Spread your wings and fry

On a recent afternoon, I found myself at A Large Chain Restaurant at lunchtime. Having experienced a couple of less-than-satisfactory meals at other locations in other cities in years past, I have made it a point to avoid eating there. I find it pricey and lacking in quality.

But I was hungry, it was a family-centric event, everyone was ordering food and my girlfriend offered to buy my lunch, so I ordered grilled wings.

Harmless, right?

Well, it’s possible even to mess up chicken wings, believe it or not. Now, I’m not here to bash A Large Chain Restaurant — they go for corporate consistency, and my guess is they achieve that. The presentations of all the meals delivered to our table were well done, and the service we received went above and beyond in terms of making sure our party was taken care of.

But the wings were not good — while the sauce they were coated with was quite tasty (I even took some home), the wings themselves, while big and meaty, were rubbery and weirdly dense. I noticed broken bones in a couple of the wing pieces. There were black patches in the bones.

Yep, those were the signs of frozen wings, no doubt bought in bulk. But the truth is, most wings get frozen at some point — so says John Skelton, co-owner and chef at Hilltop Tavern, a place that knows its way around a chicken wing.

“By the time it leaves Old McDonald and gets to the restaurant, the odds are pretty high that it was frozen, honestly,” he said.

He said on those occasions when he gets wings that are frozen, they are carefully thawed before being smoked and then fried for serving. But it’s possible not all restaurants operate that way. So how do you head off a bad wing experience at the pass?

I’ve always been one of those people who could innately say, “That’s a good chicken wing” or “That’s a bad chicken wing.” But not being a chef, I was never quite certain what exactly separated the two. A chicken is a chicken, right?


A little online research gave me a couple of insights including the reason for those black-looking bones and also possibly broken bones in the wings, although Skelton said the breaks also could just be part of sloppy handling.

The vaunted Wingmaster.com says freezing can break bones, too, though, and the black is if the wings are exposed to water when frozen.

One article I read said chicken retains water in the freezing process and if not prepared properly, the heat from cooking essentially steams the wing instead of frying it in the hot oil. The result is rubbery chicken that even Steve Martin wouldn’t find funny.

Skelton suggests keeping expectations in check, for one. If you’re ordering wings from a national pizza chain, you might not be getting the freshest, most carefully prepared product. Sometimes a cheap wing is all you need, though, and that’s just how it goes. But in general, the more wings a restaurant is going through at any given time raises the odds that wings won’t be thawed or prepared properly, and that can lead to a bad wing experience.

In addition, when a distributor comes to him and offers a deal on chicken wings, he knows these are wings that are probably on the verge of not being good (or simply are low quality) and he can say, “No thanks.” A chain restaurant manager might not have that choice.

Skelton also said one way to at least exert some control over the process might be to ask the restaurant to fry them a tad longer or bake them a tad longer. Whatever it takes, he said, “to make them pay a little more attention to your wings.”

But winging it locally is also a way to give yourself a better shot at the good versus bad wing experience, he said. He advised thinking of it as picking a barbecue restaurant.

“Usually, it should be small, no frills,” he said. “You should be able to know you’re in for a treat versus you’re in for a fight. I’d say the odds of getting a bad wing increases with the number of locations that restaurant has.”

Anyone else craving chicken?