Friday, March 23, 2012

The crunchiest, most delicious chicken wings ever

I'm always on the lookout for new ways to cook Chinese food, so when I heard that there was a Shandong style restaurant in San Francisco with the most amazing chicken wings ever, I had to check it out.

Called "dry-fried chicken wings," or ganpeng jichi, these were one of those dishes that look vaguely familiar, but a quick search through my cookbooks couldn't find anything with that name. They tasted like a riff on some Sichuan-style recipe, but where they came from, I have no idea.

Be that as it may, this sounded worthy of investigation, and I also wanted to try out an idea for super crunchy chicken, especially after being entranced by the mania for Popeye's fried chicken in Mission Street Food, a cookbook I cannot recommend highly enough. 

So let me step back and first talk about Mission Street Food and why I think it is so good. First, this book is all about generosity. The now defunct restaurant in San Francisco's Mission District used to donate a portion of its proceeds to the local food bank, and the place that is still operating in the original site does the same thing. So there's that, which is unusual, especially since restaurants are rarely huge money makers. 
Fried to a crunchy golden brown

Secondly, the authors are some of the most generous I've ever run across when it comes to sharing their considerable knowledge. They give the impression that you are being told everything they know, which is quite a bit. I cannot, for example, ever conceive of buying a rib eye steak again after seeing how a rib roast should really be broken down. Speaking as someone who loves cook, this book has proved life-altering. Buy it.

One of the things that the authors -- the husband and wife team of Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowtz -- talk about with particular ardor was chicken wings, particularly the middle section. Before I read that, I had always known that the middle section was my favorite piece, but I hadn't actually gotten to the point of verbalizing it. 

As they say, "The middle segment of a chicken wing has an ideal ratio and juxtaposition of skin to meat, and they are about as cheap as whole wings. You can cook the heck out the them, because the meat is close to the bone and the whole thing is protected by skin." Exactly. 
Mid sections dusted with cornstarch

They have some good suggestions for creating fried chicken that call for repeated freezing to break down the cell walls in the skin, but I wanted to try something that I'd heard of that seemed like the perfect solution: coating the wings in cornstarch and letting them dry out in the fridge on a rack. This was supposed to create a sort of shell that would fry up to perfection. So that's what I did.

The result? Oh yes!

Most crispy fried chicken has such a thick, rough batter coating that it scrapes up the roof of the mouth, which detracts considerably from any eating experience. This simple dusting of cornstarch and an uncovered rest in the fridge, though, gives just the exact amount of crunch necessary for a near Nirvana-like experience. There are no sharp edges to do any damage, yet the chicken becomes crispy enough to cause another sensory delight that I can't get enough of: sound. 

The final aspect of this dish that I wanted to work on was the sauce. To me, the sauce that the restaurant served on these wings was way too sweet, but then again, I am not a huge fan of anything super sweet, including dessert, so this might just be me. As we left the restaurant, a table of six young men was starting to attack the individual plates of wings set before them -- that is an entire order of wings per guy -- and from the moans I could tell that they thought the sauce was just right. So, adjust the sweetening as you like, as my version is at the slightly tart end of the spectrum.

To get the sauce just right, I made it in a saucepan while the wings were frying, and this is something you might do, too, the first time around in order to adjust the seasonings just the way you like them. After that, you can make the sauce right in the wok. This recipe can easily be doubled or tripled, too. 
Caramelized sauce

One thing to aim for when making the sauce -- and this is what really makes or breaks the flavor, as far as I'm concerned -- is the caramelization of the sugar. This takes a bit of attention, since the sugar can burn if not caught at the right time. So, as soon as the vinegar has boiled down and large bubbles start to form, watch the sauce carefully and swirl it around so that it caramelizes evenly. Once it has the consistency of maple syrup, you're done.

This is a true crowd pleaser and would be wonderful with beer while watching a ballgame or an old movie. Or, serve it for dinner. Just don't count on having any leftovers.

Dry-fried chicken wings 
Ganpeng jichi 乾烹雞翅  
Makes 6 wings and serves about 4 people or 1 teenage guy

6 whole chicken wings or 12 middle sections only, preferably organic and free range
¼ cup cornstarch
2 cups (or so) frying oil
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
½ inch fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
10 dried Thai chilies, or to taste, broken in half and the seeds discarded
¾ cup white rice vinegar
6 tablespoons white sugar, or to taste
1 teaspoon roasted Sichuan peppercorn salt, or to taste
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce

Lovely aromatics
1. Start this recipe at least 6 hours before you want to serve it. Rinse the chicken wings and lightly pat dry. If you are using whole wings, cut off the tips and use them for stock, and then cut the wings between the first and second joints so that you have 12 pieces. Place the wing pieces in a work bowl and sprinkle the cornstarch over them. Toss the bowl until each wing piece is thoroughly coated.

2. Place a cake rack on a large plate or small baking tray, and then arrange the wings on top of the tray so that they do not touch each other. Put the tray in the fridge uncovered so that the cool air slightly dries out the wings. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours and up to one day.

3. Pour the oil in a wok and heat over high until a wooden chopstick inserted in the oil is immediately covered with bubbles. Holding a spatter screen in one hand, use the other to carefully add half of the wing pieces to the hot oil. Cover with the screen to cut down on the possibility of burns and mess. As soon as one side of the wings are golden, turn them over, adjusting the heat as necessary, and remove the wings to a large work bowl as soon as they are nicely browned and cooked through (see Tips). Repeat with the other half of the wings.

4. Prepare the sauce either in the wok or a saucepan. Either drain off all but a tablespoon of oil from the wok, or pour a tablespoon of the oil into a small saucepan. Heat the oil over medium high and add the garlic, ginger, onions, and chilies. Toss them in the hot oil to release their fragrance, and then add the rest of the ingredients. Turn the heat to high and quickly boil down the sauce. Just before it turns syrupy and starts to caramelize, taste and adjust the seasoning. Once it is the consistency of maple syrup, remove from the heat. If you are using a wok, dump the wings into the sauce and quickly toss them to coat completely. If you are using a saucepan, pour the sauce onto the wings in the work bowl and toss to coat completely. Arrange the wings on a serving platter and eat while hot.


Chicken wings will generally take about 10 to 15 minutes to cook through, depending upon their size, the heat of the stove, the amount of oil, and how many are being fried at the same time.

The wings will be about done when they are a lovely golden brown all over. Check the ends, as blood will seep out if the core is not completely cooked. And when you let them rest in the work bowl, check them again before you toss them with the sauce; if you see blood, they are not fully cooked.

Adjust the sauce with whatever flavors please you. Smoked paprika could be used instead of, or in addition to, the chilies, for example. 


  1. Your website is wonderful!! thank you for sharing so many interesting food and book!

  2. These are amazing -- perfect recipe. My family craves them, now. So delicious! Best wings ever.

    1. Thank you!! (Sorry it took so long to respond. I've been having trouble with comment notification.)