Winging It on Super Bowl Sunday


Quick: What’s the second biggest eating holiday after Thanksgiving? Memorial Day? July 4th? Labor Day?

Actually, it’s Super Bowl Sunday, which is coming at us faster (February 2) than a Peyton Manning pass.

According to the National Restaurant Association, 63 percent of Americans consider chicken wings a “must-have” in their annual mash-up of food and football. We ate nearly 1.23 billion wings during last year’s game—enough to encircle the earth twice.

Chicken wings make the perfect Super Bowl food. Infinitely customizable. Easily held in one hand. Spicy enough to take the chill off a winter’s day. Primal as well as beer-compatible. Relatively inexpensive, even for a crowd.

Best of all, the supply is up and prices are down—not like the dire chicken wing shortage of 2013.

Grill masters around Planet Barbecue back me up on this.

  • In Malaysia, for example, where sidewalk grill masters roast soy- and honey-glazed chicken wings (usually whole, including tips) on charcoal-burning rotisseries. Think sweet and salty, and don’t think of eating just one.
  • In South Africa, where wings come glazed with a fiery sauce of butter, garlic, cilantro, lemon juice, and fiery piri-piri chiles. (Try my Piri-Piri Chicken Wings.)
  • In Vietnam, where vendors marinate wings in fish sauce, palm sugar, and garlic prior to grilling and serving with garlic- and chile-laced dipping sauce.
  • In Korea, where tong dak (as wings are known locally) glisten with soy sauce, garlic, honey, and gochujang (Korean red pepper paste) as they sizzle over a charcoal fire.

There are some Americans who will rely on take-out or delivery for their Super Bowl Sunday wing fix this year. As a reader of this column, you won’t be one of them. Forget about deep-frying. Wings seared over live-fire, blasted with spice and wood smoke, and served hot off the grill will score major points at your party.

So what does it take to ace chicken wings on the grill? Here are some tips to help you up your game.

  1. Turn the wings into mini-drumsticks to make them even easier to eat. On the larger section scrape the meat down half the bone into a ball at the opposite end. On the smaller section, which has two bones, cut off one cartilaginous end and pull out the slender bone. Then scrape the meat down the remaining bone into a ball at the end.
  2. Grill the wings Asian-style—stretched out lengthwise and impaled on 12-inch bamboo skewers to maximize their exposure to the smoke and fire. (Soak the skewers in beer or sake first, then drain, for extra flavor.) This technique works best with larger wings.
  3. Apply wing sauce at the end of the cooking time or toss the wings in the sauce after removing them from the grill grate. Especially if said sauce contains sugar. It will burn if applied too early.
  4. Dress up the blue cheese dip by using a pedigreed blue cheese, like French Roquefort (made from sheep’s milk), Italian Gorgonzola (a creamy cow’s milk cheese), or Spanish Cabrales (made from goat’s milk). To make a simple blue cheese dip, combine 4 ounces crumbled blue cheese, 1 cup each mayonnaise and sour cream, 1/4 cup minced onion, salt (you won’t need much because the cheese is salty), and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
  5. Save money. Buy whole wings and break them down yourself. Lay each wing flat on a cutting board, then slice through the two knobby cartilaginous joints with a chef’s knife or cleaver. Reserve the “drumette” (it will look like a miniature chicken leg) and “flat” and either discard the wing tips or freeze them for stock.
  6. Avoid charring, flare-ups, and singed arms, by setting up your grill for indirect grilling. Arrange the wings skin-side up on the grate over the drip pan. (Be sure to first brush and oil the grill grate well as wings have a tendency to stick.) Figure on 30 to 40 minutes of grilling time.
  7. Dress up the celery sticks by grilling or pickling them.
  8. Get a smokier flavor, by tossing 1-1/2 cups soaked, drained hickory or other hardwood chips on the coals or placing in the smoker box of your gas grill. Avoid the “guy syndrome” (if some is good, more is better). Some smoke is good, but too much smoke is, well, too much.
  9. Test for doneness by making a small slit with a sharp knife in the thickest part of the wing meat. There should be no trace of pink at the bone—that is, unless you have smoked the chicken wings. Then you will see a reddish smoke ring just under the skin.
  10. Avoid rubbery skin. I prefer indirect grilling at a moderate temperature (350 degrees) over smoking “low and slow” (at 250 degrees). The reason is simple. Indirect grilling crisps the skin; smoking makes it rubbery.

Do you have a wing recipe you’d like to share? Photos to make our stomachs growl with hunger? Post them on the Barbecue Board.

Here are the best wing recipes to get you started:

Now that you have wings covered for the big day, come back next week to get more ideas for Super Bowl dips to add to the menu.