Don’t be too chicken to add these ingredients to Buffalo wings

Graphic: Libby McGuire
FeaturesStories from The Takeout about food, drink, and how we live.  

BYFO stands for “Burn Your Face Off,” the aptly named hottest wing option at CJ’s Wings in Columbia, Missouri. That I worked at CJ’s during college as a dishwasher and eventual line cook was ironic as I’d never eating Buffalo sauce prior to the start of my employment. You see, growing up I was an extremely picky eater. It was bread, dairy products, and meat for me—nothing too saucy and nothing too spicy. But that all changed when I started working at CJ’s.

Now I’m an adventurous eater with a genuine love of varying cuisines. What sparked this insatiable curiosity to explore food? Admittedly, it was a culmination of a lot of things, but if there’s one dish that was at the center of it all, it has to be the BYFO wing.

The thing that separates the BYFO wing from any other hot wing is staring the customer right in the face: the big chunks of pickled jalapeños incorporated right into the sauce. I’m sure there’s another restaurant in the world that serves wings with chopped-up jalapeños, but I’ve yet to find it. Simple but innovative, it’s the type of alteration that elevates a standard bar food in such a straightforward way, it’s downright inspirational.

The BYFO wing inspired me six years ago, and it has inspired me once again. This time, I’m taking the standard Buffalo sauce equation—hot sauce plus melted butter—to the extreme. If bits of jalapeños work with Buffalo wing sauce, what other flavor combinations can be easily incorporated? Why don’t we add crazier ingredients to our wing sauces? What’s stopping us, America?

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The Method

To test this whole hot sauce plus butter plus additional ingredient formula, I needed a plan. First, I devised seven flavor combinations to test, plus an eighth: my take on the original CJ’s BYFO wing. For my base Buffalo sauce, I went with about one part Franks to ¾ part butter ratio, plus some vinegar, Worcestershire, paprika, cayenne, and a hint of mustard powder. “The type of wing that your dad thinks is too spicy,” was a tasting note I received from friends I’d invited over, which was exactly what I was going for. I needed the base to pack some spice but not enough to overpower every other ingredient that I’d be adding.

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A ladle full of Buffalo sauce plus whatever additional ingredients I was testing were then married with the wings in a mixing bowl before being served, devoured, and discussed. This method meant that none of the ingredients were given time to stew in the sauce on the stovetop, something that would have enhanced the flavors, but would have been too difficult to accomplish given the restraints of a small kitchen. (Frying 50 chicken wings is something that’s much easier to do when you’re in a professional kitchen with the largest industrial fryer in all of mid-Missouri, but I made do in my one-bedroom apartment.)

Fifty wings and a dozen or so beers later, and here’s how it went.

Caramelized onions

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I had low expectations for this combo. I was not only worried that the texture would be a sloppy mess, but that the whole sauce would be too rich and sweet. To my surprise, the general consensus was that this was a solid wing.

Caramelized onions in Buffalo sauce added a nice earthy element and slight crispiness that was unexpected. My worries were unfounded as the sweetness and richness of the caramelized onions were in no way overpowering, and these particular caramelized onions had the perfect amount of browning, not unpleasant or goopy.

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We noted that chopping the onions a bit smaller would have been preferable for a full coating. Not quite a fine dice, but smaller than the julienne slices that I’d caramelized. Either way, this wing passed the test and was enjoyed by all, even if the idea of adding caramelized onions to a Buffalo wing still sounds strange to me.

Blue cheese crumbles

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This flavor combination was too obvious to pass up. Dunking Buffalo wings in blue cheese dressing (or ranch if you’re a nonconformist) is a crucial part of the wing-eating experience, so why not lose the dressing entirely and cover the wings in blue cheese crumbles instead? Surprisingly, this was the least popular wing by far.

It didn’t help that the majority of my wing tasters strongly prefer ranch over blue cheese dressing for their wings, but I don’t think that was the biggest hang-up here. For one, the cooling factor was completely lost with the crumble, so the only thing the cheese provided was funk, but since the crumbles hardly adhered to the wing, that flavor was inconsistent. Eating this wing basically involved three bites: one big one full of funky cheese, then another two of a normal Buffalo wing.

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This round was both forgettable and disappointing due to a lack of cohesion, but it made us wonder if one could theoretically melt the blue cheese down and incorporate that flavor into the butter of the Buffalo sauce? We concluded that you likely could, but you could also just dip your wing in blue cheese dressing and save yourself the effort.

Maple syrup and bacon 

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Bacon has become a somewhat divisive ingredient, one that has found its way into every consumer good from toothpaste to soda pop, sometimes combined with the sweetness of maple flavoring. That being said, the reason maple syrup-plus-bacon is a popular flavor combination is because actual maple syrup and bacon taste good together.

All uncertainty went out the window when these wings were plated, sitting in front of us with a glistening sheen. A tasty wing, the heat and the richness of the Buffalo sauce were still present, but a nice sense of smokiness and sweetness joined the party. Texturally things worked well, as the maple syrup added a nice thickness to the sauce, helping to ensure complete coverage of bacon from bite to bite.

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The one issue was a slight imbalance in flavor, as the wing was ultimately a bit overpowered by the bacon’s smokiness. This proved too much for some. A bit more maple syrup would have lent the right amount of sweetness to balance everything out, but overall this was a successful wing. Maybe not something you’d want to eat a full order of by yourself, but if flavor equilibrium could be found, I would happily split a round of these with a friend.

Cilantro and lime juice

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“I could eat 12 of these,” was a nice quote to sum up this round. One of the most popular pairings of the night, these wings were reminiscent of a more traditional Mexican hot sauce than a Buffalo wing, drawing comparisons to a taco in wing form (in a good way) and to Valentina hot sauce.

The acid from the lime juice cut right through the salty richness of the rest of the wing, adding an invigorating zest. The cilantro was mostly lost, but a few more pinches of the freshly chopped herb would have only elevated this wing even further. A light and refreshing fried chicken wing seems paradoxical, but that’s what this pairing was. Only one person said that they wouldn’t order this regularly, despite enjoying the wing.

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Honey and pineapple

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This is an ugly wing with excellent flavor. I chopped fresh pineapple, heated it up in a saucepan with a few tablespoons of honey, then mixed the lot together in a mixing bowl like the rest of the wings. One look at the plating and it was evident that the hideous appearance of this dish would get me instantly thrown off MasterChef, but the taste was spot-on.

The appeal here was sweetness, and if that’s something you like in your wing sauces, you should give this a whirl. Spice and heat was unfortunately nowhere to be found (a problem a hotter base sauce could have solved) but the balance between salt and sugar was perfect. The big issue here were the chunks of pineapple, which despite being diced small, did not adhere to the wing. We agreed that a better version of this wing would use a pineapple puree for the sauce—which flies in the face of the simplicity of this experiment.

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So did this particular wing work or not? Technically speaking, not really. It was already one of the more involved preparations, and it still fell apart. But did we enjoy the flavor? Absolutely; it was one of the most popular of the evening. We joked that it was an order of pineapple pizza and Buffalo wings combined into one. Don’t knock it.

Grated ginger and green onion

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Here we moved from the sloppy but delicious mess of the pineapple and honey to the beauty-queen wing of the night. The difference between spice and heat was discussed thoroughly following this round, declaring this wing the spiciest but not the hottest overall.

Reminiscent of the acidic kick of the cilantro and lime wing, this combination also sported an earthy spice that paired well with the Buffalo sauce. The two flavors effectively melded together without either flavor stepping on the other’s toes. I was admittedly the least impressed taster of the party, as others ranked this among their absolute favorites of the evening.

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It wasn’t that I didn’t like this wing; I think it was actually one of the most successful final products of all the combinations we tried, with there being almost nothing needing adjustment. For me, the tang combination of this wing just wasn’t a taste I would typically seek out. However, given that everyone else strongly disagreed with me, I recommend grating some ginger into the sauce of the next Buffalo wings you make.

Pickles with pickle brine

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Well hello, salt! Having been brined in equal parts salt and sugar the night ahead to retain moisture, the wings didn’t need much more sodium beside what’s already found in a bottle of Frank’s. For this reason, a round of pickle and brine wings might have been better eaten earlier than three hours into our nonstop consumption of wings, but there was still plenty of enjoyment to be had here.

In fact, these wings led to my biggest surprise of this experiment: everyone seemed to like these quite a bit, only to rank them towards the bottom of their personal scores at the end of the night. This was in part because these wings seemed sort of unfinished. The bits of diced pickles didn’t carry enough of a flavor to make this taste like anything distinctly different from our base, and the brine only intensified the original flavors. Nothing about this was bad, but it just felt like a small, salty-sour alteration to Buffalo sauce, in turn making us long for a do-over but with a pickle of the garlic-and-herb variety.

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Our strong conclusion was that someone somewhere either does or should be using pickle brine in place of distilled white vinegar in their Buffalo sauce recipe. Get rid of the diced pickle, because that was a failure, but keep the brine and name the sauce the “PickleBack Buffalo Sauce,” then throw in a cut of the returns, and my friends and I will thank you.

Pickled jalapeños (The BYFO)

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There was a lot riding on this wing, mostly the knowledge that if I screwed it up I would have been forced to leave the name of the wing restaurant I once worked at out of this piece. Lucky for me, everyone loved this simple pairing of diced pickled jalapeños and Buffalo sauce. But really, what’s not to love?

Traditional and straightforward, but with a twist, these wings had nice heat, conventional flavor, and great texture. (People are always amazed at how well pickled jalapeños adhere to a Buffalo wing.)

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One friend commented that these weren’t quite a whole level of heat above what the base Buffalo sauce provided, despite these being the hottest wings of the evening. Although I was never told the secret recipe, I can easily discern that original BYFO wings pack a few more spices than just the addition of pickled jalapeños. Everyone has their secrets, I suppose.

Bonus Flavors

I made a few extra wings so we could whip up some off-the-cuff combinations at the end of the night, which led to a nice discussion about what pairings we were remiss not to have attempted.

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Peanut butter and Thai chili

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The first bonus flavor we attempted was whisking peanut butter and Thai chili sauce with the Buffalo sauce before tossing the wings. We were all predicting the whole thing to be too thick and gunky, but the peanut butter adjusted the texture in a pleasant and almost luxurious way.

Flavor-wise, this was a bit of a miss. I didn’t go overboard with the Thai chili sauce, so there wasn’t too much added spice, but it was certainly there. With the wing already so savory and sweet from the peanut butter, we immediately regretted not trying the obvious peanut butter and jelly combination instead, which led to a much larger conversation about fruits and jams that we could have incorporated into Buffalo sauce.

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Dijon mustard and mustard powder

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Again, with the luxurious mouthfeel! I’m a big fan of mustard, and there’s plenty of mustard-based Buffalo sauces in the world, but I figured why not triple down on that flavor? A bit predictably, this one worked.

We joked that mixing this with the pickles was about halfway to a hamburger, or combining it with the caramelized onions would have been a Maxwell Street Polish version of a hot wing. It was at this point that we realized our taste buds and creative perseverance had both run their course.

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So, what did we learn?

We all scored the pairings at the end of the night, which resulted in this power ranking:

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  1. Lime and cilantro
  2. Pickled jalapeños (The BYFO)
  3. Honey and pineapple
  4. Maple syrup and bacon
  5. Caramelized onions
  6. Grated ginger and green onion
  7. Pickles with pickle brine
  8. Blue cheese crumbles

I guess my biggest takeaway, outside of learning that plating four chicken wings on a full-size dinner plate looks absurd, is that Buffalo sauce can successfully take on sweetness in more ways than just the familiar addition of barbecue sauce. Smokiness is welcomed to an extent, while a hint of acidity from something fresh or citric goes a long way.

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This experiment proved that a wing can carry the texture of an added physical element and that the basis of Buffalo sauce leaves room for a lot of interpretation.

So now I challenge you to go out into the world and mess with your go-to wing recipe like we did. Let me know which combinations we should have tried, or if you must, yell at me for ruining the sanctity of Buffalo sauce.

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