The Secrets to Making Superior Chicken Wings

The Secrets to Making Superior Chicken Wings
(rez-art/iStock/Getty Images Plus)
February 09, 2024
February 10, 2024

The fried chicken wing is as American as the hamburger, and on Super Bowl Sunday, Americans will eat more than a billion.

“They pair perfectly with beer and sports—the perfect trifecta,” said Drew Cerza, founder of the National Buffalo Wing Festival.

Where did this widespread tradition start? And more importantly, how do you make the best wings at home?

But First, What Is a Buffalo Wing?

The Claredon Hotel in Buffalo, N.Y., the oldest known establishment to have served fried chicken wings. (The Buffalo History Museum)
The Claredon Hotel in Buffalo, N.Y., the oldest known establishment to have served fried chicken wings. (The Buffalo History Museum)

A popular tradition in the South, fried chicken has an established history, and yet Buffalo, New York, lends its name to fried wings. Wings appeared on the Clarendon Hotel menu as early as 1857, but in the 1960s, black restaurateur John Young was perhaps the first to focus his business—Wings and Things—on them, serving battered and fried whole wings with a tangy barbecue sauce.

But what’s known as a Buffalo wing today is very specific. Mr. Cerza tells us that story dates to “a cold Friday night in March of 1964.” Dominic Bellissimo, the son of Teressa and Frank Bellissimo, owners of the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, came into the bar with some friends late that night.

“Low on food options at that time, Teressa pulled out some chicken wings that were in abundance in the kitchen because of a mistake in ordering and dropped them in the deep fryer. She pulled them out and tossed them in a bowl with Frank’s RedHot and butter.” Dominic and his friends picked them clean, and the lightbulb went on for the Bellissimos: What better way to sell more cold beer than to feed patrons a spicy finger food? The Buffalo wing was born, and the trend spread throughout the country.

“A true Buffalo wing is deep fried—with no breading—in canola oil,” Mr. Cerza said. “It then needs to be tossed in a cayenne pepper sauce—Frank’s RedHot was the original—and either margarine or butter. Additional spices can be added as long as you don’t go too far out of the lane.”

As a purist, he doesn’t go for breading. “That is against the rules in Buffalo and actually a misdemeanor in the court of law here.”

We asked three more experts for tips on keeping your wings from drawing any penalty flags.

Buffalo wings traditionally are tossed in a sauce made with Frank’s RedHot sauce and butter. (rez-art/iStock/Getty Images Plus)
Buffalo wings traditionally are tossed in a sauce made with Frank’s RedHot sauce and butter. (rez-art/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Choose Your Wings Wisely

While frozen chicken is easy, several chefs mentioned that fresh wings make all the difference. Mr. Cerza recommends that the wings be “large, but not too big where the flavor of the sauce gets dominated by the actual taste of the chicken. The chicken wing should be a delivery vehicle for a flavorful sauce.”

These wings often come whole and need to be cut to the familiar finger-food size. Whole wings consist of drumsticks and drumettes (flats), as well as wingettes (wing tips), the meatless ends you only get after buying the entire uncut wings.

Chef Michael Costello, from The Stinger Cocktail Bar and Kitchen at the InterContinental Times Square in New York City, recommends separating the drums from the flats for even cooking. This prevents the thinner flats from drying out while the thicker drumsticks continue to cook.

To cut the full wings, lay them skin-side down and work a sharp knife into the space between the joints. Keep the tips for chicken stock, but don’t bother with them for your wing spread.

If you buy your wings whole, separate the drums from the flats for even cooking. (YelenaYemchuk/iStock/Getty Images Plus)
If you buy your wings whole, separate the drums from the flats for even cooking. (YelenaYemchuk/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Prep Ahead for Success

Mr. Cerza pats the wings dry, tosses them in canola oil with a bit of salt and pepper, then chills them in the fridge for an hour. The chill gives the skin a head start on crisping up before the internal meat finishes cooking and starts drying out.

Lianeace Acevedo, kitchen manager and chef at Smokehouse BBQ and Brews in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania, takes the prep a step further. “My number one secret for homemade wings is to brine them the night before I’m going to cook them,” she said. For the brine, she uses a 50/50 mix of water and pickle juice, a lot of salt, Worcestershire sauce, and black peppercorns. “You can substitute for white vinegar, but I like the pickle juice—instead of throwing it out, it can be repurposed,” she said. She warns to limit the brining to 8 to 12 hours, because the brine breaks the meat down too much after that point.

The next day, Ms. Acevedo dries the wings off and spreads them on a baking sheet. The dry seasoning depends on the final sauces. “I tend to look for a more versatile seasoning if I’m going to be using multiple different sauces, something easy like garlic salt, onion powder, chili powder, pepper,” she said. “Or if I’m going for spicy, I’ll substitute the chili powder for cayenne.” Then she bakes the lot to an internal temp of 145 degrees F.

At this point, she’ll refrigerate the wings until it’s time to serve them. Finally, they go into the deep fryer. “Both the par-cooking and the refrigeration steps help to retain juices in the end result,” she said.

Mr. Costello also employs that two-step cooking process, which he says produces that desired crispiness on the outside without drying out the center. He adds a sprayed baking rack on top of the baking sheet, which “helps even cooking and cooling,” he said.

But if you don’t want to deep-fry, your oven works just fine. Mr. Cerza bakes his wings for 20 to 30 minutes at 375 degrees F, on a grate resting over a cookie sheet so that drippings don’t make the wings soggy. The meat thermometer should hit 165 degrees F.

Consider the Air Fryer

You’d be hard-pressed to find a qualified source that suggests fried foods are healthy, but we all make our exceptions to moderation. But, what if we could make frying just a little less, well, oily?
We turn to Jennifer West, a cookbook author and evangelist for the air fryer method. “We love fried foods. Air frying gives you that crispy fried taste, but you don’t get all the calories,” Ms. West said. She cuts fresh wings herself, then tosses them in a bowl with garlic and onion powder.

“Spritz [them] or use a spray-on oil or even a basting brush,“ she said. ”Make sure everything is in the basket and make a single layer; leave space between the foods so that everything cooks evenly.”

For a bonus, reheating is fast, easy, and doesn’t make the wings soggy.

The air fryer is an excellent tool for frying food without the greasiness. (Hazal Ak/iStock/Getty Images Plus)
The air fryer is an excellent tool for frying food without the greasiness. (Hazal Ak/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Don’t Skimp on the Sauce

The sauce is everything, and wing-focused restaurants often have a full menu of them. Since wings are tossed in the sauce after cooking, mixed-variety orders aren’t a big problem. If we’re talking Buffalo wings, then tradition says Frank’s RedHot and butter, but options range from milder BBQ or Asian-influenced sauces to make-you-cry ghost pepper coatings.

Mr. Costello goes Caribbean. “Having spent many years in South Florida, I was greatly influenced by the Caribbean traditions,” he said. One of his go-to recipes involves marinating the wings in Walkerswood Jamaican jerk wet spice, and serving them with a passion fruit mojito glaze, spiked with mint and rum.

Whatever flavors you’re craving, incorporate them into the wing sauce. (HandmadePictures/iStock/Getty Images Plus)
Whatever flavors you’re craving, incorporate them into the wing sauce. (HandmadePictures/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

“A great way to take wings to the next level,” Mr. Cerza said, “is to sauce the wings and put them on a grill to finish them off and caramelize the sauce. Only leave them on the grill long enough to give them some grill marks.”

A dipping sauce is also important, as well as a side of carrot and celery sticks that may or may not get touched. Just be sure you don’t run out of sauces or wings on Super Bowl Sunday.

“We found out the morning of the first day of the Wingfest in 2021 that the blue cheese never arrived,” Mr. Cerza recalled. “We had to send people around town to all the supermarkets and clear the shelves.” (Nationwide, ranch dressing is surprisingly more popular.)

Ms. West recommends “two to four [wings] per person” if you have a larger spread of things. But, we all have that friend who can eat a dozen in the first quarter. Plan accordingly!

Air Fryer Wings

Makes 24 wings
  • 24 chicken wings (from 12 whole chicken wings), preferably fresh, not frozen
  • 1 cup olive or avocado oil
  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons onion powder
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
Buffalo Wing Sauce
  • 1 cup Louisiana Hot Sauce
  • 1/2 cup margarine
  • 4 tablespoons water
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 4 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
For the wing sauce: You can prepare the wing sauce in advance or while the wings are in the air fryer. Add all of the sauce ingredients to a saucepan and heat over medium heat. Bring the contents of the wing sauce to a boil, then quickly remove from heat and cover with a lid to rest for 5 minutes.
For the wings: Preheat the air fryer to 360 degrees F. Prepare the basket.

Add the wings, olive oil, and seasonings to a large sealable plastic bag. Seal the bag and toss the wings to coat them evenly with oil and seasonings.

Place the wings in a single layer into the prepared air fryer basket. Cook at 360 degrees F for 18 minutes, flipping the wings every 5 to 6 minutes. To finish them, increase the temperature to 390 degrees and cook for 2 minutes more. Use a meat thermometer to ensure the wings are 165 degrees F before removing.

Add the cooked wings to a medium-sized mixing bowl and cover with the sauce. Toss the wings to completely cover them, then remove and place on a serving dish. Serve with your favorite dipping sauce.


To make the wings extra crispy, add a pinch of baking powder to the wings before cooking.

Consider using different dipping sauces. Jen West’s favorite is Marie’s Creamy Ranch dressing.

Store leftover wings in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Reheat the wings in the air fryer at 390 degrees F for 2 to 3 minutes.

Recipe courtesy of Jennifer West, co-owner of Air Frying Foodie and co-author of “Air Fryer All Day: 120 Tried-and-True Recipes for Family-Friendly Comfort Food

Wing King’s BBQ Wings Sauce

Drew Cerza’s favorite recipe is his own Bourbon Street BBQ wing sauce. He used it to beat the Food Network’s Bobby Flay in “Throwdown with Bobby Flay,” and Bobby conceded, naming Mr. Cerza “Wing King.”
Makes about 3 cups
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 small shallot, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 cup Heinz Chili Sauce
  • 1 cup Sweet Baby Ray BBQ Sauce
  • 1 shot Jim Beam Bourbon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ancho pepper (optional)
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup Frank’s RedHot Sauce
Chop up the shallots and garlic and sauté in butter on medium heat. Mix in the chili and BBQ sauces and bourbon, stirring constantly for 2 minutes. Then add the remaining ingredients and stir for 5 minutes. Once wings are fully cooked, sauce the wings in a large mixing bowl.

Chef Michael Costello’s Passion Fruit Mojito Glaze

  • 1 cup passion fruit puree
  • 1 10-ounce mojito from the bar
  • 1 ounce triple sec
  • 5 ounces shallots
  • 1 tablespoon sriracha sauce
  • 1 1/2 cups corn syrup
  • 1 cup apple juice concentrate
  • 1/2 bunch fresh mint
  • 2 cups oil
Combine all ingredients except the oil in a tall container. Blend well with an immersion stick blender, adding oil slowly. Chill overnight and serve.