There are more ways to prepare chicken wings than I have fingers. They can be fried, baked, or grilled, and covered in hot sauce, BBQ sauce, or white sauce. My favorite is with only a few spices and the ultimate addition: smoke.
Why Smoked Wings Are the Best
Chicken wings’ dark meat can withstand a lot of heat—they become most tender cooked for an extended time over low heat in the smoker or on the grill with smoke. This allows the collagen in the meat to slowly melt. And while the low heat works magic on the meat, the skin gets a perfect crisp when the wings are finished over high heat.
Some recipes apply baking powder on the wings and refrigerate them overnight, uncovered. It’s a great way to get crisp wings. However, since these are smoked low and slow, they only need a good pat-down with paper towels and a light coat of olive oil.
When smoking wings, I stick to a simple dry rub. If I want a sauce, I dip the cooked wings into them right before serving.
How to Prepare Your Chicken Wings
Chicken wings can be smoked whole, but I prefer to break them down into drums and flats. It allows me to eat with one hand—the smaller portion is easier to handle—and hold my beer glass with the other hand. To accomplish this, I do the heavy lifting during prep.
A sturdy pair of kitchen shears or a sharp knife makes the process a breeze. There is a joint at the point where the drum and the flat meets. Snip right through it—you won’t need much force. I remove the wingtips and add them into a freezer bag for my next batch of chicken stock.
The Best Wood for Smoking Chicken Wings
While the wings cook, smoke bathes them in sweet bitterness. It also paints the wings a beautiful mahogany. You will taste these with your mouth and your eyes.
I prefer sweet woods, like apple or cherry wood, which is what I call for in this recipe. Chicken also goes well with pecan and hickory wood. Experiment and use the one you like, or even use a combination of woods. Grilling wood chips and chunks are readily available at most grocery and big box stores.
A Smoker or a Grill, Both Work!
Whether you have a water pan, pellet grill, or kamado, a smoker will undoubtedly make the process easier. A smoker provides a large cook surface and is great at maintaining low heat, whether through insulation or electronics. It is incredibly convenient and rewarding; however, you do not need a dedicated smoker to smoke wings.
If using a gas grill, turn on one or two burners, depending on the size of the grill. You’ll get indirect low heat over the burners that are kept off. Create smoke with a dedicated smokebox that sits directly over a lit burner. A makeshift aluminum foil pouch pierced with holes and stuffed with wood chips is an easy alternative.
On a charcoal grill, indirect low heat is obtained by pushing unlit coals to one side. To do this, light some coals and place the lit coals on top of unlit coals. Low heat is maintained as the lit coal slowly heats downwards towards the fresh coals. Chunks of wood, added to the lit coals, provide waves of smoke.
How Long to Smoke the Chicken Wings
Smoke the wings for 1 hour over indirect low heat, 225ºF to 275ºF—this means the wings are place over the unlit burners or the side without lit coals. Then, ramp up the heat to medium-high, 400ºF to 425ºF—the wings get moved over to the side with the lit burners or coals. There, they cook for 15 more minutes.
What to Serve with Smoked Chicken Wings
Classic celery sticks and blue cheese dressing works, but since the grill is already on, why not pop some vegetables on it. English peas, corn, asparagus, or romaine lettuce—with the blue cheese dressing drizzled on top—are all great choices.
Just Wing It!
Smoked Chicken Wings
- Cherry wood chips for gas grill or chunks for smoker or charcoal grill
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon light brown sugar, tightly packed
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons onion powder
- 1 teaspoon ancho chili powder
- 5 pounds chicken wings
- Extra virgin olive oil, for brushing the wings
Prepare the grill or smoker:
You do not need a dedicated smoker! You can use a grill—either gas or charcoal—to create indirect low heat, 225ºF to 275ºF.
For a gas grill: obtain indirect low heat by turning on one burner to high heat. You’ll grill the wings over the unlit burners. Add a smoker box or a perforated aluminum foil pouch filled with wood chips on top of the lit burner to generate smoke.
For a charcoal grill: obtain indirect low heat by pushing unlit coals to one side. Light some coal and place the lit coals on top of unlit coals. Close the vents to reduce airflow. Add wood chunks directly to the lit coals for smoke.
For a dedicated smoker: Add 3 to 4 wood chunks to the smoker. If using a water pan or kamado grill, place the chunks directly on the coals. If using a pellet smoker, use cherry wood pellets.
Prepare the dry rub:
In a small bowl or spice shaker, combine the salt, garlic powder, brown sugar, paprika, black pepper, onion powder, and ancho chili powder.
Prepare the wings:
With a sharp knife or poultry shears, remove the wingtip and separate the flat and drum. Flex each joint to visualize its center, then cut through it. Save the wingtips for another use, like chicken stock.
Dry and season the wings:
Place the wings on a baking sheet lined with paper towels and pat dry. Discard the paper towels.
Brush the wings with a light coat of olive oil. Season the wings all over with the rub.
Smoke the wings:
Smoke the wings over indirect low heat—over the empty side of the charcoal grill or the unlit burners—for 1 hour, with the grill lid on, flipping once.
Note: I got 28 to 34 chicken wings in 5 pounds. If your chicken wings are large, with less than 28 wings, smoke them for 15 minutes longer.
Raise the temperature of the smoker to medium-high heat, 400º to 425º F. For a gas or charcoal grill, transfer the wings over to the lit burner or coals. Cook for 15 minutes with the lid on, then transfer onto a serving platter and serve.
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