Why It Works
- Hot Turkish pepper paste forms the spicy base for a hybrid marinade/dipping sauce that pairs perfectly with grilled chicken wings.
- Threading chicken wings on pairs of metal skewers makes it easier to turn and cook them evenly on the grill.
- A special skewer setup for a charcoal grill, using a cooking method similar to that used at Turkish kebab shops, makes it easier and faster to cook the skewers.
When I decided to work on a series of grilled-meat-on-a-stick recipes, I asked my Serious Eats coworkers to list their favorite skewered foods, in hopes of finding some dishes that could be mined for recipe development. Our editor, Sho, always a source of great ideas, replied to my request almost immediately: "Grilled Turkish chicken wings. They're ridiculously good."
I was instantly sold, but, having never been to Turkey, I needed him to fill me in on the details of these chicken wings. Sho proceeded to explain how he had eaten more than his share of these wings when he was last in Turkey, having sought them out after reading Kenji's mouthwatering report of the best things he ate on his own visit to Istanbul a few years ago.
In his account, Kenji describes the wings, called kanat and found in most Turkish kebab shops, as being "marinated in chiles and spices" before they're "threaded on skewers, [and] grilled over charcoal." After pressing Sho for a from-memory description of the spices and chiles that he thought went into the marinade ("hot pepper paste and cumin"), along with some YouTube and Instagram recipe-sleuthing deep dives, I gathered a spread of usual-suspect Turkish pantry ingredients and began experimenting.
It would have been foolish to try to faithfully re-create a marinade for a dish that I had never actually eaten myself, so I set out to just make a really tasty version of my own that fits with the spirit of the wings that Sho described to me.
The marinade that I came up with starts with biber salçasi, a Turkish pepper paste that's sold in both sweet and hot varieties. Seeing as these wings are meant to be spiked with chiles, I opted for the hot version. Biber salçasi is a great base for a marinade; it has a thick and sticky consistency similar to that of tomato paste, and a deep roasted-chile flavor that packs plenty of slow-building, mellow heat, but also some sweet sun-dried-tomato vibes.
A little smoky isot pepper (often labeled urfa biber or Urfa pepper here in the States) and paprika round out the chile notes, and a touch of pomegranate molasses provides sweet-tart balance to the heat, while also giving the marinade some viscosity. Minced garlic and chopped fresh parsley bring freshness to the mix, and it all gets brought together with a healthy glug of extra-virgin olive oil.
After stirring everything together, I set a portion of the marinade aside to use as a dipping sauce for the wings once they finish cooking on the grill. The remaining marinade gets tossed with fresh chicken wings that have been split into flats and drumettes.
I let the wings marinate for at least one hour and up to 24 hours. Marinades are really just surface-level flavor treatments, but that's not a letdown with chicken wings, since there isn't a ton of meat on them to begin with.
After marinating, I thread the wings onto pairs of metal skewers that are set a little over an inch apart. This double-skewering method, used at Turkish kebab shops, makes the wings much easier to move around on the grill, which in turn means you can cook them at an even rate.
If you've ever spent most of your time at a cookout flipping wings one by one with a pair of tongs, then you'll appreciate the efficiency of this dual kebab-spearing method. Because they have different shapes, and cook at slightly different rates, make sure to thread the flats and drumettes on different sets of skewers.
Thread the flats between the two bones on each piece, bunching the pieces tightly together. For the drumettes, alternate the orientation of the pieces on the skewers, so it's like they're sleeping head to toe in a cramped tent.
Once all the wings are skewered, it's time to grill. I highly recommend taking the time to set up the improved kebab-grilling rig that I've developed, making sure to adjust the distance between the bricks to accommodate the length of your skewers.
For these wings, you can either cook them directly over the coals, as with my al pastor skewers, or on top of a mesh wire rack set over the bricks.
I arrange the lit coals for two-zone direct-fire cooking, then rest the skewers over the bricks, with half of them directly over the coals and the other half on the cooler side of the grill.
Turn the wings over the hot side constantly, until the skin on them has begun to char. Then switch them over to the cooler side of the grill, and move the cool-side skewers above the coals to char them up.
This constant movement helps manage flare-ups, while keeping the cooking time to a minimum. You're looking to get a decent amount of char on these wings, so don't be afraid of occasional flare-ups licking up the sides of the skewers. You just don't want them to be engulfed in flames.
Once the wings are just cooked through, get them off the grill and let them rest for a few minutes, which allows them (and the hot metal skewers) to cool down slightly. Slide the wings off their skewers, and serve them up with the reserved marinade for dipping.
These wings may not be an exact replica of the ones that Sho described to me, but they are pretty, pretty, pretty good.
July 18, 2019
This recipe has been updated with guidance on how to prepare it using a gas grill.
1 cup (260g) Turkish hot pepper paste (see note)
1/2 cup (120ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup (35g) chopped fresh parsley leaves
4 medium cloves garlic (20g), minced
1 tablespoon (15ml) pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon (12g) kosher salt
2 teaspoons (4g) isot pepper (optional; see note)
1 teaspoon (2g) ground cumin
1 teaspoon (2g) paprika
3 pounds (1.4kg) chicken wings, cut at joints, wingtips discarded
In a medium bowl, stir together pepper paste, olive oil, parsley, garlic, and pomegranate molasses with a rubber spatula until well combined. Stir in salt, isot pepper (if using), cumin, and paprika. Transfer 1/2 cup (120ml) pepper paste mixture to a small bowl and set aside. (If you're marinating the chicken wings overnight, cover and refrigerate this pepper paste mixture until you're ready to grill the wings.)
Combine chicken wings and remaining pepper paste mixture in a 1-gallon zipper-lock bag. Seal bag, pressing out as much air as possible. Massage bag until wings are evenly coated in marinade. Lay bag flat on a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate, turning bag occasionally, for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.
When ready to cook, thread chicken wings onto sets of 2 metal skewers, spacing the skewers 1 to 1 1/2 inches apart. Try to keep the chicken wings in a relatively even and flat layer on the skewers. If you're working with both flats and drumettes, thread them on separate sets of skewers. For flats, thread each flat through the gap between the two bones; for drumettes, alternate their end-to-end alignment on the skewers as if they are sleeping head to toe next to each other. Make sure the wings are bunched tightly together, leaving no parts of the skewers exposed except for a 2-inch handle at the bottom of each pair and the pointy tips at the top.
Set up grill for skewers (see note), making sure to adjust distance between bricks to match the length of your skewers. Light 2/3 chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals over half the channel between the bricks, creating a modified two-zone direct fire.
Place half the skewers directly over the hot coals and the other half on the cooler side of the grill, balancing the skewers on top of the bricks, with the handles overhanging the bricks closest to you and the tips balancing on the farther wall of bricks. Cook, turning frequently, until wings on the hot side of the grill are lightly charred on both sides, 4 to 6 minutes; if flare-ups occur, move the skewers to cooler side of grill as needed to get them away from the flames.
Switch the sets of skewers so that the ones cooked on the cooler side of the grill are now positioned over the hot coals, moving the charred wings to the cooler side. Cook, continuing to turn the skewers frequently, until all the wings are evenly charred, 4 to 6 minutes longer. Continue cooking, moving skewers around over the coals, until chicken is cooked through, 2 to 4 minutes longer. Transfer skewers to a serving platter and let rest for 3 to 5 minutes before removing skewers. Serve immediately with reserved marinade for dipping.
Turkish pepper paste (biber salçasi) is made by roasting, puréeing, and dehydrating (traditionally via sun-drying) sweet or hot Turkish peppers. You can find both sweet and hot pepper pastes at Turkish markets or online. This recipe calls for hot pepper paste.
Isot pepper is often labeled urfa biber or Urfa pepper in the United States and is also available at Turkish markets or online. If it's not available, simply omit.
This recipe was specifically developed and tested using a high-heat skewer-grilling setup. Converting this recipe to a standard charcoal or gas grill is possible, but will change recipe times and instructions in ways it hasn't been tested. If you do want to use a standard grill, set it to direct charcoal grilling/all burners on high heat, and cook until wings are lightly charred and cooked through. Gas grills tend to be less powerful and more uneven than charcoal, so we highly recommend a device like the GrillGrate to improve heat intensity and evenness of heating.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The grilled wings are best enjoyed immediately. The marinade can be made in advance and refrigerated for up to three days. The wings can be marinated for up to 24 hours.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 74g||95%|
|Saturated Fat 22g||111%|
|Total Carbohydrate 45g||16%|
|Dietary Fiber 2g||6%|
|Total Sugars 16g|
|Vitamin C 19mg||93%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|