Grilled BBQ Chicken Wings

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Last week I gave y'all my Guajillo Cherry Barbecue Sauce recipe, so this week I thought it would be fitting to blog about one way to use it. Plus, today turns out to be National Chicken Wing Day so naturally I was moved to do a tutorial on grilling wings. I can't take all the credit for the actual grill part of the technique but I'm proud to say I'm learning a lot this summer and hope to get more experience under my belt as time goes on. My dad does most of the grilling around here and has been showing my son the ropes, so I got a little bit of help with this one between the two of them. This tutorial is more about technique than ingredients, so what's most important is the three step seasoning process. I've found that brining the wings, marinating with a dry rub, and then saucing them in the final moments on the grill locks in the most flavor and results in tender, juicy chicken. It's not unlike the process for roasting them indoors, but the flavor of a charcoal grill is hard to beat! For the examples in the photos, I used my coffee chile rub and homemade cherry barbecue sauce, an awesome combination.

Grilled BBQ Chicken Wings

4 lbs. fresh chicken wings
2 qts. water
1/2 c. kosher salt
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. Tamari or low sodium soy sauce
1/4 c. your favorite dry spice rub (salt free)
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
Zest of 1 lemon or lime plus 2 tsp. juice
1/4 c. neutral high-smoke point cooking oil (grape seed, canola, safflower), plus additional for grill grates
1 c. your favorite barbecue sauce

Servings: 4
Prep Time: 15 min, plus brining & marinating (at least 2 hours, up to overnight)
Cook Time: 30 to 45 min
Suggested Equipment: Charcoal or gas grill set up for indirect heat

This recipe assumes you know how to operate your own grill, but if you need some good instructions or assistance, please check out this handy guide to 2-zone grilling at Amazing Ribs.

Contrary to popular belief, marinades don't penetrate meat very far at all no matter how long you let them work. The best way to season chicken all the way through the interior is a brine. I've featured many different brines on my site, and most are interchangeable here. For this recipe, a simple solution of salt, sugar and soy sauce is all you really need in the first step as we'll build flavor with spices and sauces later. In a large container, dissolve all of the salt and brown sugar in 2 quarts of water, then whisk in the soy sauce. Drop in the wings. It's okay if the wing tips stick out but you want the drumsticks and flats submerged. I do prefer to keep my wings whole for grilling and I buy the largest ones I can get.

Transfer the container to the fridge and brine for at least an hour but no more than four. Afterwards, rinse the wings off to get rid of any excess salt. (2017 Edit: I've since stopped doing this to avoid cross-contamination. Carefully drain the brine and pat wings down with paper towels.)  You should notice that they feel plumper and slightly darker in color from the soy sauce and brown sugar.

Return the brined wings to your container and toss well with your spice rub, oil, citrus juice, zest, and apple cider vinegar. I've used my coffee chile rub and lime zest here. Any all purpose seasoning, a good bbq rub, or a Mexican style spice rub would be good pairings for most barbecue sauces. Season aggressively though; wings can take a lot of flavor. You might be tempted to add more salt but provided you gave your wings ample time to brine, it's really not necessary. At this point you can allow the wings to marinate overnight if you want, but give them at least an hour. If you plan to grill right away, leaving them at room temperature for the hour is fine but otherwise transfer to the fridge for longer marinating times. 

Pro tip: Do the brine as soon as you bring your wings home from the grocery store, then season them. It's such an easy thing to do while you're already busy putting food away, so why not get it out of the way? You can even freeze them once seasoned too, much easier than waiting for chicken to thaw and then needing even more time to brine and marinate.

Light your grill, setting it up for two-zone cooking. If you have a grill thermometer, aim for around 325° F. Oil the grates to prevent sticking. The wings will need to cook over indirect heat, so place them on the cooler side of the grill. This gives them time to cook all the way through without burning. We started skin side down and covered the grill.   

After about 10 minutes, we opened the grill to flip the wings over and make sure they were cooking evenly. A couple needed to be moved away from a hot spot, but other than that they were good to go. Keep the grill covered as the wings continue to cook to maintain your temperature. They'll take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes to cook through depending on size and how hot your grill is. You're looking for a deep golden brown color with just a little bit of char. If you want to get a little more char on the wings you can move them over to the hotter side of the grill for just a few minutes, but I felt like these were just fine.

Use an instant read thermometer to (carefully) check the thickest part of the drumstick. It needs to hit 165°F minimum, but don't freak if it's a bit higher - because of the brine it's pretty hard to ruin these. I caught this one a bit later after taking photos, but luckily wings are a lot more forgiving than chicken breasts!

The final step is basting the wings on each side with sauce. Be sure to use a silicone brush that won't melt under high heat. You should also pour just the sauce you're using into a small container and baste with that, to prevent contaminating your whole jar. The wings shouldn't be raw at this point, but it's just a safe practice to keep.  After the wings are brushed with sauce (a thin layer will do) allow them to cook for just another minute or so to set the sauce. This step is done at the very end because barbecue sauces have a high sugar content, so your wings would scorch if left over the heat of the grill for the time needed to cook the meat. This is my cherry guajillo barbecue sauce from the previous post! 

Once the wings are sauced up, transfer them right to your serving platter or whatever you're using to transport. I always just take a couple baking sheets outside with me for cooked meat. 

Also, you're entitled to eat a wing. Right now, at the grill. 

Take advantage of the hot grill and throw some veggies on there before you go! We used a grill pan to cook fresh green beans and onions over direct heat, which I tossed with tomatoes and vinaigrette for an easy side salad. I also grilled corn on the cob while the wings cooked! 

That wasn't too complicated, right? Wet brine, spice rub, sauce. Three steps to perfect grilled wings that you can customize to your heart's content. Don't forget to serve with extra sauce on the side!

If this tutorial has helped you out in the kitchen, please consider donating a couple bucks to The Kitchenista Diaries and help fund future recipes!  Thanks for your ongoing support!

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  1. Very nice, can't wait to try some of the techniques used.