, tangy-sweet-caramel-fruit taste. It emerges after at least twelve years of aging, thick and syrupy, without need for reduction. It’s expensive – often exceeding $100 for a small bottle of less than 100 ml – but is worth every drop.

The “balsamic vinegar” you buy in stores, by contrast, is generally red wine vinegar reduced slightly with caramel color and some added sugar, maybe a little molasses. Rather than a smooth, long-aged reduction of grape must, it is a highly acidic product with added sweetness.

If you reduced this “balsamic vinegar” down with soy and brown sugar, all you’re getting is a brown sugar note, a salt note, and the end of a sour vinegar note that largely cooks off during the sauce reduction phase. You need more. Even if you’re concerned about adding too much heat, you need some aromatics and spice.

Next time, I would change it up. I love the taste of five spice with soy – rice wine vinegar lends acidity without being cloying.

Sticky glazed five spice wings

At least two hours before cooking, combine:

2-3 shallots (an onion is ok if you don’t have shallot), minced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
teaspoon of cracked black peppercorn
1 tbsp five spice powder
2 tbsp brown sugar (I use palm sugar but you may find it hard to use)
1/4 c rice wine vinegar (red wine vinegar is ok)
1 c soy sauce
1/2 c water

And of course you’ve got 4 lbs of wings, divided into segments.

Skip the oils in the recipe entirely. You don’t need them and the marinade will stick better to the wings if you don’t include oil.

Bring the whole thing to a simmer for 10 minutes. Strain into a clean container. Pour over the chicken wings and marinate, refrigerated and covered, at least 2 hours but as long as overnight. Then pull the wings from the marinade, shake off the excess, and grill or roast for about 35 minutes.

Meanwhile, strain the marinade again and bring to a boil. Boil for at least 7 minutes and then turn the heat down, reducing the marinade until it is thick and syrupy. Brush or dip the roasted wings in this glaze.

If you dislike the taste of five spice, you can leave it out, but substitute something like 2 tsp chile-garlic sauce, or for a non-Asian taste, 2 tbsp Dijon mustard and 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce. Enjoy those wings!

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