Mistakes People Make When Grilling Chicken Wings

Whether you're a barbecue beginner or the reigning grill champ, you're definitely doing something wrong (or at least could be doing something better). From the age old debate of dry rubs versus marinades and fresh versus frozen to whether to oil the grill or the food, this article covers it all. So before you blast that heat or walk away from your grill full of overconfidence, remember that there's only so much that barbecue sauce can hide. And if you grill these wings perfectly, the sauce is going to be something that makes the whole thing better rather than masking its faults. 

Can anyone be a chicken wing master? Yes. Will it take some work? Sure. Maybe some trial and error? Probably. So stock up on wings and get going. Because once you perfect these juicy, crispy wings, you'll never go back to boring, dry chicken breasts. You'll also be invited to every tailgate party and Super Bowl Sunday get-together. Actually, maybe you should hide your grilling prowess from acquaintances. Otherwise, you might be stuck manning the 'cue while everyone else enjoys the game. 

Still, knowledge is power, right? So whether you enjoy these with friends or keep your knowledge to yourself, you'll soon be avoiding all the mistakes people make when grilling chicken wings. 

Oiling the grill, not the chicken wings

Instead of oiling the grill to keep your chicken wings from sticking to it, what you actually want to do is oil the wings, according to Meathead Goldwyn of AmazingRibs.com in an interview for HuffPost. Not a ton of oil, mind you, because the wings already have plenty of fat in them and adding too much oil could prevent them from crisping up (see below), but a thin layer of oil will do the trick and even help the food cook more evenly (via Lovefood). 

The main reason not to oil the grill is that the oil will reach its smoking point faster than if you oil the food itself, which means you'll end up with more potentially cancer-causing char. Having a thin layer of high-heat oil on the grill is fine if you're not going to be using high heat, but wings are probably going to need high heat (again, see below), so you're better off just cleaning your grill and leaving it clean before you throw on the meat. 

Serious Eats does, however, recommend oiling your grill if you don't know if there's oil on your food already. The only other reason to oil the grill and not the food is if your wings are pre-seasoned and you don't want to mess up the seasonings on the skin. Then you can oil the grill to prevent sticking (as long as there's not a lot of oil in the seasonings already). 

Cooking the chicken wings at too high of a temperature

What you don't want to do when you're grilling is create excess char. None of us need cancer, but we all know that the best parts of a juicy chicken wing are the crispy outer bits. That means making sure the temperature isn't too high, but is high enough to create that crunchy, gently blackened outside and tender inside. Because the worst thing would be to end up with burnt wings (besides cancer, clearly). 

You especially don't want excess char with chicken wings because they're already so fatty that when that fat drips, it'll create extra polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are also carcinogenic. So the trick is to find the balance between high enough heat for crispy skin, but low enough so the wing cooks all the way through and there's ideally less cancer in your future. Ways to do that include using a mix of indirect heat and direct heat and cooking lower and slower (but at a high enough temperature to cook the meat to a safe temperature –- more on those below!). 

Not using two sides of the grill for lower heat cooking and high-heat crisping

To get that perfect char, the ideal sequence of events is to cook the wings at a low temperature so the fat drips out and then to crisp them at a higher temperature, which means less time spent at a higher temp and fewer carcinogens. That might seem like a lot of effort when you could just blast them and be done with it, but did you see those sad, burnt wings above? Do you really want those to be your dinner?

So the best way to cook the wings at two temperatures is to set up two zones within a grill. Nick from Macheesmo has explicit instructions on how to do this (you can even pre-bake them instead of grilling them for so long, if you prefer, and then finish them quickly on high heat on the grill). You can have one side for low heat and one for high or you can concentrate the heat in the middle and use the edges for lower heat cooking.

Weber advises doing it the opposite way: Start with direct medium heat and then moving the wings to low heat. But if you're adding a last-minute sauce like the jerk sauce on Macheesmo, the wings could end up wet and sloppy this way. So choose your method according to what you're putting on your wings. Just don't blast'em with high heat from the get-go. 

Using a marinade instead of a dry rub on the chicken wings

Most barbecue gurus will tell you that you want your meat dry before putting it on the grill. But what about marinated chicken wings? 

It probably won't make the biggest difference if your meat is damp if you're using fairly high heat, but to avoid disappointment, the easiest solution is to use a dry rub or a dry brine instead. Even if marinating meat doesn't negatively affect the exterior of the wings, it can make it mushy.

It also doesn't infuse the meat as much as a rub applied far enough in advance (via Epicurious). Since marinades are often oil-based and meat has a lot of water in it, the marinade has a hard time getting deep inside it (via AmazingRibs.com). That's not the end of the world for chicken wings, which aren't that big, but you don't really need to be adding a ton of excess oil to your fatty wings anyway. A lot of it will just drip out through the grill grates, which is a waste of your marinating efforts. 

So if you really love teriyaki sauce, it's best to add it partway through cooking instead. Or if your marinade is incredibly liquid-y, you might just have to be okay with less crispy wings (or slightly more charred ones). Definitely avoid marinades with a lot of sugar, though, or they'll burn quickly under direct heat.

Not seasoning your chicken wings well (and preferably in advance)

If Samin Nosrat of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat taught us anything, it's that salting meat in advance is how you infuse flavor. You don't want to over-salt, according to Bon Appétit, especially if you're going to be adding sauce later or dipping the wings in something salty, but if you're a wing purist, give a little Nosrat-approved wrist wiggle-waggle and then throw your chicken wings back in the fridge until you're ready to grill them. That's essentially a dry brine, though, you can add a little baking powder to help them dry them out while you're at it, via Mike Vrobel of Dad Cooks Dinner

You can do the same with a dry rub, which is just a blend of spices sprinkled on meat (if you actually rub it, you can end up with more spice on your hands than the meat, but go for it). These rubs could range from paprika and black pepper to curry blends or cayenne-based hot wing rubs.

Not setting a timer

You know how this one goes. You think, "I've got this," and you walk away from whatever you're cooking without setting a timer. Then 20 minutes later, your cookies/pancakes/fajitas/chicken wings are burnt. Just set the timer! 

Even if you know that this time it'll be different, that this time you'll remember, have you ever actually not burned your toasted sesame seeds? Be honest. 

So whatever recipe you're making, whether it's your own or someone else's, get a timer going (preferably a big and loud one, because, seriously, who cares if your neighbors get angry as long as your wings are stellar?) and then actually go move the chicken wings or flip them or take them off the grill -– whatever you set the timer to remind yourself to do. You'll be so much happier, and better fed, too. It's a little bit of effort for a big reward. And if that doesn't convince you, think about the flip side: If you don't do it and you end up burning your chicken wings, you're wasting your time and your money.

Most ovens and microwaves have timers on them, but you know what else has a timer? Your phone. So there's no need to go buy a little egg timer or an extra piece of plastic to stick in your kitchen. 

Thinking you can just add more sauce to cover up a mistake

This is just common sense. Barbecue sauce can work wonders –- it really is a miracle sauce -– but if your wings are soggy or burnt, barbecue sauce isn't going to save you. It's not going to swing in like Falcon or Captain America and make everything okay. No, if you overcooked your chicken or ended up with mushy skin, you're on your own, which might even mean your wings aren't worth eating. 

That also goes for hot sauce, teriyaki sauce, ketchup, honey-mustard sauce, ranch or whatever else you think might be a good idea when you're in a chicken wing-related pickle. Less-than-fun-fact: Did you know that 30 to 40% of all the food in America becomes food waste? Whether that's because of your poorly cooked wings or not, who knows? 

But needless to say, don't mess up those wings in the first place and you'll be part of the solution, not the problem. 

Not using a meat thermometer

The safe internal temperature for cooked chicken wings is 165 F according to the USDA, so the best plan is to get your meat to the tiniest bit below that, because unless you live in an ice house, they're going to keep cooking inside after you take them off the grill. That should result in the ideal temperature of 165 F. 

Serious Eats recommends doing something similar when you're cooking your wings sous vide and then deep-frying them. Wings don't retain heat like larger pieces of meat, though, so don't dip much lower than 165 F. Then again, some people like the texture of the meat when it's a little more well done, so feel free to cook them to a slightly higher temperature if that's you. 

See how complicated this can get? Now imagine doing it without a thermometer. You might think your wings are cooked through because they're charred and crispy on the outside, but if you used high heat, there's a chance that they're not cooked through in the middle. The larger your wings, the more likely that is. 

And if you, say, lucked into a ridiculously large chicken wing, like this one, you'd definitely want that thermometer. You'd also need a very big grill ... and a very big budget.

Using poor quality chicken wings

Just because restaurants that sell chicken wings often use low-quality chicken, that doesn't mean you should. In fact, grilling chicken wings at home is an opportunity to buy better chicken. Wings are a relatively inexpensive piece of meat compared to chicken breasts (so long as you don't want until the Saturday before the Super Bowl to buy them). So if you can afford it, go for free-range, organic wings when buying chicken, or at least something that didn't lead to a chicken having an unhealthy life in a feedlot. 

FYI, only chicken labeled "raised without antibiotics" were actually raised without them. Even organic chickens can be given antibiotics before coming out of the egg or on their very first day outside of the egg (via Consumer Reports). 

And whether you can afford higher quality or more expensive chicken or not, remember to save those bones for stock. Chicken wings are the perfect opportunity to create your own homemade broth for soups and basically everything that needs some extra flavor.

Not thawing the chicken wings thoroughly first

Yes, you can cook frozen meat directly on the grill without thawing it in advance from wings to thighs to breasts –- but you might not end up with the juiciest results and your cooking time is going to be a lot longer. The heat can cause the outsides of the chicken to burn before the wings cook all the way through (via Thyme & Joy). 

According to BBQHost, if you really want to cook them from frozen, it's best to cook the wings gently over indirect heat first, to make sure the insides get almost cooked through (use that handy meat thermometer here), then move them to direct heat to finish. They may take double the time (which feels like ages for wings!) versus cooking in 20 minutes for fresh or thawed wings. But be careful not to go too low with the temperature or you could end up with food poisoning. 

The safest way to cook frozen chicken wings is to thaw them fully first in the fridge overnight. And make sure the heat isn't too low in your grill.

Forgetting to turn the chicken wings over

This might sound silly, as in who's not going to turn over their wings? But it's actually an easy one to mess up if you're preoccupied with party guests. You leave the wings a little too long and they've cooked so much on one side that if you turn them over they'll be bone dry. 

This is another example of one of those times when you should use a timer. The point of a grilled chicken wing is usually to have a consistently crispy outside. You're not usually aiming for one that's charred (or over-charred) on one side and soft and gelatinous on the other. 

The good news is that with all the fat in chicken wings, you don't even have to worry about turning them too often. Susie Bulloch of Hey Grill Hey, turns them numerous times during cooking, with the goal of not burning them and of making them consistently crispy. A lot of recipes just say to turn the wings occasionally, which seems like a safe bet unless you're a true chicken wing gourmet who'll die without perfect grill marks. So set that timer multiple times and reap the rewards.

Leaving the lid open

If you leave the lid open on a barbecue, you'll lose all the heat. It's fine to open it to turn, flip or rotate the meat, but you set that temperature to where it needs to be for a reason, and the worst thing would be to end up with undercooked chicken. Keeping the barbecue closed also helps the chicken cook all the way through instead of just being cooked on the outside from the flicks of flame that jump up through the grill. 

The second worst thing would be to waste all that gas or charcoal and also have to wait an extra hour for your chicken wings to be ready. Yes, the wings will eventually cook if you leave the lid off, but that's not very efficient. Do you really want to wait twice as long for your wings for no good reason? 

So keep a lid on it.

Not cleaning your grill before using it

According to The Spruce, you only need to do a major cleaning on your barbecue once a year, but you do need to brush it clean regularly. When you brush it, though, is a matter of contention. The Spruce says to do it after cooking, once the grill has cooled a little, but Weber says you should preheat your grill well and then scrape it immediately before cooking, because the preheating gets rid of a lot of what's left anyway, making your work easier. 

Either way, you definitely do want to brush it or wipe it before cooking something else on it. Otherwise, you'll have gross black bits sticking to your food. Besides being unattractive, it can make you sick

The reason you don't do a major cleanup every time is that you want some of that blackened grease to stick around on the sides of the barbecue (not on your meat) and add flavor, but food residue should definitely be burned and scraped off before cooking something else. And be careful about using wire brushes, which can end up in your meal and potentially cause serious harm.

Adding the sauce too soon

The #1 mistake people make when grilling chicken wings is probably adding a sugary sauce too soon and having it burn. If you add a sugary sauce –- or any sauce -– too soon, it can wreck your chicken wings. The sugar will burn quickly, which is why you should add it just a little before the end. 

Adding any sauce too soon can also keep the chicken wings from crisping up, which defeats the purpose of grilling them. If you wanted gelatinous wings, you could have just baked them or -– heaven forbid -– boiled them. 

So don't slather on the barbecue sauce or honey-garlic until your well-chosen recipe tells you to do so, generally anywhere from two to five minutes before they're done. Or dip the chicken wings in sauce after cooking or toss them directly in the sauce after cooking for full immersion, but make sure to serve them right away before the skin softens and the meat cools.