Of all the foods I cook on the grill, wings are by far one of the easiest things to make and one of the most enjoyable. They're relatively inexpensive and super simple to prepare and cook.
I will note though, something that a lot of other grill-based chicken wing recipes lack is the "crunch"; My family lives for the crunch. The recipe outlined below goes over what to look for in chicken wings, how to prepare them, and ultimately, how to achieve the crunch/crispy skin.
What to Look for in Chicken Wings
In my experience, there is minimal taste difference between brands. For instance the store brand, a regional brand, or a national brand. The only difference between brands is price and in most cases the store brand is going to be cheapest.
If you intend to use the chicken wings on the same day, consider looking for mark-down stickers. The mark-down doesn't necessarily imply inferior quality, only that it's near expiry and they need to sell it. Rather than taking a loss, the Grocery Store would rather minimize profits by incentivizing the purchase.
Since 1972 the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) has required poultry products to feature a date of packing (calendar date or a code). FSIS has allowed for a "sell-by" or "use-by" date. These dates describe the last date by packagers where-in the meat is suitable for eating at peak quality.
Generally, I look for packs that are advertised as "family" or "value" pack. They usually contain 14-22 three-joint wings per tray. If they have a mark-down sticker, that's just an added bonus.
Poultry is graded by the USDA and is given either an "A, B, or C." At a retail level, you're likely only to see USDA "A" Grade.
According to the USDA website:
"This grade indicates that the poultry products are virtually free from defects such as bruises, discolorations, and feathers. Bone-in products have no broken bones. For whole birds and parts with the skin on, there are no tears in the skin or exposed flesh that could dry out during cooking, and a good covering of fat under the skin. Also, whole birds and parts will be fully fleshed and meaty."USDA.gov
Grades B and C are usually reserved for processed foods where-in the poultry is cut up, chopped, and ground. If they are sold at retail they are usually not graded.
Chicken wings are sold as whole (with the drumette, wingette/flat, and wingtip attached) or prepared (with the wingette and drumette separated and the wingtip removed).
In all cases, when the wings are sold as "prepared" (drumette and wingette separated), the price goes up; When sold whole/attached, they cost less. This is likely because of the cost of labor to do so. When they are separated, the wingtip/flapper is often exported to Asian countries and the meatier portions are sold domestically.
Keep in mind that the price of wings is also affected by the availability of chicken; Companies are not able to produce wings without the rest of the chicken. Meaning, when the demand for wings is higher than the demand for other parts, the price of wings goes up (typically occurs quarter four of the fiscal year).
I strongly suggest buying the whole wing. Preparation is super simple and outlined below.
How to Prepare Chicken Wings
Assuming you purchased the wings whole, you need to separate the wingette from the drum, and the wingtip from the wingette. If you bought the prepared version, you can skip this section.
Separating the Wingette and Drumette
This process is actually fairly easy to do, all you need is a sharp knife and a cutting board.
When I buy wings I normally keep them frozen up-until I'm ready to use them. I'll take them out of the freezer and allow them to defrost for a while. Once they're malleable enough to separate from each other I'll start separating the drumette and wingette.
The process above makes working with the wing easier and allows the knife to make cleaner cuts. However, it's entirely personal preference and you can still cut them easily when entirely defrosted.
I mentioned the anatomy of the wing above because it helps to understand where one part ends and the other begins and where to make the cuts.
You'll be making 2 cuts to create 3 portions (drumette, wingette, and wingtip). The order in which you make the cuts doesn't matter. The drumette is the humerus; The wingette is the radius and ulna; The wingtip is the carpals, metacarpals, and phalanges.
The first cut I do is the elbow joint which connects the drumette (humerus) and the wingette (radius and ulna).
The second cut is at the carpal joint which connects the wingette (radius and ulna) and the wingtip (carpals, metacarpals, and phalanges).
Note: The wingtips can be saved for stock.
Get the Grill up to Temperature
Before going onto the next step, i'd suggest getting your grill ready. This will allow time for the wings to completely defrost and it will make transferring the corn-starch laden wings easier.
For wings, I prefer to cook them at higher temperatures. It allows the skin to get crispier and you have to interact with the wings very minimally.
I use my Grilla Grills Silverbac pellet grill to cook wings. I cook in their PID mode at 400 degrees F. The PID mode minimizes temperature swing and 400 degrees is a sweet spot in terms of time to cook the meat and being able to create the golden brown skin.
Dredging the Wings
In order to achieve crispy skin (the crunch), you need to dredge the wings.
Dredging is the process of coating a food in a dry ingredient. The most common dredge is flour, however for wings made specifically on the grill I prefer corn starch.
Cornstarch is pure starch where-as flour has a lower starch content and gluten. Most recipes that involve fried chicken will use a 50:50 ratio of flour to corn starch.
With that said, I've personally tried:
- Only flour
- Various ratios of flour to cornstarch
- Only corn starch
You can see where your taste preferences land, however I can tell you my experiences:
- Using only flour will result in wings that lack both the golden brown skin and the crisp. Depending on the gluten content of the flour, it might even be chewy.
- I've tried a number of ratios of flour to corn starch. What I soon discovered is that I liked when the ratios made the flour non-existent. To the point that only using corn starch was preferred.
- Using only corn starch resulted in better skin output; Both in terms of color (golden brown) and the crispy skin.
You could technically buy "better" flour (ones with less gluten content), however I'd much rather just buy cheap store brand corn starch and save myself from taking out measuring cups.
In order to dredge the wings you need:
- A cheap, store brand corn starch (like Walmart's great value). I've never noticed a difference between an expensive brand like Argo ($6-$7 for 16 oz) and Great Value ($1-$2 for 16 oz).
- A clear, plastic bag
- I'd urge you to consider using clear plastic trash bags rather than storage bags. It makes it significantly easier to shake all of the wings at once rather than doing 5-10 at a time in a storage bag.
Some people will suggest adding spices to the corn starch dredge, however I've tested this and there isn't a significant taste difference or one that can be perceived in the mouth. Since you'll also be tossing them in liquid ingredients like barbecue or hot sauce, any dry ingredient will likely be washed out.
The process of dredging the wings is fairly simple as there's literally only one ingredient: corn starch. I prefer to do this process outside as corn starch is a powdery substance and can make a mess when working indoors. Needless to say, my family also prefers that I work outside.
Grab your clear plastic bag and add corn starch. The amount to add will depend on how many wings you have. For my family, I usually buy two packages of 14-22 three-joint wings. We prepared these above which results in 28-44 (56 - 88 for two packages) drums/flats. For this many wings I usually add the whole can of corn starch or 16 oz.
Once you've added the dredge and the wings to the plastic bag, close the end by twisting the end (like you would a loaf of bread). Once the bag is closed simply shake the dredge and the wings around so that all the surfaces of the wings are covered in corn starch.
When you go to inspect the wings, check to see if the wings have a significant amount of corn starch on them. This may not seem obvious but if you can see chicken skin, add more corn starch, reseal the bag and shake again.
Your Grill and Hot Zones
Before I go on to talk about adding the wings to the grates, I wanted to quickly mention hot zones on Pellet grills. I've used a number of brands and ALL pellet grills will have hot zones.
They are typically at the front and the back of the grates or where there is a gap between the drip pan and the fire chamber/heat baffle.
Keep this in mind when adding the wings to the grates as you want to minimize the amount of wings exposed to searing heat.
Adding the Wings to the Pellet Grill
Once the wings are covered in corn starch, and the grill is up to temperature (in our case, 400 degrees F) place them on the grates.
I've tried simply dumping them onto the grates, however the wings tend to lose too much corn starch that ends up on the drip pan. I simply add them one-by-one with tongs.
When adding the wings to the grates, keep the hot zones in mind. On my Silverbac these are at the front and the back. I attempt to minimize the number of wings in these zones. Also minimize how much the wings touch.
When cooking, I also minimize the number of checks I perform on the wings in order to keep all of the heat inside the grill.
After 20 minutes I'll do my first check. At this point the wings should start developing a crust. They may still appear white in color on the outside and look like they're "cracking."
Ensure you check your hot zones, if the wings look like they're starting to "burn" or "char" I've actually found this to be sort of a good thing. However if the skin is entirely burned, flip the wing and move it to the center.
Once the skin is brown on the outside, I'll start flipping the wings and moving them around on the grates. Move wings that could use more love to the hot zones to finish them off and move wings that got too much love to the center.
The entire cooking process takes 40-45 minutes.
I normally start my sauces towards the end of the cook (10-20 minutes left).
For hot sauce, I use Frank's Red Hot original. I've tried their wing sauce and still prefer the original version. Of all the barbecue sauce I've tried I really like Sticky Fingers "Carolina Sweet" for wings.
Turn the burners on at low heat.
The amount of sauce you add to the saucepan will depend entirely on how much of each wing you intend to make. Assuming you want half barbecue and half hot, I've found that 1/3rd of the hot sauce (12 fl.oz./3 = 4 fl.oz.) and half the barbecue sauce (18 oz/ 2 = 9 oz) is a good starting point. You can always add more sauce as needed.
You can also add dry ingredients to the sauces at this stage. Frank's Red Hot is a good middle-ground hot sauce, however if you have family members that enjoy heat, you can add additional spices. In this case I added Bearded Butcher's chipotle rub as well as a honey habanero rub that I picked up in North Conway, NH made by North Conway Olive Oil Company.
The barbecue rub I don't add any dry ingredients. My family likes to have apricot preserves in barbecue-flavored wing sauces. If I had apricot preserves I would of incorporated some into the sauce. However my Father bought me some of Traeger's apricot barbecue sauce so I added that to Sticky Finger's sauce.
To each of the sauce pans I add half a stick of unsalted butter at low heat.
Butter is made of water, milk fat, and milk solids. The reason you add the cold butter at low heat is so that it melts slowly; Going too hot will cause the milk solids to separate. This will result in an oily/thin sauce which is what you don't want. When incorporated correctly there will be a distinct velvet/sheen, the sauce will be thicker, and it will offer a richness to the sauce.
Allow the sauces to simmer until the wings are ready to be tossed.
Tossing the Wings
I've had a lot of family gatherings over the years and have amassed a number of large mixing bowls. These bowls make it very easy to toss the wings in the sauce. You can also directly transfer the wings from the grates to the bowls.
Once the wings have achieved a crispy brown skin you can remove them from the grill and place into the mixing bowls.
At this stage, I put my pellet grill into shut down mode and bring the mixing bowls inside. Pour the sauces over the wings and toss in the mixing bowls. If you're skilled enough, you can do this with the bowl itself. However a large spoon can also suffice.
Serve directly from the mixing bowls and enjoy.
While the above process can seem nuanced, this entire process results in better wings. There are minimal ingredients and the cooking process is one of the easiest of any meat you'll cook.
- Pellet Grill
- Clear Trash Bag or Storage Bag
- Sauce Pans
- 1 Package Three Joint Wings Roughly 14-22 wings per package makes 28-44 drumettes and wingettes
- 16 oz Corn Starch Use a cheap brand like Walmart's Great Value
- 4 Fl.oz. Frank's Red Hot Use more as needed
- 9 Fl.oz. Sticky Fingers Carolina Sweet Barbecue Sauce Use more as needed
- 1 Stick Butter Use a half stick for each type of sauce
- Make two cuts to separate the drumette from the elbow joint and wingette from the carpal joint.
- Put 8 oz of corn starch into a storage bag or clear plastic trash bag. Add the drumettes and wings to the corn starch bag and shake until the wings are covered.
- Pre-heat the grill to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Once the grill is pre-heated, use tongs to place the wings on the grill grates (do not dump the bag/wings onto the grates). Avoid having the wings touch and be mindful of hot zones on your grill.
- At roughly 20 minutes you can check the wings. At this point they should start developing a crust. Some may even appear to have be "burned" or "charred." At this point, flip the wings and wings that are too charred to the center and wings that are still light brown closer to the hot zones.
- At roughly 40-45 minutes the wings should be done. Remove from the grill and bring inside to sauce.
- Add 4 fl.oz. of Frank's Red Hot to one sauce pan and add 9 fl.oz. of Sticky Fingers to another. Turn the burners on and set to low.
- Add half a stick of butter to each sauce pan. Maintain low heat to prevent milk solids from separating.
- Stir the sauces to help the butter to melt. The sauces should have a velvet-like texture as the butter is fully incorporated.