If you grew up in the South, chances are your family smoked meat. To be honest, it wasn’t until culinary school that I realized you could smoke things other than meat. Every holiday, special event, and family reunion, you could count on one of my uncles, if not all of them, firing up the smoker to prepare some mouthwatering smoked meats. The techniques and recipes have been handed down from generation to generation, with each family member adding their own spin to this truly ancient cooking and preservation method.
The culinary tradition of smoking meat in the South is a beautiful way that most, if not all, families in the region connect with their heritage and history. I have fond memories of holiday weekends with the men all gathered by the smoker, telling war stories and sharing laughs while the “women folk” prepared side dishes and gently corrected the men’s um, tall tales of adventures past. Looking back, it’s one of the things I dearly miss.
It might shock you to learn that the art of smoking meat isn’t limited to just the South; it’s a cooking technique dating back thousands of years, found across different cultures and regions worldwide, each contributing its own variations and flavors to the mix. As I’ve learned more about cooking through culinary school and my own experiments in the kitchen, I’ve discovered new ways to apply this ancient method to other ingredients, expanding the possibilities beyond traditional meat-smoking.
But today we’re here to discuss smoking one of my favorite things in the world, CHICKEN WINGS! I love them! Honestly, smoking wings was not something we did growing up. In truth, we didn’t really eat a lot of wings until my later adult years. I don’t mean we didn’t cook with them, but most of the time, we had to stretch a little bit of meat to feed a large crowd. So they’d often be boiled or baked, then shredded into another dish like chicken and rice, chicken and dumplings, or chicken salad. This was also about the same time as the rise of the wing happened, and they became expensive. It’s also interesting to see the migration of the wing in my lifetime from “poor food” to something almost every restaurant in America has on their menus now in some form.
So, as I reflect on the rich tradition of smoking meat in the South and the evolution of my own culinary journey, I can’t help but crave one of my all-time favorites: smoked chicken wings! Over the years, I’ve honed a recipe that brings together the timeless art of smoking with the irresistible flavor of tender, juicy chicken wings. Let me share with you my tried-and-true smoked chicken wing recipe that will undoubtedly become a crowd-pleaser at your next gathering. Get ready to savor the mouthwatering flavors of perfectly smoked wings!
- 1 package of whole chicken wings (Normally about 4.5 pounds, but 4 pounds of 'cleaned' wings would work too.)
- 1 teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda (1 teaspoon per 3 pounds of meat.)
- 8 cups chicken brine (Use whatever recipe you prefer, but this is an important step!)
- 1/2 cup Spice Blend of your choice (You won't need all of it, but better to have too much than not enough.)
- Wood chips, blocks, or pellets, and a few bricks of your favorite charcoal for background flavor.
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup of your preferred hot, buffalo, or BBQ sauce
- In a large food-safe container, place the baking soda along with 1 cup of your chicken brine. Fully mix the brine and baking soda until completely combined. The baking soda will change the pH of the wings, allowing them to crisp better later. Brining is a must-do step because white meat chicken can turn dry and tough very easily. So, brining the chicken will add extra moisture and flavor to your final product. This step should NOT be skipped, even for small portions of meat like chicken wings. Allow the wings to soak in the brine for 1 to 3 hours.
- Remove your wings one at a time and place them on a gel cutting board. Stretch the wing out until you start to feel/hear the joints crack a little. Place the tip of your knife between each joint and separate them. If your knife is not between the joint, you will have a hard time separating them. Place the wing tips into a freezer bag for chicken stock later. Place the drumettes and flat wing portions into a large food-safe container. Pat each one down with a clean disposable paper towel as you add them. Pour in half of your spice mixture and toss the wings until they're fully coated. Then add the remaining spices a little at a time until they're fully coated. (Try not to overdo it as the spices can burn in the smoker if it's too hot.)
- Once your wings are fully coated, place each one on a rack-lined sheet pan. Put the whole sheet pan into the fridge for 2 hours or overnight.
- While your chicken wings are resting in the fridge, it's time to set up your smoker. In a large container, place your wood chips or wood blocks inside and cover them with water until about 1 inch above. Allow them to soak in the water until they have reached the desired level of dampness you wish. If using wood blocks, soak for 2 hours up to overnight. Wood chips, on the other hand, only need about 30 minutes to an hour. (While most people use hardwoods for smoking due to their longer smoke time, you can use both hard and softwood for this. However, do not use woods that contain sap and resin like pine, as they will give your food a bad taste!)
- Open up your smoker and remove any old ashes, then fill it with your WET wood chips and any other flavorings you wish to add. (Sometimes I'll add citrus peels, lemongrass stalks, cinnamon bark - not the quills.)
- Depending on your smoker setup, you may or may not have a water pan. If you do, remove this pan and WASH it fully with a non-perfumed, natural soap. Make sure to rinse the pan multiple times to remove any soap residue that might be left behind. Return your water pan to the machine and fill it with the desired liquid you wish to use. Typically, this is water, but you can also use a mixture of water, beer, pickle brine, etc. Be careful how much you add, as this can also give things an odd taste if you add too much. (I used too much pickle brine once, and my chicken tasted a bit like dill pickles.)
- Remove the grates from your machine and spray them off with an outside water source. If you are using a grill as a smoker, you can then place the grills back on the device and burn off any leftover dirt by placing them directly over a hot flame before scraping them off with a grill brush. If you use an electric smoker, you can run these through your dishwasher without any soap in the machine on your pots and pan setting. (I normally run my dishwasher empty once before then washing my grates to ensure no soap is left in the machine itself.) Once cleaned, return them to your machine.
- If you are using a charcoal grill (non-electric and non-propane grills) to smoke your wings, place a full chimney of charcoal briquets. If you don't have a chimney, you'll want to use about 3 pounds of charcoal briquets. Lite them and allow them to start developing ash.
- If you are using a charcoal grill to smoke your wings, you'll want to use tinfoil and create a packet large enough to hold your wet wood chips (without the water) and fully seal the package edges so nothing falls out. Take a knife and slice 2-3 slashes 1 inch long to allow the wood smoke to escape. Once the charcoal briquets begin to develop ash on 50% of the briquets, pile half of them into a mound on one side of your grill. Place your tinfoil packet on the coals and cover it with the remaining coals. On the other hand, if you are using an electric smoker, you can simply let your smoker temperature come to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit (82 degrees Celsius) to be "ready."
Marriage Of The Smoker And The Chicken
- Oil the food grates for your device with a flavorless oil (canola is ideal) and place your wings on your smoker's racks. Your goal is to place the flats on the outer edge away from the direct heat. Place the drumsticks closer to the flame, but not directly over it.
- Close your device and open your vents to allow airflow. (If you don't have enough airflow, your fire can go out, and you won't get that smoky flavor.)
- After about 30 minutes, open your smoker and turn your wings to ensure even smoking.
- Once your wings reach 180 degrees Fahrenheit (82 degrees Celsius), remove them from the smoker.
- If you are using a charcoal grill, place the drumsticks over the direct heat and allow them to crisp up and render any remaining fat. Once the drumsticks are browned on all sides, remove them and do the same for the flats.
- Place the butter in a sauté pan and allow it to melt until the bubbling subsides. (Allow it to become slightly brown for extra flavor, but this is optional.)
- Pour the sauce you wish to use into the sauté pan and mix. Allow the sauce to cook for a few moments to thicken up and condense a little.
- Toss the wings in the sauce and enjoy!