One of my motivations for this blog is to share some of the thought process that guides my cooking decisions. Recipes aren’t infallible, and it’s important to be able to use your judgment as a cook rather than blindly follow written instructions from a potentially unknown source. Other times you might trust the recipe but need to adapt it for your purposes. And sometimes, you find yourself spontaneously making up recipes, using gained experience to improvise.
This post charts the evolution of my baked buffalo cauliflower “wings.” I love how versatile cauliflower is, and this is a delicious application. I complicated it along the way, but in the end I think the final version of the recipe is pretty simple. Scroll down if you want to skip to the final recipe. Read ahead to participate in the journey.
I first used this recipe as a guide. In it you make a batter, coat the cauliflower, and bake. The hot sauce is added in a separate step as a glaze midway through baking. My first go-round, I wanted to try simplifying the steps, so I incorporated the hot sauce and margarine mixture into the batter. Of course, that means it gets very diluted (and the flour in the batter also dampens the taste), so I had to use a lot more hot sauce just to maintain the spicy buffalo flavor. Since then, I’ve come across recipes that use this technique and call for using 3/4 of a bottle of hot sauce. That’s a lot of hot sauce to go through for one recipe!
I also modified the recipe in other ways. I added a few tablespoons of corn starch to the batter for texture, and similarly used xanthan gum to thicken the batter even more so it sticks to the cauliflower and coats well without running off. This recipe calls for adding seasoning to the batter, which is often my MO. I added a dash of MSG to boost that addictive umami quality.
I knew that since I was baking I’d be losing some of the crispness that deep frying would have provided. To compensate, I dispensed the batter using a whipping siphon with a nitrous oxide cartridge. This aerates the batter more, with the intention of creating more surface area and thus getting more crispy when baked.
I coated all the pieces, sprayed them with oil on both sides, and baked at 450° F, flipping them halfway through. It came out pretty well. Nice flavor, crispy on the outside, and tender on the inside.
This would definitely make a regular appearance on my cooking roster, but I didn’t want to go through so much hot sauce each time I made it. So the next time, I followed the recipe as written, doing a separate step of glazing with a hot sauce and margarine mixture, even though it was annoying to prepare the glaze in a separate saucepan and take extra time midway through baking. I also skipped the whipping siphon for dispensing, to see if that extra step was really necessary.
Here’s the battered cauliflower before baking, in all its pasty white glory.
Halfway through baking, the pre-Buffaloed cauliflower has browned a bit and is ready to be glazed.
As you can see, once the baked cauliflower was glazed and baked to finish, the result looked similar to that of the first batch with the hot sauce incorporated into the batter. It tasted pretty good, too.
But we’re not done yet. This has all been data collection, exploratory research, and replication. Now we start to use our heads.
Thus far, I’d discovered that I can cut out the whipping siphon step (which is great, because it’s not the easiest thing to clean, and the nitrous oxide gas cartridges add extra expense). Now if I could only cut down on the volume of hot sauce used and skip the added fat from the margarine without adding an extra step.
I also wanted to see if I could do something to maintain the crispness of the coating over time. These buffalo cauliflower are great to serve for Shabbos lunch, but with the limitations of cooking on the Sabbath, reheating means compromising between ending up with them soggy or dried out. (To tell the truth, they’re so addictive I’d eat them either way, but they deserve the best treatment possible).
I put my original recipe aside and turned to J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s recipe for deep-fried vegan buffalo cauliflower as a new starting point for my modifications, bearing in mind that I wanted to adapt it for baking.
Kenji’s recipe uses equal parts flour, corn starch, water, and vodka, and each plays a role. As Harold McGee (whose On Food and Cooking is an epic food science reference) explains, the protein in the flour forms a gluten network, which provides structure and also browns nicely. The problem here is that too much gluten makes for a tough texture (Shirley Corriher points out that it binds up available water which would otherwise puff up the batter as it steams out) and we’re looking for crispy, not chewy.
By replacing some of the flour with cornstarch (which doesn’t have any protein of its own), Kenji lowers the overall protein content, helping the batter stay crisp. Since alcohol inhibits gluten formation, the addition of vodka also helps the batter crisp up. A bonus crisping benefit is that alcohol evaporates out more quickly than water when cooking. (If you don’t want to use vodka, whether for teetotalling, frugality, or convenience, just replace it with cold seltzer.) As for the baking powder, my guess is that it helps the batter puff up to crisp and that it increases the pH, which helps speed up the delicious Maillard browning reactions.
Since I wanted to incorporate the hot sauce into the batter to save an extra glazing step, I used it as the liquid instead of water. If I had instead added it along with the water, the batter would have ended up too thin. This way I could use less hot sauce because with less dilution, it’s not reduced in potency. I did end up having to adjust the consistency of the batter with a little water and some extra corn starch. As per Kenji, what you’re aiming for is that “[i]t should have the consistency of thin paint and fall off of the whisk in thin ribbons that instantly disappear as they hit the surface of the batter in the bowl.” I also included garlic powder and MSG for extra seasoning.
How did it come out? Great! I got the crispy, tender, flavorful, potent buffalo cauliflower wings I was looking for with the fewest steps and without wasting hot sauce (and I also got to skip the added fat from margarine). I’m never done tweaking, so next time I’m going to see if I can leave out the vodka, which may benefit frying more than baking.
Postscript: My approach described here makes for poor, or at least inefficient and risky, science. Proper research changes one variable at a time. My methodical nature sometimes clashes with my impatience, and since deliciousness of a dish is not a life-or-death matter, I took some liberties and changed a few things at a time (e.g., aerating with a whipping siphon, including hot sauce in the batter, adding vodka, leaving out margarine). In this instance I got lucky and found more or less what I was looking for with few iterations. Other times, this leads to undesired outcomes and you can’t explain because you’ve changed too many things. Then you have to go back to the beginning and change one thing at a time until you find what caused things to go astray. Hence the risk of rushed experimentation.
Buffalo Baked Cauliflower
NOTE: While this recipe helps the cauliflower maximize and maintain crispness, it’s not a panacea for sogginess. For best Shabbos re-heating results, leave adequately ventilated so they can crisp up without steaming.
- 1 head cauliflower, cut into 1-inch florets
- 1/2 cup cornstarch
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp MSG (optional)
- 1 tsp garlic powder (optional)
- 1/2 cup hot sauce, such as Frank’s
- 1/2 cup vodka (or ice-cold seltzer, but work fast!)
- Preheat oven to 450° F
- Combine cornstarch, flour, baking powder, salt, MSG, and garlic powder in a large bowl and whisk until homogeneous. Add hot sauce and vodka and whisk until a smooth batter is formed. Adjust consistency with a little additional water (if too thick) or cornstarch (if too thin). It should have the consistency of thin paint and fall off of the whisk in thin ribbons that instantly disappear as they hit the surface of the batter in the bowl.
- Add cauliflower to batter. I find the easiest way is to wear latex gloves and use my hands to mix until every piece is well coated. Remove pieces, one at a time and allowing excess batter to drip off, to a greased baking pan.
- Bake for 30-45 minutes, checking for doneness.
- (Leftover batter: if you’re like me, you’ll fry up a crispy buffalo fritter to snack on while waiting for the cauliflower to bake.)
I’m addicted to Lipton/Gefen ranch seasoning. It’s one of my dirty little secrets, and now it’s yours! Mix some into sour cream (or for non-dairy, tofu-based sour cream or mayonnaise) along with finely diced celery. Done. (It’s also great for roasting vegetables.)