How to Grill Crispy Hot Wings: A Master’s Guide
Even when armed with the right know-how, some food items in the grilling and BBQ world have proven to be more elusive than others: tender brisket, perfectly medium-rare steak, veggies that don’t fall through the grates... Atop that list of tricky tasks, though, might be the pursuit of a flawlessly crispy chicken wing. Soggy, flimsy skin results in a terrible mouthfeel, while a firm, crispy outer layer ushers humble chicken wings into poultry paradise. It’s that golden goodness everyone wants from a chicken wing, but how do you avoid this common pitfall of the pit?
We’ll show you that and much more in this Master Grillabilities® tutorial from our good friend Rasheed Philips, a budding BBQ star who made waves as a fan favorite on Netflix’s “The American Barbecue Showdown.” (Yeah, that Netflix.) Before that, Rasheed rose to prominence serving up delicious meals as pitmaster of Philips Barbeque Co. in Atlanta. Even without the glistening credentials, he’s a good pick to be your instructor on all things hot wings, from prep and grilling techniques to using peppers for spicy sauces that’ll blow the lid off your next BBQ. “I can eat wings every day, all day, all the time,” he says. That isn’t an exaggeration — Rasheed went so far as to create his very own lemon Scotch bonnet pepper wings recipe , which we’ll be using as the basis for this guide to grilling chicken wings. So, are you ready to never have to wing it again?
How to Prep Chicken Wings for Grilling
Truth be told, prepping chicken wings for the grill is largely the same as prepping them for the oven or fryer. They can be broken down and brined if desired, then seasoned and put in whatever appliance you prefer. There aren’t any special considerations for preparing hot wings on the grill, but we stand behind this method (which includes smoking woods) as the tastiest method for chicken wings.
“Everyone fries or bakes, but not everyone grills and smokes; it’s not really something you can get at most restaurants,” Rasheed says. “It’s sort of delicate in a way. There’s not a ton of extra fat in wings, so it’s a delicate dance with the fat that’s there. The smoke really helps balance everything. I really love the uniqueness that smoking wings can bring to a dish. It’s that extra little bit from the smoke that takes everything over the top.”
Rasheed notes that smoking then frying is another solid option for achieving the perfect mix of mouthwatering flavor and crispy skin, but why not keep everything on the grill from start to finish? This series is called “Grillabilities,” after all! With our cooking method in mind, let’s dive into setting the stage for the crispiest grilled wings imaginable.
Chicken Wings: Whole or Sectioned?
Whether you purchase chicken wings whole or already sectioned is entirely up to personal preference. Whole wings are slightly cheaper but take a bit of time and effort to cut, while sectioned wings cost marginally more but save you the work of slicing. So, what do you value more: time or money? (We understand this question may be difficult for the “time equals money” crowd.) Rasheed buys whole wings then cuts them himself, but you might appreciate the convenience of skipping that step.
Regardless of your approach, we strongly recommend cooking and serving chicken wings that’ve been cut — a whole wing won’t sit perfectly flat on the grill grates, resulting in an uneven cook compared with individual pieces. Besides, guests accustomed to grabbing and dipping certain sections may not enjoy separating whole wings themselves. So, let’s cut to the chase of cutting chicken wings!
How to Cut Chicken Wings
Cutting chicken wings is incredibly easy, though it may take some practice before you can breeze through entire batches. All you need is a cutting board, a kitchen knife or pair of kitchen shears, and a loose understanding of chicken anatomy. (Best biology lesson ever!) The goal is to divide the wings into 3 pieces: the meaty drum (or drumette), the thinner flat (or wingette), and the wing tip (or flapper). Wars have been fought over whether the drum or flat is superior — BBQGuys has a strict policy of neutrality on such matters — but the tip has little to no meat and should be either discarded or used to make a stock. Here’s how you section a chicken wing in just a few simple slices:
1. If necessary, trim excess fat from the top of the drum.
2. Flip the chicken wing so the skin side faces down on the cutting board and the bones and joints are visible.
3. Stretch out the wing so you can make a clean cut between both the wing tip and flat, then the flat and the drum. Use your fingers to find the joints between each piece, which contain cartilage and are much easier to slice than bone. When just getting started, you may find it helpful to cut through the skin so you can see the bones, then pop the joints to help you know exactly where to cut between them.
4. Locate the bone ridge in the joint between the wing tip and the flat. Cut straight through, then discard or keep the tip to make a stock.
5. Locate the ridge of the drum bone that ends in the joint between the drum and flat. Place your knife or blades of your kitchen shears next to the ridge, then cut straight through to separate. If the blade doesn’t slide right through, feel again for the ridge and reposition the cut as necessary.
The trickiest part of the process is cutting in the right spot between the drum and the flat on your first try. Sawing through the bones could not only lead to sharp edges or chipped-off bits in the wing, but will also do serious damage to your knife. As with all things, practice makes poultry — um, we mean, perfect.
Should I Brine Chicken Wings?
We firmly say yes, but whether you brine — and how — is ultimately up to you. Rasheed brines all poultry because it practically guarantees tender and juicy meat for birds that have a tendency to dry out; we can also vouch for the effectiveness of this simple technique. For the Scotch bonnet wings recipe, Rasheed opted for a wet brine using 1 gallon of water and ½ cup of salt. It’s worth noting that a classic poultry wet brine would also include about ½ cup of sugar, but because the sauce in this recipe includes sweetness in the form of honey, there was no need to include sugar in the brine.
Brining the wings in this case is as simple as mixing together the solution, then placing the wing pieces in it and letting them rest in the fridge for 4 hours. After that, the wings need a quick rinse and to be patted dry with paper towels, which is crucial for forming crispy skin (damp skin gets soggy, so you don’t want to start off at a disadvantage). Then it’s on to seasoning with herbs and spices, something that’ll already be taken care of if you go for a dry brine instead. And then, following all that diligent prep work, you’re finally ready to start grilling crispy chicken wings!
How to Grill Hot Wings Like a Pro
Grilling hot chicken wings isn’t complicated, but it’s not quite as straightforward as just firing up the grill and tossing the pieces on. As Rasheed noted above, getting a perfect cook while nailing the crispy skin is a “delicate dance” that requires some forethought and technique lest you end up with something dry, soggy, or — gasp! — both. “Everyone loves an amazing bite-through crispy wing,” he says, “but (the common question is), ‘How do you achieve it?’” We’ve got the answers, and it all starts with the magic of dual-zone grilling.
Dual-Zone Grilling: The Key to Crispy Wings
If you’re unfamiliar with dual-zone grilling, here’s the deal: it describes a simple division of the grill into 2 zones with different types of heat. On one side is direct heat, where food is placed directly above the flames for searing or grilling at high temperatures; on the other is your indirect-heat zone, which is a low-temperature area for smoking or roasting. You can harness indirect heat by either setting your food opposite the flames or placing a deflector plate between the cooking surface and the fire. With dual (and sometimes multiple) zones going at the same time, you have the flexibility to cook foods of varying thicknesses, better manage flare-ups, and move items between different types of heat to influence the cook.
That last bit is especially important for grilling hot wings, whose skin requires a brief blast of high heat at the end of the cook to crisp up. “You need to let the fat underneath render to leave the skin nice and crispy,” Rasheed says. “The extra little fat that’s under there is tightening and releasing; you can see it bubbling. It’s the same reason high heat is used on pigskin to make cracklins: it gets all the inner moisture tight and pulls the skin with it.”
Dual grilling zones, then, allow you to endow your wings with the best of both worlds: smoky flavors from a full cook over indirect heat, plus the crispy, golden-brown skin that can be achieved only with direct heat. The trick is getting the timing just right. Rasheed notes that many BBQ competitors actually remove the skin from chicken wings, scrape off the fat underneath, then re-wrap the skin around the meat because that thin layer of fat can be so fickle. But we’re not taking shortcuts today! Let’s quickly discuss dual-zone setups before getting into Rasheed’s technique for the perfect grilled chicken wings.
Setting up Your Grill for Dual-Zone Cooking
Remember, grilling with dual zones requires you to arrange a section of your grill where the grates aren’t exposed to direct heat. You can accomplish this on any type of grill (gas grills will need more than 1 burner, though.) In the case of Rasheed’s lemon Scotch bonnet pepper wings, he stacked a pair of half-moon heat-deflector plates on one side of the Blaze kamado to split the grill into dual cooking zones . Master Grillabilities® tip: set the heat deflectors on the side closest to yourself so you don’t get hit in the face with heat every time you open the lid. Rasheed also takes full advantage of this highly versatile setup in his grilled surf ‘n’ turf recipe, so it’s always a good bit of knowledge to have in your back pocket.
If you don’t have deflector plates or are using something besides a charcoal grill, our Basic Grillabilities® article covering dual-zone grilling setups will help you figure out the best configuration for your grill. No matter how it looks, all you need is a direct-heat zone and an indirect-heat zone to grill crispy hot wings to perfection!
Smoking & Grilling the Hot Wings
Now that you understand the how and why of dual-zone grilling, let’s look at the step-by-step process of using it to achieve ideal chicken wings. This is actually quite simple; just keep an eye on the clock and your grill’s temperature, and you’ll be as golden as the skin on those hot wings!
1. Set up dual grilling zones and preheat your grill to about 275–300°F.
2. Place your brined and seasoned wings on the indirect portion of the grill, being sure not to overcrowd them. Shut the lid and let them cruise for about 30–40 minutes. (Now’s a great time to grab a drink and brush up on our other Master Grillabilities® lessons, especially Rasheed’s guide to layering flavors and tutorial on elevating your grilling with compound butters.)
3. Transfer your wings to the direct-heat zone, which will be hotter than the indirect side. Grill them for about 5–7 minutes, or until they reach an internal temperature of 165°F as measured by a food thermometer.
4. Remove your wings from the grill, toss in a sauce of your choosing, and serve.
You may need to grill hot wings a few times to get a better feel for exact times and temperatures on your grill, but following this guide will put you on track for that crispy goodness every time. And, yes, it really does come down to that little bit of heat right there at the end. “Let that high heat crisp up and tighten the exterior part of our chicken wing, get it nice and crunchy,” Rasheed says, “so much so that even after you toss your wings in sauce, you still get that crunchy bite-through sensation that everyone loves and enjoys.”
What Type of Smoking Wood is Best for Chicken Wings?
You can use whatever type of smoking wood you’d like — seriously, most go well with chicken — but if you need some guidance, Rasheed picked pecan for his Scotch bonnet wings. “If you want that really, really good smokiness, add in some pecan blocks, chunks, or chips,” Rasheed says. “It's really going to make a difference. It gives the wings a different color, and that's something you may want to consider as well when you're doing your cook.” He used 2 chunks for the Scotch bonnet recipe because you won’t need much more than that for this short of a smoke session.
Using Peppers to Make Your Own Wing Sauce
You’ve got the perfect wing technique down, so let’s talk sauce. Because “there are a million and one ways” to make hot sauce, we’ll instead focus on the application of fresh hot peppers for truly spicy flavors, using the sauce from Rasheed’s lemon Scotch bonnet pepper wings recipe as an example. If you’ve never made your own sauce from scratch, we recommend following that recipe and experimenting to better fit your tastes (and perhaps using fewer Scotch bonnet peppers — but we’ll get to that in a minute).
Don’t Overpower the Wings
Though some like it hot — our digital media producers will appreciate that film reference — you want your hot sauce to pair well with the wings, not be overly spicy for the sake of spiciness. In Rasheed’s words: “It should be a complement, not a full takeover.” Just how spicy you’d like your hot sauce to be comes down to the type and quantity of peppers, which we’ll cover in the next section. Should you overshoot the intended spiciness of your sauce, the simplest way to balance it out is by adding a bit of sugar or tomato paste to the mixture.
Choose Your Peppers Carefully
Before picking a pepper (hands off, Peter Piper!) for your hot wing sauce, you should be familiar with the Scoville scale. This measurement quantifies the pungency (in this case, meaning spiciness or heat) of chili peppers in Scoville Heat Units, or SHU for short; the lower the SHU, the more tame the pepper. On the lower end of the scale are peppers like the mild poblano, which lands between 1,000 and 1,500 SHU. Lurking on the upper end of the scale are spitfires like the Carolina Reaper, a mouth-melter that comes in between 1,400,000 and 2,200,000 SHU. Thanks, but we’ll pass!
The Scotch bonnet, Rasheed’s pepper of choice for both his wing sauce and Jamaican oxtail stew recipe, ranges from 100,000 to 350,000 SHU. He calls it a “cousin” of the habanero — it’s similarly hot in terms of SHU, but with an accompanying vinegar tang instead of pure, flaming spiciness. Still, Scotch bonnets boast a lingering heat that makes them one of the hotter peppers available in most stores. If something that far up the Scoville scale sounds too overpowering for your tastes, consider a milder option like a jalapeno (2,500–8,000 SHU) or a moderately hot serrano pepper (10,000–23,000 SHU).
How Many Peppers Should I Use?
Once you’ve decided on a pepper based on its SHU, think about how many make sense for your sauce. The more you incorporate, the hotter the sauce will be; fewer peppers, meanwhile, will have a less potent presence. Rasheed offers the following suggestion for those bold enough to try his beloved Scotch bonnets: “If this is your first time making it, I would go ahead and start simple: one pepper. These things are very hot.” He ended up using 3 peppers for his recipe, though he says it’s reasonable to exceed that number if you’re a heat fanatic. Remember to follow your palette and that it’s always better to have a milder wing that’s edible than one too hot to enjoy.
Instead of simply reducing the number of peppers you use, another way to reduce heat is to remove the seeds and white pith from inside the peppers. The pith contains capsaicin, an oily chemical that gives peppers their spiciness and is the basis for SHU. Capsaicin can sometimes be present in the seeds as well, so it’s wise to take those out if you’re concerned about too much heat. Just be sure to always wear gloves when handling hot peppers, as we’ll outline in our pepper safety tips below.
Roast Your Peppers Before Blending
It’s perfectly fine to toss raw peppers into your sauce, but you can unlock additional flavor by briefly roasting them first. This causes the peppers to secrete their capsaicin oils, which brings out a deeper flavor and more heat, while also allowing them to pick up some charred and smoky flavor. Just halve the peppers, remove the pith and seeds if you want to reduce the heat, and let them cook over direct heat for about 3–5 minutes. From there, set them aside or get right to incorporating them into your hot sauce.
Working Safely with Hot Peppers
Hot peppers make for deliciously hot wing sauce, but they can also pose health hazards if handled without care. That’s because they contain the chemical capsaicin, an oily substance found in the white pith inside of peppers (and sometimes the seeds) that causes a severe burning sensation if it comes into contact with your tissues. For this reason, you should always follow the pepper safety tips listed below:
● Always wear gloves when handling hot peppers, especially if you have sensitive skin
● Wash your hands after handling peppers, even if wearing gloves as recommended
● Don't touch your face or rub your eyes before washing your hands
● Don’t inhale too hard or too close to the peppers; the seeds are light and can get sucked into your nostrils
● If you get hot pepper oil in your eyes, immediately flush them with cool water
● Drinking milk should help if you accidentally ingest the pepper; milk contains casein, which attracts and breaks down the burning capsaicin bonds on your nerve receptors
● Wash knives and cutting boards with warm, soapy water when finished cutting
Start Practicing Grilling Crispy Hot Wings
Have a little extra pep in your step? We thought that might be the case after our master-level tutorial on crispy grilled hot wings and journey through the world of hot peppers. Now’s the time to go out and apply everything you learned here, whether it’s nailing the dual-zone grilling technique or sampling different peppers in pursuit of your new favorite hot sauce. Let’s see you spread those wings and soar!