Buffalo wings, like so many other American culinary landmarks, were born out of a cook's necessity seasoned with a healthy dose of desperation.
According to the most popular version of the story, the co-owner of the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, N.Y., Teressa Bellissimo, cooked up the first batch of wings to feed some hungry late-night visitors brought along by her son.
If you're a wing purist and want to get back to the "original" wing, fry up your own chicken wings and toss them in a mixture of Frank's Red Hot Sauce and butter. Frank's was the spice behind the original wing sauce, and you'll recognize that familiar aroma the minute the hot wings hit the butter.
But if you, like most people, prefer to have someone else do the dirty work, where will you get the most bang for your buck? Do you need to go out, or can you find something in the freezer that will satisfy?
While the original wings were deep-fried, there are those who maintain that great wing flavor can be had by baking or grilling the wings, rather than immersing them in hot oil. Don't be misled into thinking that baking or grilling is much healthier, though. Most of the fat in wings comes from the chicken skin, not from the cooking method.
The original Buffalo wings were cooked "naked," without any breading. Hooter's, one of the largest sellers of wings in the U.S., popularized the breaded form, which of course is much higher in fat and calories.
The two other major wing chains in the country, Wing Stop and Wing Zone, sell their wings unbreaded. The options in the freezer case are split.
So the task before the tasting panel in this showdown was twofold: Are breaded or naked wings better, and which one overall takes the top honors? Each of the five testers, three men and two women, were allowed to award up to 20 points to each entry based on flavor, appearance and overall impression, for a possible perfect score of 100. All the wings tested were the "hot" flavor, in whatever way the respective restaurants and frozen-food companies interpreted that (or, in one case, completely failed to).
From The Restaurants
Wing Zone (10 wings, naked): 560 calories, 40 grams fat, 264 mg cholesterol, 1,048 mg sodium, 2 grams carbs.
These wings are fried, but that failed to give the skin any crispy texture. The sauce didn't stick very well, leading to a case of a promising aroma failing to deliver on the tongue. These were the largest wings in the test, but size isn't everything. Final score: 74.
Wing Stop (10 wings, naked): 480 calories, 36 grams fat, 170 mg cholesterol, 1,060 mg sodium, 2 grams carbs.
If the original Anchor Bar wings tasted anything like these, it's easy to see why the idea caught on. The skin was crispy, the meat perfectly cooked and the sauce lit up the taste buds perfectly. The only knock was a bit of excessive greasiness in the "drums" pieces. Final score: 92.
Hooter's (10 wings, breaded): 946 calories, 71 grams fat, 274 mg cholesterol, 1,879 mg sodium, 25 grams carbs.
The breading should have given these wings an extra flavor opportunity, but it was largely wasted. The wings were heavy with grease, and while the sauce flavor was excellent, the oily slick left on the tasters' tongues detracted from the experience. Final score: 82.
From The Freezer Case
Tyson Any-Tizers (3 wings): 220 calories, 15 grams fat, 110 mg cholesterol, 560 mg sodium, 1 gram carbs.
The flavor here was fairly good, with a bit of spice heat that faded quickly, but the texture was limp and the overall impression was described by one tester as reminiscent of wings that had sat on a buffet table for too long, soaked up too much steam and gone mushy. Final score: 79
Banquet Hot & Spicy Breaded Chicken Wing Sections (3-ounce serving): 260 calories, 17 grams fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 320 mg sodium, 8 grams carbs.
Perhaps the Banquet folks have a different meaning for "hot" and "spicy," because these wings offered nothing whatsoever in the way of a definable spice kick, even to the biggest "spice wimp" in the group. The breading was gluey, and the wings overall were very small and bony. Final score: 49.
T.G.I. Friday's (3 wings): 180 calories, 11 grams fat, 95 mg cholesterol, 1,030 mg sodium, 4 grams carbs.
As long as the high sodium number (43 percent of your daily allowance in one serving) doesn't scare you off, these wings will satisfy your craving for heat. The texture is excellent, the meat nicely tender and the spice kick is unmistakable. Out of the three freezer options, this was the one all the testers agreed could stand up to any of the restaurant offerings, earning a final score of 94.
It will come as no great surprise that the Friday's wings are also the best buy of our test, with a box of six wings coming in at far less than half the price of an order of 10 from any of the restaurant chains. You may need to buy several boxes to feed your crowd, but you'll still come out ahead, and your taste buds will still be happy.