Grilled Lemon Pepper Wings

Saturday, May 25, 2019

These lemon pepper wings were so damn good I had to post a recipe the same day. You'll definitely want to add them to your cookout menus this weekend! I've been making them for years for my son, tweaking the brining process and the seasonings. I used to roast the wings in the oven, but trust me it doesn't compare to getting a little smoke and char on the grill. (I'm not going to blog a separate process for roasting, but feel free to adapt.) The buttermilk brine was the biggest improvement I've made in recent years, which tenderizes the chicken, seasons it throughout, and creates golden brown skin on the grill. What I love about these wings most is how flavorful they are without needing to be drowned in sauce. I finish by basting with a lemon butter glaze that has just enough honey to compliment the heat and spices, but not so much that it makes the wings sweet. (I've omitted the honey when I'm going without sugar, and they still taste great.) In case you missed my previous post, you'll want to start with the homemade lemon pepper blend, which is the key component to the recipe!

Grilled Lemon Pepper Wings

Ingredients, for the chicken:
4 lbs whole chicken wings
2 tbsp Kosher salt
2 cups buttermilk, more as needed (low-fat or full-fat will work)
3 tbsp canola oil
2 tbsp lemon pepper blend (salt-free)
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

For the glaze:
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup honey
1 tbsp soy sauce (or tamari, or coconut aminos)
1 tbsp hot sauce
Juice and zest of 2 lemons
1 tbsp very finely minced fresh parsley (optional)

For the grill:
Applewood chips, chunks, or other fruity wood

Active Time: 2 hours
Total Time: 6 hours, up to 24 if including an overnight brine
Yield: About 16 whole wings
Special Equipment: Charcoal grill, chimney starter, fire starter cubes, small disposable aluminum pan, lighter, metal grill tongsinstant-read meat thermometerZester or fine grater, silicone baster

Place the wings in a shallow container, ideally one that accommodates them in a single layer. Season both sides with the salt, and then pour over with enough buttermilk to cover. (Yes, it's more salt than you'll think you need, but it won't all be absorbed.) It's okay if the wing tips stick out, just make sure the flats and drummettes are coated in buttermilk.

Buttermilk brines are the way to salvation. That is all you need to remember going forward.

Cover the chicken and let it hang out in the fridge for at least four hours, up to overnight.

After the wings have been brined, carefully drain the buttermilk. Pat the wings down with paper towels as best you can. It's cool if they're still a little bit wet. Toss the wings in oil, then season with the lemon pepper, paprika, and cayenne. Rub it into the chicken to make sure they're all evenly seasoned. You can return the wings to the refrigerator for up to one day, or if you'll be cooking them right away just leave them out.

Now, off to get your grill going. The best way I've learned to light a charcoal grill is by using a chimney starter, filled about 3/4 of the way with charcoal briquettes. Wax fire starter cubes are helpful to light a flame underneath. Set the chimney on a safe surface, the easiest being your grill grates. Once smoking, allow it to burn until the charcoal at the top is white and glowing. This could take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. Carefully dump the hot coals into your grill.

I recommend a 2-zone grill setup, where coals will be on one side of the grill only. There's a great guide at Amazing Ribs which goes into detail about how to do it, and why it's effective. Basically, for this scenario, you are creating a cooler side of the grill where the meat can cook slowly and pick up some smoke, and a hotter side of the grill where you can sear and crisp the meat at the end.  I add a small aluminum pan full of water next to my coals, which helps add some moisture inside the grill.

The setup for my Weber kettle looks something like this:

The target temperature you want to get the grill to stay at is in the 300°F - 325°F range. (Hopefully your grill is fitted with a thermometer, but if not, you can use a probe to monitor.) Once the charcoal is situated, cover the grill and adjust your vents as needed - this will totally depend on your grill's setup. I have to keep ours almost shut closed to keep temps low. It may take another 10 minutes or so to regulate the temperature.

In the photo above, you'll see wood chunks added. I usually reserve those for longer cook times when I'm not going to be opening the grill lid frequently. Today I used applewood chips, which burn more quickly but that's fine in this case. You don't even need to soak them. Once the temp got down into the 300°F range, I threw in about a cup of wood chips over the coals, then covered the grill and let them burn off for a minute.

We're finally ready to add the chicken! Arrange them skin side up, in a single layer on the cool side of the grill. None of the chicken should be directly over any coals.

Cover the grill, and let the chicken cook for 20 minutes. If you used applewood chips, add another round of wood at that point and let it burn off for a minute before closing the grill. It's always a good idea to make sure none of the chicken is cooking too fast. If so, rearrange it to be a little further from the heat source. Check it again in another 20 minutes, adding a final half cup or so of wood.

Meanwhile, as the chicken finishes cooking, you can whip up an easy glaze to finish. In a small pot over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the honey, soy sauce, hot sauce, lemon pepper, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Whisk together and cook for five minutes, just until the glaze thickens a bit. If you're adding the parsley, stir it in at the end.

Note: When zesting lemons make sure you don't pick up the white pith underneath the rind, which will add bitter flavors to your glaze.

The closer you can keep your grill down to 300°F, the more time you can give it to cook slowly and absorb the smoky aromas from the wood. After one hour, my chicken was golden brown and just starting to crisp around the edges. Using an instant-read meat thermometer, confirm that the thickest parts of the wings have hit at least 170°F. They'll likely go above that, which is fine.

Once the chicken is cooked all the way through, you can sear it. To do this, use your tongs to move a few pieces of chicken at a time over to the hotter side of the grill, directly above the coals. Cook for a minute or two, flipping to get both sides crisp. Then return the chicken back to the cooler side of the grill. Work in batches until all the chicken is seared. If you have any flare-ups, just close the grill briefly until the flames die back down.

After the chicken is seared, glaze one side with the lemon butter concoction. Just a thin layer is all that's needed.

Then flip the chicken and glaze the other side. You can cover the grill for a minute to set the glaze, but really it's such a thin layer that it doesn't take long to dry. Carefully transfer the chicken wings to a clean platter for serving.

If you have any extra glaze, drizzle it over the chicken on the platter, and dive in. A little extra lemon juice doesn't hurt either. (Had I thought about it sooner, I would have charred a lemon and used the charred juice, so there's a bonus idea for you.)

So, so good.

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  1. I can't believe there isn't a comment on here! I'm not smoking these - don't have the capability to at the moment. I'm going to try oven roasting on Sunday. SO excited. Very happy I found you on Twitter!

  2. Tried these today with the pimento mac and cheese it was so amazing I should have made more

  3. Sweet lady...thank you, these were the best wings I believe I’ve ever had! Thank you thank you thank you!