Hot wings laid out on 16 plates with pink sticky notes indicating the method used to cook them.
Photo: Stephen Yang

Buffalo wings are the perfect accompaniment to March Madness, regardless of which team you want to see go all the way. But ask an avid home cook the best way to make chicken wings with crispy skin and juicy, tender meat, and the ensuing debate will make the ACC rivalry between the North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils look tame.

Before we hit the court (read: the kitchen), let’s state the obvious. Ultimately, the best way to make wings is in a deep fryer. But aside from being wildly unhealthy, deep frying is laborious and leaves you with at least a quart of oil to clean up.

So how can you cook trophy-worthy wings at home with ease?

As of April 2, our #WingMadness Tournament has wrapped.
Catch up on each round:

Savory 16
Tasty Eight
Fiery Four
Championship

We pored (and drooled) over countless recipes, landing on 16 distinct methods for making chicken wings using a variety of appliances we test at CR: the range, grill, air fryer, multi-cooker, and slow cooker. In some cases, the method uses a combination of appliances.

MORE ON GAME DAY COOKING

Then we pit these methods against each other in a single-elimination tournament.

Will an air fryer outperform low-and-slow on the grill? Can a pressure cooker turn out tastier wings than an oven? Who will advance through each stage of the tournament and emerge as the hot wing champion?

(Full disclosure: We developed our bracket in spring 2020, but we hit pause on the project as the pandemic gripped the nation and last year’s NCAA tournament was canceled. The good news? Unlike a college basketball team, our lineups haven’t changed. And the results are just as mouthwatering today.)

Follow along over the next few weeks as we determine the very best way to make chicken wings at home. We’ll land on the winning method just before the final NCAA games.

Here’s our bracket with all 16 methods, battling it out in four regions: Roast, Broil, Grill, and Small Appliance. Fill out your own bracket, include #WingMadness, and tag @ConsumerReports, on Instagram or Twitter.

Read on, below, for how we selected the Savory 16, how we scored each wing, and a breakdown of each matchup in the bracket.

How We Selected the Savory 16

We wanted to make this cook-off about you, the reader, so we started where you probably would, with a Google search. To say we fell down a rabbit hole would be an understatement. How could there be dozens upon dozens of variations for cooking a simple chicken wing? Some of them surprised us, like cooking wings in a slow cooker.

In the end, we gave bids only to methods for cooking buffalo hot wings or plain chicken wings that required no marinade or rub, only salt. For the sauce, we opted for the classic Frank’s RedHot-and-butter combo, across the board, to level the playing field so that we could compare cooking techniques head-on.

Hot wing tasters taking notes.
CR reporters Paul Hope (left) and Perry Santanachote take tasting notes after sampling hot wings in March 2020.
Photo: Stephen Yang

Keeping Score

Paul and Perry (CR reporters and trained culinary professionals) will cook and immediately sample each type of wing—flats and drumettes—keeping detailed notes to score each wing based on four key characteristics.

  • Appearance: The wings should be evenly golden brown all over, without burnt or pale spots.

  • Tenderness: The meat should be juicy and tender, not dried out.

  • Crispness: The skin should be crispy, not greasy, fatty, soft, leathery, or burnt.

  • Sauciness: The sauce should adhere to the wings in an even layer, not slide or drip off.

Let’s meet the contenders.

Hot wings laid out on 16 plates with pink sticky notes indicating the method used to cook them.
Photo: Stephen Yang

Roast

The four teams in this powerhouse region all have one thing in common: a stint in an oven set to 425° F—a sweet spot for roasting. But they all go about it with their own signature flair.

Convection vs. Bake + Roast
Our first game pits an oven set to convection (oven fan on) for 30 minutes against a method that begins with baking at a low 250° F for 30 minutes to render fat from the chicken skin, then finishes at 425° F for 50 minutes to crisp up. Both methods involve cooking the wings on a wire rack nested in a sheet pan.

Roast, With Rack, vs. Roast, No Rack
The other matchup pairs two almost identical roasts. The only difference? The rack. One batch will cook at 425° F on a wire rack for 45 minutes, flipping halfway through cooking time. The other batch skips the rack entirely, roasting directly on a baking sheet. This face-off should settle once and for all whether a rack is necessary to achieve crispy chicken-wing skin. It’s a potential game-changer, folks, because—as anyone who’s had to scrub one of these suckers can attest—wire rack cleanup is no joke.

Grill

On a midsized gas grill (the most popular size sold), we’ll crank up a single burner on one side to high, while leaving the other two burners off—that’s how CR’s grilling experts advise tuning your gas grill for direct and indirect cooking.  

Grill, Indirect Heat, vs. Grill, Indirect + Direct
Wings grilled over indirect heat for 40 minutes will take on a second batch, started on indirect heat for 20 minutes then finished down the court (on the hot side of the grill) for 10 additional minutes. Both sets start on the grill fat-side down.

Grill, in Foil Packet, vs. Boil + Grill
Here, two less conventional methods go head-to-head. First, we’ll grill wings sealed tight in an aluminum foil pouch and cook them over high heat for 25 minutes, flipping the pouch halfway through. They’re challenging wings that will be boiled in salted water on a stovetop for 15 minutes, then finished over high heat on the grill for 10 minutes. A boil in salted water can help render fat from the skin, which could be a solid assist, helping these wings crisp up on the grill.

Broil

These four teams are certain to feel the heat—all 11,000 Btu of it—under the broil element of a pro-style range. The competition will take place with the oven door closed and the rack in the third position.

Broil, High, vs. Broil, Low
First up: We’ll settle the age-old debate of whether to broil wings on low or high. The rule of thumb is that low works best for larger foods that need to cook through, like a pork chop, while high works best for, say, searing a steak without overcooking the middle. Our wings split the difference—raw chicken needs to be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165° F, which suggests that low broil’s got the edge. But the wing pieces are also small and thin, so there’s reason to think high broil might do a better job crisping the skin while quickly cooking the meat all the way through.

Boil + Broil, No Rack, vs. Boil + Broil, With Rack
In our next matchup, we have two teams that start with a quick stovetop boil in salted water, then finish at a low broil. What sets them apart? One team gets an assist from a roasting rack—the theory being that the elevation allows hot air to circulate around the wing, promoting the formation of crispy skin. The other wings will hit the court in nothing more than a foil-lined pan.

Small Appliance

Three countertop appliances are out to prove that big wins can come in small packages. The air fryer insists it can produce wings on a par with the deep-fried variety, while the multi-cooker’s claim to fame is its pressure-cook mode, which supposedly tenderizes the meat in mere minutes to prep the wings for a high-heat finish. The slow-cooking method promises similar results with a set-it-and-forget-it game plan.

Slow Cook vs. Air Fry
First, we have the air fryer vs. the slow cooker. A recipe in Ben Mim’s cookbook, “Air Fry Every Day” (which came up repeatedly in our research), says to air fry wings at 400° F for 20 minutes. A slow-cooker method we found online calls for buffalo sauce to be combined with the wings in the pot because slow cookers require some liquid to work. (It’ll be the only time we cook wings and sauce together.) If we were seeding the methods, this one wouldn’t be high on the list, because these wings won’t have a chance to crisp up. Still, our minds are open.

Pressure Cook + Broil vs. Pressure Cook + Air Fry
The last game in round one might come down to the final buzzer. Both methods start off in the multi-cooker set to high pressure for 3 minutes. The wings sit on a rack with about half a cup of water underneath. The cooker turns that water into steam pressure, which helps cook the chicken quickly. Then half of the wings will be finished under a high-heat broiler and the other half will finish in the air fryer. Which will produce crispier wings?

Share your own #WingMadness bracket picks on Instagram or Twitter (tag @ConsumerReports) to play along!