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When Flavor Takes Flight: Chicken Wing Trends

Break out the extra napkins: Sassy, smokin’ and sticky, the chicken wing migrates far beyond Buffalo.

In the category of uniquely American flavors, one trifecta is instantly recognizable: Buffalo chicken wings, celery sticks and blue cheese. The classic combo was born in 1964, when busy mom and restaurateur Teressa Bellissimo cooked up some leftover wings in hot sauce for her son and his friends. The kids inhaled them so fast, Bellissimo, knowing she was onto something, added Buffalo wings to her menu at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, N.Y.

In the decades since, chicken wings have remained a favorite shareable snack. While Buffalo sauce will always have a place in the wing world (it’s still No. 1, according to Super Bowl-centric research, more on that later), chefs’ ideas—in terms of both flavor and technique—for global wings have lately been taking flight and reaching new heights in cool techniques, wild flavors and popularity.

Succulent and Sustainable

Mike Thibault, executive chef with Guckenheimer at athenahealth’s Nourish café in Watertown, Mass., has created a chicken wing technique that kills two sustainability birds with one stone: It results in an amazing wing and also reduces food waste.

“When we first tasted them, we were like, ‘This isn’t like any wing we’ve had before,’ ” he says, recalling the wing-ideation session he held with his kitchen crew.

Thibault, who recently received a prestigious Distinguished Visiting Chef invitation from his alma mater, Johnson & Wales, has merged the methods of sous vide and confit into one winning way with wings.

First, Thibault cures the wings with raw cane sugar, kosher salt, black pepper, fresh rosemary, thyme and garlic for three to four hours. The wings are then vacuum sealed in plastic bags along with rendered bacon fat (which is a byproduct of the breakfast station and deli every day).

In their sealed pillow of porky goodness, the wings are circulated in a water bath at 75°C for three hours (the sous vide process).

At this point, the wings are ridiculously tender, succulent and infused with not just the aromatics from curing, but also with bacon’s smoky allure. After being cooled and removed from the bags, the wings are tossed in cornstarch and shallow-fried in bacon fat.

“This dish speaks very highly to our entire food philosophy of minimizing waste and maximizing our product’s utility,” Thibault says. “We typically offer wings after butchering large quantities of whole birds and it provides us with a vessel for utilizing our reserved bacon fat. And it reduces spending because we’re not using vegetable oil.”

After getting crisp and sizzling, it’s onto the sauces: Buffalo, barbecue, harissa, hoisin, pesto, ponzu (soy sauce’s citrusy cousin) and more, all leading directly to chicken wing flavor heaven.

A flavor bomb of a sauce is the true finishing touch that all great chicken wings have in common. While a dry wing may be neater, the idea of wings is informality, so the saucier the better, most people agree.

At Duke, chicken wings get tossed in a sauce that lets South America’s signature flavor take center stage.

The Sauce: Flights of Flavor

Aji amarillo, a Peruvian chili, has been described as tasting like sunshine. The yellow chili is medium-hot to hot with fruity notes, and it’s not as sharp as a poblano. At Duke University in Durham, N.C., chicken wings are charred on a grill and then tossed with aji amarillo-mango sauce (get the recipe at food-management.com/recipes). The addition of mango to the sauce tames the heat, making for a sweet-hot snack with a world-traveler vibe.

Wings travel to the Far East at the USAA Financial Center in San Antonio. Chicken wings are part of the Bento concept there, as a popular side dish.

“We brine the wings in soy sauce for 24 hours, take them out and then fry them,” says Shane O’Connor, executive chef, culinary innovation at USAA. “So it’s sort of a blackened wing, and then we coat it in housemade teriyaki sauce with scallions.”

Wings are served every week at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and according to Timothy Gee, CEC, executive chef, “by far our best flavor is chimichurri…it sells out faster than any other flavor we offer.”

At USAA Financial Headquarters in San Antonio, the Bento concept is serving up wings that have been brined in soy sauce.

Argentinian in origin, chimichurri is a raw-herb sauce similar to basil pesto in texture, but the flavors are unique: parsley, red wine vinegar, garlic, red pepper flakes and oil.

The Nashville hot chicken flavor, which started gaining in popularity a few years ago, is currently the most popular wing sauce choice at Bedrock Management’s Eurest-run corporate cafés (Qzine and Café Marketplace) in Detroit. Lots of other wing flavors pair with different Eurest concepts. Asian spice, Korean, sweet chili and sweet ‘n sour wings work great at the Revolution Noodle and Bimimbap stations. Latin-themed stations and the Mexican salad bar often feature wing flavors like habanero, chipotle, mole or salsa.

Wings at Qzine are served near the salad bar, and it’s not uncommon to see customers topping wings with sunflower seeds, peanut crumbles, feta, sesame seeds, dressings and chili flakes. At a March Madness wing bracket event, garlic Parmesan wings was the overwhelming guest preference.

Meanwhile, wings at the University of Kansas seem to do best with American barbecue sauce: a classic ketchup-based barbecue sauce with chili powder, yellow mustard, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, vinegar and onions.

Buffalo 4 Ever

Even with the big world of international (and American regional) sauce flavors out there and waiting to transform wings, good old Buffalo sauce should never be overlooked, since in so many consumers’ minds, it’s synonymous with chicken wings themselves. A survey of 1,000 consumers by Offers.com featured in a blog on Favorite Super Bowl Foods ranked U.S. consumers’ favorite wing sauces (see chart below).

Traditional Buffalo wings are the “UVA crowd favorite” for Wing Wednesdays at Newcomb Hall at the University of Virginia, according to the culinary team there. The students like the wings so much, they maintain an Instagram account for the spicy snack.

And at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., the all-time favorite chicken wing sauce is a tie between Bulldog hot sauce (that tried-and-true combo of hot sauce and butter) and Sriracha-butter sauce.

Being accurate with the authentic Buffalo style, the dining team at Purdue University serves Buffalo wings with the classic accompaniments of blue cheese and celery sticks, which serve as a perfect crisp, cool counterpoint the wings’ hot and spicy glory.

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