This Is the Secret to the Best Chicken Wings in the World

The discovery lay in my mom’s 45-year-old cookbook.

Chicken wings next to a bottle of ketchup
Photo: Dotdash Meredith

My family ate spaghetti with jarred sauce and spring mix salad nearly every night growing up, with two exceptions. The dreaded "just a salad" nights, and the rare, magical "marinated chicken" meals, including a particularly memorable dinner that ended with my little brother dipping his napkin into the sauce and attempting to eat it, because all the wings and rice were finished and my mother told him not to drink the sauce from his plate.

My brother wasn't wrong in his desire to consume every drop of that sauce. Our mother's legendary chicken wings spent a tantalizing hour in the oven, coming out as crispy, caramelized islands sticking up from a sea of deep, dark sauce. We poured the sweet sauce over bowl upon bowl of white rice and gently pulled the tender meat from the bones, feasting until a graveyard stacked up on our plates. We called it marinated chicken, but I was well into adulthood before I understood that while the phrase describes a grand spectrum of dishes, our family favorite wouldn't have been among them. Sure, that dish may not have been literally a marinated one, but it contained the key to the chef-worthy chicken wings: ketchup.

The Origin Story of Ketchup in Our Chicken Wing Sauce

In my mother's copy of the 1975 edition of Craig Claiborne's The New York Times Cookbook, her dutiful checkmarks note a handful of recipes in the chicken chapter, few of which I remember her making; the rest of the book seems untouched. It always falls open to the same page, crinkled and clinging to the binding by its last thread, with the only recipe to feature both a checkmark and a near-perfectly round, light brown droplet of a stain. We called it "marinated chicken," but Craig Claiborne called it "Oven-baked Chicken Wings with Honey."

The recipe includes three steps, one of which is preheating the oven and another of which is breaking down the wings (skippable by buying party-cut wings). Really, the whole dish is just wings, cooked for an hour in a simple sauce mixed from five ingredients. But those five ingredients make the magic happen.

Once you stop laughing at the très-'70s touch of calling for a half-clove of garlic, chopped (I'll use three, thanks, Craig), the rest of the sauce is timeless and straightforward. The cup of honey brings that cherished sweetness that kept us so happy as kids; the half-cup of soy sauce adds savory complexity; the two tablespoons of vegetable oil land the tender texture. But the two tablespoons of ketchup do the heavy lifting, balancing everything out with a little zing from the acidity of tomatoes. That thick, sweet, salty, tanginess brings the entire sauce together.

I say this knowing that ketchup sometimes wields its power dangerously, driving kids to refuse any meal without it, leading picky eaters to douse their eggs, noodles, and dino nuggets in it. But other times, it comes in handy, like the way it used to slide in as a substitute for tamarind sauce—before it became widely available in the U.S.—in pad thai. Or how it figures into barbecue sauces and meatball recipes all over America.

But here, in a cookbook as near to a bible as any before or since, ketchup stands at the center of the ideal chicken wing. Why my mom chose this recipe originally, I have no idea. Who inspired the recipe in the first place led me to the acknowledgements section of the cookbook, where Claiborne thanks chefs like Paul Bocuse and cookbook authors like Madhur Jaffrey, celebrities like actress Uta Hagen (something about a midsummer tart) and Dinah Shore (cioppino and cream of fresh tomato soup). And then I came upon it: My precious oven-baked chicken wings apparently owe some unspecified debt to one Blanche Finley. Unfortunately, that's literally all he wrote: The book offers no clues to her identity or specific role in the development of the recipe. The culinary trail to the world's best chicken wings runs cold.

Whoever she is, I owe her a debt of gratitude: for the best meals of my childhood, and for sharing the secret to the best chicken wings in the world.

Try Other Chicken Wing Recipes with Ketchup:

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