I know I can handle spicier foods than the average American, and when there isn't a real need for a dish to be overly spicy, I will turn down the heat when I'm cooking for others, but that's not always enough when cooking for my Mom. She's more sensitive to spicy foods and sometimes dishes that taste like they have little to no heat in it to me, she'll describe as "having a good kick." So when I decided to have her over for a pizza dinner and there was no way I wasn't going to make wings as a side dish, I needed to forgo my usual lip tingling recipes and find something more of her speed. Anything sweet is going to get her stamp of approval, but sugar alone isn't going to cut for me, so I found a good balance between our two opposite preferences in these honey-chili wings that everyone thoroughly enjoyed.
The idea for these wings came after I made a batch of Chinese chili oil that turned out better than usual, and not only that, I had made twice the amount than I normally do, so I was looking for ways to use it. This ubiquitous chili oil is made by first simmering a number of aromatics, like ginger, star anise, cinnamon, and garlic, in oil. Then after letting the oil cool slightly, those solids are strained out while the oil falls into a bowl filled with Sichuan hot chili flakes. The resulting sauce has a good heat to it with a lot of complex undertones from the aromatics and it works so well as a condiment for so many things, my house is rarely without a jar of it.
I needed a sweetener to contrast with chili oil, and I chose honey to do that job. Knowing those two ingredients would form the base of the sauce allowed me to develop an appropriate dry seasoning for the wings. I went very minimal here with only garlic and freshly ground white pepper being added to the standard baking powder and salt—the former being the "magic" ingredient that renders baked or grilled wings with a textured skin that's ideal for holding sauce and also remaining crackling crisp.
After patting dry the wings and applying the seasoning, I arranged the chicken on a wire rack set in a sheet pan. Then into the fridge that went overnight for the very important air drying step. Removing moisture from the exterior of the chicken like this is what allows them to brown and crisp up during roasting—non-air dried wings will still brown and crisp to an extent, but not in way that makes them comparable to the gold standard of fried wings.
During the air drying down time, I made the sauce, which was probably the fastest wing sauce I've ever done. I started by squeezing half a cup of honey into a measuring cup and then added in the chili oil until there was a touch of heat and noticeable depth beyond the honey sweetness alone. I made sure to reach to the bottom of the chili oil and get scoops of the actual chili flakes along with the oil itself. The sauce was good at this point, but also a little flat, so I corrected that with small additions of rice vinegar for tang and fish and soy sauces for savoriness and saltiness.
The next day I got the wings going on the cool side of a two-zone, high heat fire at the same time I lit a large batch of coals for cooking pizza on the KettlePizza. It was nice that the 45 minutes the wings took to turn golden and crisp is the same amount of time it took to get KettlePizza preheated and set-up, which allowed me to serve the wings hot just as the first pie was ready to be fired.
Before serving though, I placed the wings in a large bowl, poured in the sauce, and tossed to coat. Then after dumping the wings out onto a serving platter, I gave them a generous garnish with cilantro and scallions.
When my Mom ate her first wing and exclaimed how good they were, I knew I made the right choice with this recipe. I also kind of worried they might be a little too sweet for my taste if she was loving them so much, so after one pie was cooked, I took a short break to eat a couple wings. I was happy to find them very agreeable to me as well. Yes, they were sweet wings, but they honey had a great depth of flavor, of which I actually tasted the fish and soy sauces most. The chili oil was in there working its magic too, but what I was appreciating most about its inclusion was the "nice kick of heat," as my Mom would put it. It definitely was not spicy by my measure, but had just enough heat to add a contrast to the honey and leave me satisfied. Looking back at my wing recipes, I don't have many sweet specimens to choose from, so it also feels good to add a really good option into that category to further round out my rather sizable collection.
- Yield 4-6 servings
- Prep 10 Minutes
- Inactive 8 Hours
- Cook 45 Minutes
- Total 8 Hours 55 Minutes
- For the Sauce
- 1/2 cup honey
- 2 tablespoons Chinese chili oil
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 2 teaspoons fish sauce
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- For the Wings
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
- 3 pounds chicken wings, cut into drumettes and flats
- 3 tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro
- 3 tablespoons thinly sliced scallions, green parts only
- To make the sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together honey, Chinese chili oil, vinegar, fish sauce, and soy sauce. Transfer to an airtight container and set aside until ready to use.
- To make the wings: In a small bowl, mix together baking powder, salt, garlic powder, and white pepper. Place wings in a large bowl, pat dry with paper towels, and sprinkle in spice mixture. Toss until wings are liberally and evenly seasoned. Arrange wings in a single layer on wire rack set inside a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil, leaving a little space between each wing. Place baking sheet with wings in refrigerator for 8 hours to overnight.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Place the wings skin side up over the cool side of the grill, cover, and cook until skins are crisp and browned, about 45 minutes.
- Transfer wings to a large bowl. Add in sauce and toss to thoroughly coat wings. Transfer wings to a platter and garnish with cilantro and scallions. Serve immediately.