Smothered Turkey Wings

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

If I could do Thanksgiving dinner all over again, smothered turkey wings would be on my menu. Forget about the whole bird. Just give me a plate of turkey wings, falling off the bones and drowning in a rich, seasoned gravy.  If you clicked to view this post, chances are you are already thinking, "Uh obviously. Turkey wings are delicious." Well forgive me, but I am extremely late to this party! A few years ago wanting to eat baked and smothered turkey wings is a sentiment I never would have expressed. In the same way I grew up repulsed by baked chicken, "wet" turkey wings were something I just didn't care to understand. It went against everything I thought I knew about cooking poultry. The only way I used to enjoy turkey wings was roasted, because who wouldn't want crispy skin? I took the time to brine my turkey wings, air dry them and cook them on a rack until golden brown, in the same way I'd learned to perfect oven roasted chicken wings. It felt brilliant. I thought that I'd circumvented the soggy skin problem. And yet, it wasn't a recipe I often went out of my way to cook. The wings were good this way, but calling them great felt like a stretch. I blamed it on turkey just not being that interesting to begin with, and never really cared enough to dig deeper.

That all changed last fall when I visited Charleston, South Carolina, to attend Saveur magazine's food blog awards. I had the pleasure of meeting Chef Benjamin "BJ" Dennis, a panelist for one of the events that weekend. Born and raised in Charleston, Chef BJ started his career in fine dining but now dedicates his work to studying and preserving Gullah Geechee cuisine. It was fascinating to learn how much of the soul food we still love today originated from this region. On my last day in Charleston, he took me to Hannibal's for breakfast. Over unassuming but satisfying plates of salmon and shrimp, grits, and fried shark, we had the first of what would become many candid conversations about cooking and culture. Later that day, we continued our chat in the kitchen as he prepped for a catering gig.  BJ happened to be baking turkey wings. Opening the oven to give me a peek, he peeled back aluminum foil to reveal a pan full of steaming hot turkey wings glazed over with a deep brown gravy. They smelled and looked amazing. I couldn't help but think about my own personal hang-ups and questioned what I had gotten wrong. Fearful of sounding obnoxious, I bit my tongue that day but made a mental note to ask at another time. I left Charleston inspired to ramp up my soul food repertoire. Still swooning over things like okra, Carolina gold rice, grits, and oysters, turkey wings were not really high on my list. But one day the topic of turkey wings came back up, and I revealed to BJ that I had grown up thinking the soggy skin was poor technique. He understood what I meant, patiently pointing out that I was missing the whole appeal. "You've gotta have something to coat the wings. You need that sauce, the gravy," he explained, unknowingly shaming my dry ass roasted wings. But it was what followed that really resonated. "Sticky, but in a good way, because of all that skin and cartilage." That was the lightbulb I needed, as well as a dose of humility.

To backup a bit, I've been making my own chicken, turkey and beef stock for a few years now. The biggest difference from store-bought stocks, besides flavor, is in the viscosity. A good homemade stock will have a luscious mouthfeel to it, and when chilled will jiggle like a block of Jell-O. This is due to the natural gelatin converted from collagen in bones, cartilage and skin. I've learned to add all kinds of odds and ends to my stocks, everything from chicken feet to cow knuckles, because those are the parts with the most cartilage. It's a cheat code. If you've braised cartilage-rich cuts of meat like oxtail, you're familiar with that sinfully sticky sauce that coats the meat when it's cooked. If you're like me, you take immense pleasure in eating these kinds of dishes. It's an experience that is as much about taste as it is tactile. Despite this, it had been a few years since I'd given turkey wings much thought. My aversion to soggy poultry skin and chewy wingtips was from a time well before I learned to find pleasure in sucking the softened cartilage caps on oxtail bones. Chef BJ's comments resonated because I now understand how turkey skin and wing tips could transform a slow-cooked sauce. He was simply telling me to embrace the resulting texture instead of trying to avoid it. Sure, turkey skin is pretty thick and fatty compared to chicken skin. That just isn't going to appeal to everybody no matter how you sell it. But at least for me, processing the science behind why smothered turkey wings are even a thing sparked enough interest to revisit this classic soul food dish. And I am so glad I did.

A few weeks after returning home, I stopped by Union Market to peruse the offerings at Harvey's Market, one of my favorite local butcher shops. Harvey's supplies me with much of the meat for my catering events in DC. I'm always excited to stop by for a personal splurge too, as they have fun things like goat ribs and pork cheeks. For the first time, what caught my eye was a gigantic pile of turkey wings off to the corner of the case. All flats, because Jesus loves me. (A little pricier than the frozen wings at my local grocery store, but it comes with the confidence of knowing I'm buying quality meat from animals that were raised humanely. Also, they're fairly small wings and all the same size. I'll get to why that's important later.)  I couldn't wait to tell BJ that I'd decided to give turkey wings another shot after all, and he in turn shared a few pointers on how to prepare them. It sounded like the standard soul food smothering protocol. If you've cooked smothered pork chops or chicken, you can smother anything from rabbit to turkey wings without much of a recipe. It's essentially always the same basic steps, with a little bit of nuance applied to approaching different cuts of meat. With BJ's tips in mind I felt good about using my cook's intuition to feel my way through the process. Success came easily that first night, my skepticism thwarted by generous helpings of deliciously sticky, gravy drenched turkey wings.

I've been happily testing baked turkey wings for a few months now, arriving at the conclusion that there was nothing drastically different I needed to do to make this recipe "mine." Learning to keep things simple is an ongoing lesson in the kitchen for me but one that I believe will serve me well. There is no duck fat here, no shallots, no poultry seasoning, fresh thyme or fancy finishing butters. Unlike the myriad of tricks that seem necessary to coax flavor out of a Thanksgiving bird, turkey wings manage pretty damn well on their own. I turned to the seasonings that can be found in just about all of my Cape Verdean recipes and are equally leaned upon in traditional soul food. You can't go wrong with onions, garlic, paprika and bay leaves. Bring a stick of butter to the party, flour and some stock, and you're in business. This is the kind of recipe that truly doesn't need precise measurements but for the sake of comforting those anxious about that sort of thing, I have documented quantities that will get you in the ballpark. The rest is really up to you. It's soul food, after all, begging for your observation, taste, and intuition to make those little adjustments here and there that add up to something special.

But wait, before you run off to the recipe, how about a moment to celebrate that January is finally over?! It's really felt like the longest sixteen weeks of my life. But the good news is that Black History Month starts tomorrow! It's a great time to celebrate all of the things that make our culture beautiful and special. Food is one of the most important ways we honor our traditions, so I'm excited to be participating in the Black History Month Virtual Potluck again this year. I've joined 27 other black food bloggers to share a diverse collection of recipes from across the diaspora. There's one for every day of the month, and I've included the full list at the end of this post!

Smothered Turkey Wings

4-5 lbs fresh turkey wings, thawed if previously frozen
1 tbsp salt, plus more to taste
1 tbsp black pepper, plus more to taste
1 tbsp garlic powder
2 tbsp paprika or smoked paprika, divided
2 tbsp canola oil or other neutral cooking oil
1 stick of butter (1/2 cup)
2 large yellow onions, sliced thin
8 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
6 to 8 cups chicken or turkey stock, preferably homemade, warmed
2 bay leaves
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 2 - 3 hours
Yield: 4 - 6 servings
Special Equipment: (Affiliate links) Stovetop safe roasting pan or large Dutch oven pot

Shopping tips: If you can find a package of wings or butcher offering all flats, jump on that. The flats fit more evenly in the pan and cook more consistently than the larger drumstick portions. Avoid extra large turkey wings, the kind that look like they came from a 30 pound bird. I've found the ideal turkey wing to be 2 to 3 times the size of a chicken wing. If you do have to buy whole wings, it's best to use a sturdy chef's knife to separate the flats from the drumsticks before cooking. Wingtips can be left intact or removed; I do recommend adding them to the pan either way as it's good for the sauce. They don't have much meat but they're fun to nibble on if you're into that whole cartilage thing I mentioned above. Try to select wings that are all approximately the same size, otherwise some parts could cook faster than others.

After separating the wing parts if necessary, pat dry and season liberally with salt, garlic powder, black pepper and paprika; about a tablespoon each for 5 pounds of turkey. Drizzle the wings with a couple tablespoons of canola oil and rub all the seasonings and oil into the meat. If you have time, refrigerate the turkey for a couple hours or up to overnight. It's okay to proceed with cooking right away otherwise.

Place your roasting pan over the stovetop so that it's covering two burners; heat to medium high heat. If you don't have a stovetop safe roasting pan you can use a large Dutch oven pot and work in batches. Melt a couple tablespoons of butter into the pan, until sizzling. Sear the turkey wings until golden brown on all sides. This will take a few minutes. You want to get some good color on the wings and also start building flavor in the pan.

Set the browned turkey wings aside. Melt the remaining butter into the pan, then add the sliced onions, chopped garlic, remaining paprika and crushed red pepper flakes. Cook for a minute just to soften the onions, being careful not to burn the garlic and peppers.

Sprinkle the onions with flour. (If you need to make this gluten-free, skip the flour in this step and read my tips towards the end.)

Now stir the flour into the onions and cook for another minute. This is just like making a roux for any other gravy. I err on the side of less flour, because you can always thicken the sauce later. Too much flour can muddle the flavors and make the texture gloppy.

Once the flour has cooked for a minute, pour in about 6 cups of warmed stock. Stir to make sure all the flour is dissolved, scraping up any browned bits in the bottom of the pan.

Bring the liquid up to a gentle boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for a few minutes. Add the bay leaf and lemon zest. Season to taste with salt and pepper. If you want the best gravy, use homemade chicken or turkey stock. The smoked turkey stock from my holiday ebook is phenomenal here. The benefit in using homemade is that I know it's already pretty flavorful and was made with fresh herbs (thyme, sage, rosemary etc.) If you feel like your store-bought stock is a little underwhelming, you can always amp up the flavor by adding some finely chopped herbs to the pan as well. The color of your stock also impacts that of the gravy, which you may notice in some of my photos that were taken from different batches.

Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 300°F. If you're in a rush, you can cook these up to 350°F, but I liked the results better with a slower cook time.

Return the turkey wings back to the pan. You want the gravy to reach at least halfway up the wings but it doesn't need to cover them. Add more stock if necessary. I like a lot of gravy, and the wings will really suck up the sauce after they're cooked, so I add a little more than I think I need at this stage.

This is where it gets tricky if you ended up with drumsticks that are too big. Your flats may be covered adequately but if your drumsticks are not they won't braise at the same rate. In one instance I switched to a smaller pot so that the drumsticks were submerged and flats could float closer to the top. Another way around it is just to make sure you turn the drumsticks more frequently during the cooking process.

Cover the pan tightly with foil, or cover the Dutch oven pot with its lid slightly ajar. Transfer to the oven and cook for one hour.

After an hour, flip the wings over to bake on the other side. Cover and cook for another hour, or until the meat is tender and starting to pull away from the bone. Flip the wings again and return the pan to the oven one more time, but uncovered. Turn the heat up to 375°F and cook for 15 minutes, until the skin is caramelized, gravy has thickened a bit, and meat is falling off the bone more readily. If you were stuck with an unfortunate batch of mismatched sized wings, it's best to remove the smaller wings from the pan earlier in the process once they are done, and allow the bigger wings to finish cooking.

(This was my way of getting the best of both worlds. The skin won't get super crispy like a chicken wing, but it does help to dry the surface a bit and get some additional browning.)

Transfer the wings to your serving platter. Discard the bay leaves.

To the gravy, stir in the finely chopped parsley and lemon juice. Both will bring some freshness back to the sauce. Give the sauce a final check for salt and pepper.
Gluten-free modification: After transferring the wings out, prepare a cornstarch slurry by dissolving 2 - 3 tablespoons of cornstarch in half a cup of warm water or stock (more or less, depending on how thick you want the sauce to be.) Pour the slurry back into the pan, and bring the liquid up to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for a few minutes, until thickened. To skip thickeners altogether, simply simmer the sauce by itself until it reduces down to desired consistency. Once gravy has thickened, proceed with parsley and lemon.

Pour the finished gravy over turkey wings to serve! I enjoy smothered wings most over plain white rice, but mashed potatoes or grits are also options. This is not knife and fork fare, so be prepared to get your fingers dirty. The wing tips are my favorite parts. Last week, I enjoyed some braised lima beans on the side, something else I couldn't stand as a child. Interestingly enough, my second trip to Charleston changed that too! I'll save that story for a future post...

Black History Month Virtual Potluck

Thanks so much to Meiko and Aaron for organizing #BHMPotluck for another year! Check out the other participating blogs, below:

Beautiful Eats & Things: Turkey Sausage Stuffed Collard Green Wraps
Better With Biscuits: Corn Pudding
Beyond The Bayou Food Blog: Redfish Courtbouillon
Brandi's Diary: Better than Jiffy Cornbread from Scratch
Butter Be Ready: Southern Style Mac and Cheese
Chef Kenneth: Fried Sweet Potato Hand Pie
Chocolate For Basil: Pilau and Kachumbari (Spiced Rice with Pico) 
Cooks with Soul: Braised Short Rib Meatloaf
D.M.R. Fine Foods: Cinnamon Raisin Bread Pudding
Dash of Jazz: Nigerian Jollof Rice
Domestic Dee: Fried Peach Hand Pies
Eat.Drink.Frolic: Olive Oil Collard Greens
Food Fidelity: Mofongo Relleno
Food is Love Made Edible: Buttermilk Biscuits with Fried Chicken and Tabasco Honey
High Heels and Good Meals: Crawfish Etouffee
HomeMadeZagat: Shrimp with Spicy Curry Cream Sauce
Houston Food Fetish: Sweet Almond Tea Cakes
In the Kitchen w/Kmarie: Pineapple Lemonade 
Marisa Moore Nutrition: Bourbon Peach Glazed Salmon
Meiko and The Dish: Candied Bourbon Peach Cobbler
My Life Runs On Food: Lentil Soup and Roast Okra
Orchids + Sweet Tea: Carrot and Zucchini Noodles Stir Fry with Shrimp
Raised on Ramen: Orange Glazed Brussels Sprouts
Savory Spicerack: Creamy Fish Stew
Simply LaKita: Blackberry Cobbler
The Hungry Hutch: Orange Bundt Cake with Vanilla Glaze
The Kitchenista Diaries: Smothered Turkey Wings
The Seasoning Bottle: Honey Turmeric Skillet Chicken

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  1. I was on Pinterest and came across your recipe for Turkey wings. I just pulled some out of my freezer I love the fact you make your own stock because I do as well. I love a good lamb stock after we finish our Easter lamb. Thanks so much for this recipe. Your website is beautiful!

    1. Hi Hope, late thank you as I'm just seeing some comments!

    2. I've been wanting to make smothered Turkey wings for a while now. . could never find the right recipe. I was always afraid they'd be kinda rubbery.
      Your recipe with a nice search before putting in the oven etc. Is what I've been looking for...

  2. This was insane and perfect for thanksgiving. Thank you thank you !!

    1. The day I get to do an easier menu, this is all I'm making lol. Late thank you!

  3. I've made this recipe three times and everyone always loves it. This recipe is definitely a keeper.

  4. I'm going to make this tonight . I'll let you know how it goes. The picture was so amazing that I could taste even before I turned on the oven. Thanks Lisa B.

  5. I'm going to make this tonight . I'll let you know how it goes. The picture was so amazing that I could taste even before I turned on the oven. Thanks Lisa B.

  6. Oooo shes a local I love this and I love smothered anything!