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Every year as football’s biggest game approaches, millions of people scrounge up a trusty Buffalo wings recipe, while millions of others know they don’t have time for such nonsense. Buffalo wings, best made in a sports bar in a never-cleaned fryer, are a royal hassle to perfectly replicate at home. And in a world with everything at our sauce-sticky fingertips, who can blame us for outsourcing? I scoured the frozen aisles for all the Buffalo-style wings and sampled more in one night than the Surgeon General recommends — oof. But after trying eight different frozen wings, a select few winners prevailed. Now I have a freezer full of leftovers to keep me company at the big game — and all winter long.
Your lead wing quality control expert has been writing about food for a decade, first at Vanity Fair and then at Bon Appétit, where I was the senior staff writer. However, possibly more importantly, I’ve been eating bar wings for a lifetime while the people I love stand around me to shout at big televisions. I was joined in this weekend’s worth of tastings by my bar food aficionado partner and my sister, a resident of Chicago and avid home cook. We’ve had our fair share of great wings, but have we had our share of mediocre frozen ones? There’s always time to grow.
I tried to follow the package instructions, but here’s the truth: Ovens are unpredictable. I was working with a 1996 Frigidaire that’s seen better days, and she takes a little longer to bake anything. The key to making the most of frozen wings is to trust your cooking judgment when deciding if they’re ready: Are they shiny, with some browning? Does the crust look crisp? Do you need to grab some tongs to give them a rotation? All of those are moments to make the wings better than simply going by the clock.
Remember that the package instructions are as minimal as possible to fit on the bag and not deter customers. Some general cooking tips I learned from my days working near a test kitchen: Make sure to really crank your oven to 400-425°F; consider baking wings on a rack inside a sheet tray for more air circulation to help the skin crisp up; and anticipate that it might take longer, even 45 minutes, for the previously fried crust to revive than the recommended cook time (depending on your oven).
After cooking and letting the wings rest for a few minutes to further crisp up, we ate them with our hands, duh, both with and without ranch. We assessed the chicken’s texture and juiciness (you’d be surprised how gelatinous and mushy they could be), the sauce’s depth and spice, and our general happiness. Science, folks.
The Nugget Contender: Frank's RedHot Buffalo Chicken Bites
There are a handful of Buffalo chicken “bite” options out there, which are just chicken nuggets with cayenne sprinkled in the coating, basically. I found the chicken juicy and tender in these from Frank’s, the iconic Buffalo hot sauce, but the coating was devastatingly dry. Here’s a genius idea they don’t put on the box: Buy or make Buffalo sauce (I have a thing for Primal Kitchen Dairy-Free Buffalo Sauce), heat the sauce while the bites bake, and then toss them in sauce before serving. Touchdown.
The Milder Crowd Pleaser: Tyson® Any'tizers® Hot Wings® Buffalo Style Bone-In Chicken Wings
Another well-engineered wing from an American mega-chicken manufacturer. These Tyson wings had a way milder glaze, and leaned more in the Buffalo flavor profile than Perdue’s. They were so juicy. Now, people have different spice tolerances, so I won’t say they’re completely mild, because there was a hint of heat. It kept us going back for wing after wing, leaving a boneyard all over the kitchen table.
The Mid-Spicy Winner: Good & Gather’s Buffalo-Style Chicken Wings
These wings are thick with sauce. The instructions recommend you cook on baking-spray-coated aluminum foil, but even then, my wings were sticking, so I’d swap that with parchment paper or the baking-rack-inside-sheet-tray trick. All that sticky sauce is a good thing because these make a pretty close approximation to messy bar wings. I found the chicken itself wasn’t as plump and intact as the top two choices, with some bites on the mushy side (perhaps from pre-saucing overload). But still, these are a solid option for feeding a crowd.
The Lip-Burning, Undisputed Winner: PERDUE® AIR FRYER READY™ Hot 'N Spicy Crispy Chicken Wings
I made these in a 425°F oven, not an air fryer, and they developed a nicely caramelized crust that glistened with oily sauce. No wings in this test were ever as truly saucy as fresh ones, since that’s a hard texture to freeze, but the Perdue wings were surprisingly shiny. They were also bulbous and huge. But these wings were the juiciest we tasted, with a good amount of meat on the bones. The “Hot ’N Spicy” sauce (ingredient list: “Spice”) was unrelentingly hot, while others we tested seemed to shy away from their identity and take a safer, milder route. Even after considerable dunking in Hidden Valley Ranch, my lips sizzled for a half hour after eating — so that’s success, people.
Photographer: Natassja Ebert
Food Styling: Mary Rupp
Art Direction: Sarah Ceniceros Gomez