Find Out Which Hot Wings Advance in Consumer Reports' March Madness Cook-Off

    The first round of our chicken wing tournament came to a close with some notable upsets, and 8 contenders advance

    Perry Testing Wings
    CR reporter Perry Santanachote inspects chicken wings roasting in our range lab in March 2020.
    Photo: Stephen Yang

    The Ultimate Hot Wings Tournament tipped off with a flourish—and a few breakout performances.

    Just tuning in? In preparation for March Madness, two of CR's culinary pros are pitting chicken wings prepared 16 ways against each other, to determine—once and for all—the best way to make chicken wings at home. We kicked things off on Sunday with a detailed look at the 16 cooking methods we're putting to the test.

    The first real smackdown took place in our grill lab, where par-boiled wings held their own against wings wrapped in foil. Convection roasting and air frying dominated their regions while the boil-and-broil method stole the show in CR’s range lab.

    Below, we’ve got play-by-play (ahem, bite-by-bite) coverage of each matchup. Here's where the bracket stands as we head into the Tasty Eight.

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

    Selection Sunday
    Tasty Eight
    Fiery Four
    Championship

    Roast

    Convection vs. Bake + Roast
    Winner: Convection

    The convection roasted wings were already out of the oven and crackling before the baked wings had a chance. Hot wings cooked on convection were uniformly golden brown and crisp. The meat was juicy and tender. We gobbled them up in minutes, licked our fingers clean, and still had to wait another 45 minutes for the baked wings to finish.

    And boy, was it ugly. After 1 hour and 20 minutes in the oven, the wings emerged as shriveled, hollow shells of their formerly plump selves.

    More on Ranges

    Roast, With Rack, vs. Roast, No Rack
    Winner: Roast, No Rack

    It wouldn’t be a good tournament without some solid upsets. Here, a method that we predicted would make it all the way to the championship—Roast, With Rack—is going home in the first round. The skin didn’t brown as deeply or evenly, compared with the challenger, and the fat didn’t fully render out of some pieces, which means we chomped on some fatty bites.

    Roasting wings without the rack proved to be simpler and more convenient. That part, we expected. What we didn’t expect? They were crispier, too. These wings were deeply golden brown, and the crackling sounds they made when we pulled them out of the oven elicited an emphatic “Ooooh” from the chefs. The meat was tender, but also a tad chewy.

    chicken wing testing
    The four batches of grilled chicken wings emerged looking distinctly different.

    Photo: Stephen Yang Photo: Stephen Yang

    Grill

    Grill, Indirect Heat vs. Grill, Indirect + Direct
    Winner: Grill, Indirect + Direct

    Each team performed admirably, but in the end, the wings cooked over indirect heat then finished over high heat made the cut to the next round. They had more distinct browning, and even a few grill marks. The skin was crispier and in turn, sauce naturally clung to the hot wings more than to those cooked solely over indirect heat. Wings cooked entirely on indirect heat were tender, but they just didn’t brown and crisp up in the way we’d hoped.

    More on Grills

    Grill, in Foil Packet vs. Boil + Grill
    Winner: Boil + Grill

    The winners here had brown, crisp skin and distinct grill marks. It’s worth noting, though, that the meat wasn’t as tender as it could have been.

    As for the wings grilled in a foil packet? This performance was almost painful to watch. They just weren’t prepared. They did everything a wing shouldn’t: The foil prevented them from browning at all and they almost steamed in their pouches, making the meat a little tough and the skin rubbery. The sauce could barely cling to the surface.

    CR's Paul Hope testing wings
    CR reporter Paul Hope samples a chicken wing.

    Photo: Stephen Yang Photo: Stephen Yang

    Broil

    Broil, High vs. Broil, Low
    Winner: Broil, Low


    This one was a nail-biter, but in the end, low broil carried the day by the smallest of margins. Both methods produced wings that were crispy on the outside, but a low broil produced wings that were slightly more uniform in their golden appearance and crisp skin.

    When broiled under high, the skin was overdone and burnt in some spots because we had to keep cooking the wings until the meat was cooked through.

    More on Broiling

    The extended time under scorching heat caused the chicken’s muscle fibers to contract and expel their moisture, leaving us with dry, tough meat.

    Boil + Broil, No Rack vs. Boil + Broil, With Rack
    Winner: Boil + Broil, No Rack

    Talk about a bracket buster. Conventional wisdom says that a rack elevates food so that heat can circulate evenly, crisping all sides without the need to turn them. So you can imagine our surprise when these wings, cooked without a rack, emerged beautifully browned. We haven’t seen a performance like that since we last tried a deep-fried wing. The bar has officially been set—these are the wings to beat out of the broiler.

    And it's not that the wings cooked on the rack choked; they were crispy, juicy, and delicious. But the opponent—sans rack—were crispier, juicier, and more delicious. Plus, having to scrub a wire rack with baked-on chicken bits stuck in every crevice after the game is such a bummer.

    CR chicken wing testing in an air fryer
    CR reporter Perry Santanachote inspects a batch of wings cooked in an air fryer.

    Photo: Stephen Yang Photo: Stephen Yang

    Small Appliance

    Slow Cook vs. Air Fry
    Winner: Air Fry

    While some of the cooking methods above struggled to get out of the gate, the air fried wings put the slow-cooked wings to bed before the sun went down. The wings came out dark brown and crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. The sauce coated the wings like they were made for each other.

    More on Small Appliances

    Look, when we found recipes for slow cooker chicken wings online, we dismissed them, but then reconsidered. This is Wing Madness, after all. We wondered: Could this be a 2021 Cinderella story? Far from it.

    This was the only recipe in which the wings cooked in the buffalo sauce (slow cookers need liquid to do their thing). Over four hours, we watched the wings gradually disintegrate into a slippery pile of pale chicken parts bobbing in a murky sauce slicked on top with a layer of glowing orange liquid fat. Yeah. The meat was somehow both falling off the bone and tough at the same time. We still had to taste it, of course, and immediately likened it to cat food. The spice was gone and the meat was mealy, like canned tuna. The experience of our tasters ranged from disgust (there was gagging) to abject horror. “Violation! Violation!” exclaimed one taster. We agreed; multiple personal fouls led to this contender losing big.

    Pressure Cook + Broil vs. Pressure Cook + Air Fry
    Winner: Pressure Cook + Air Fry

    Both teams started off on the same footing: Pressure cooked in an Instant Pot for 3 minutes. It took the multi-cooker 17 minutes to come to pressure, so ultimately it took 20 minutes to prep the wings. The batch that crisped up in an air fryer came out gorgeous and golden brown. The meat was juicy. The true test will come in the next round: Do wings need this extra step in a pressure cooker—or will cooking them in an air fryer alone be a slam dunk?

    Play along on Instagram or Twitter (tag @ConsumerReports) with the hashtag #WingMadness.