Why It Works
- A wet brine plumps up the wings and seasons them thoroughly throughout.
- A medium-dark roux, well-rounded seasonings and spices, and classic aromatics deliver traditional turkey flavor
Growing up in the South, I ate turkey wings about as often as chicken or fish in my family's dinner rotation. Everyone’s family had their own special way of preparing them—some boiled the wings first, ensuring they'd be tender; my grandmother did hers with a little bell pepper and onion, and would make a slurry to form a thin gravy that we'd pour over and eat with rice; and one trick I learned recently is to use dry French onion soup mix in the gravy for lots of flavor without much work.
No matter these differences, the wings always end up baked in the oven, cooking in their own juices and seasonings—this method of braising and smothering the wings in their own rich gravy makes for perfectly cooked meat that's far more flavorful and a lot less likely to dry out than a typical Thanksgiving turkey. Plus, their size is much better for cooking for smaller crowds (and storing the leftovers).
In this recipe, the wings are first soaked in a wet brine made with salt, brown sugar, and a few herbs and spices. Wet brining isn't a technique Serious Eats often recommends for turkey, but it works well with the wings: They're smaller and have more surface area compared to a larger bird or roast, allowing salt and flavorings to make more of an impact throughout, plus the added water weight gained during brining guarantees juiciness even after long cooking (and those exuded liquids just end up in the gravy anyway—no harm done).
After that, I sear the wings in a Dutch oven, followed by aromatic vegetables like onion, carrot, and celery. Once they've softened, I transfer the vegetables to a bowl and use the same vessel to make a simple gravy, whipped up with a roasty brown roux and some chicken stock. Then, the vegetables, gravy, and wings all go into the oven to braise until the wings are tender and the gravy has thickened properly, thanks in part to the roux and in part to the collagen in the wings that breaks down during cooking into sauce-improving gelatin.
As for the wings themselves, most stores carry them, but you can usually find the best ones at a local butcher. Back home in the Southeast, I could find turkey wings all year round; both whole wings and split. But here in the Southwest where I currently live, they’re much more seasonal. I personally prefer to buy smallish wings and drums with the tips still on. Huge wings you’d find at your local state fair are still delicious, but will take longer to cook and, at least to me, don’t have the same tender texture or depth of flavor.
- For the Brine:
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (2 ounces; 55g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce; 15g) light brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
- 2 bay leaves
- 6 turkey wing flats or 3 whole turkey wings split into flats and drums (about 3 pounds/1.3kg total; see note)
- 1 shallot (3/4 ounce; 20g), cut in half
- 5 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 large sprig fresh rosemary
- For the Braise:
- 3 1/2 tablespoons (50ml) vegetable, canola, or other neutral oil, divided
- 1 medium (8-ounce; 225g) yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 1 large (5-ounce; 140g) carrot, peeled and thinly sliced crosswise into rounds
- 1 celery rib (about 2 ounces; 55g), thinly sliced on the bias
- 2 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 1/2 cups homemade chicken stock or low-sodium broth, plus more if needed
- 1 teaspoon dried sage powder
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
- Kosher salt
For the Brine: In a large mixing bowl, prepare an ice bath. In a 2-quart saucepan, stir together 1 quart (1L) water with salt, brown sugar, peppercorns, and bay leaves over medium heat until brine reaches a gentle simmer and salt and sugar have dissolved. Set saucepan in ice bath, making sure it doesn't cause an overflow, and stir brine until cooled to room temperature. In a large zipper-lock bag, add turkey wings, shallot, thyme, and rosemary. Carefully pour cooled brine on top, seal, pushing out any excess air, and refrigerate for at least 3 and up to 8 hours.
Drain wings, discarding brine and aromatics. Dry wings well with paper towels. Set aside.
For the Braise: Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C). In a large Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon (15ml) oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Working in batches, cook wings, turning, until golden brown on both sides, about 7 minutes. Transfer wings to a tray or platter and set aside.
Lower heat to medium and add onion, carrot, and celery to Dutch oven and cook, stirring, until onions are translucent and carrots and celery have softened slightly, about 4 minutes. Transfer vegetables to a heatproof bowl or plate.
Add remaining 2 1/2 tablespoons (35ml) oil to Dutch oven. Stir in flour and cook, stirring, until flour is a little darker than the color of peanut butter, about 10 minutes (the timing can vary here, so be sure to follow the color indication).
Whisk in stock in 1/2-cup increments, whisking well between additions to ensure a smooth texture, until all the liquid has been added. Bring to a low boil, then whisk in sage, black pepper, granulated garlic, onion powder, and smoked paprika. Season very lightly with salt. Remove from heat.
In a baking dish large enough to hold the wings in one layer, spread vegetables in an even layer. Arrange wings on top in an even layer, top side down, then pour the pan gravy on top until it comes halfway up the wings (this should be all of the gravy); if there's not enough, add enough additional stock to bring the liquid halfway up the wings.
Cover baking dish tightly with aluminum foil, then bake, turning once halfway through so wings are top side up, until turkey wings are fork-tender, about 1 hours 15 minutes. Turn oven up to 375°F (190°C) and remove foil from baking dish. Return wings to oven and cook until gravy has thickened to a spoon-coating consistency and wings have darkened slightly, about 15 minutes longer. Season gravy with additional salt, if needed, and let rest 10 minutes.
Serve smothered wings with their gravy on rice, mashed potatoes, or as desired.
Dutch oven, baking dish
Turkey wings can vary significantly in size depending on the size of the turkeys they come from, so while this recipe calls for 6 turkey wing parts (either all flats, or a mix of flats and drums) to feed approximately 3 to 4 people, you may need more or fewer if the wings available to you yield a different number per pound. Include the wing tips if you have them.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The smothered wings can be refrigerated in their sauce for up to 5 days. Reheat before serving.