These juicy Air Fryer BBQ Chicken Drumsticks are a quick and easy way to get great barbecue flavor without firing up your grill! The homemade BBQ sauce is so simple while being perfectly sweet and tangy. You’ll want to use it on everything!
The homemade BBQ sauce is truly the star of this recipe. It's packed full of flavor and has the perfect balance of sweet, tang, and smoky. It's the perfect dipping sauce, glaze, and condiment all in one!
The air fryer is also the perfect way to make moist and juicy barbecued chicken. It's faster and much simpler than lighting up the grill! Don't have an air fryer yet? No worries, I have instructions on how to make these delicious sticky chicken drumsticks in the oven too!
Why You'll Love It
- This air fryer barbecue chicken is so versatile! Serve them with rice, mashed potatoes, mac & cheese or shred the meat to make a BBQ chicken pizza or even chili.
- You can have delicious barbecue chicken year-round. If you don't have a grill or if weather isn't ideal, this recipe is perfect for you.
- By using a homemade barbecue glaze, you can tweak it to suit your preferences. Make it sweeter, spicier, or more sour.. whatever you want!
- There's very minimal prep involved. It couldn't be easier!
- You only need 30 minutes to make them! While the BBQ sauce is cooling, cook the chicken to save even more time.
What's The Difference Between Chicken Legs and Drumsticks?
This sauce is so versatile and works great with all cuts of chicken. Chicken thighs, breast, wings, and legs are great substitutes for the drumsticks.
Chicken legs and chicken drumsticks often get mixed up. They’re actually 2 different cuts of meat. Chicken legs are the whole leg potion of the chicken. They’re made up of both the thigh and the drumstick connected together as one piece. Chicken drumsticks are the end piece of the leg, cut off from the thigh.
It doesn’t matter whether you choose chicken drumsticks or chicken legs. The BBQ sauce is so delicious that you'll want to slather it on everything you can find!
- Ketchup: This is the main ingredient in your homemade barbecue sauce. If you're using a sugar-free or paleo version, add more brown sugar or honey.
- Apple cider vinegar: A mild vinegar that adds the perfect amount of tang.
- Brown sugar: The hint of molasses helps deepen the flavor.
- Honey: Makes the sauce sticky so it clings onto the chicken drumsticks.
- Worcestershire sauce: For a deep, umami flavor to counteract the tanginess and sweetness.
- Ground mustard: Adds another level of tanginess and slight heat.
- Smoked paprika: Instead of being spicy, it gives the BBQ chicken a smoky flavor as if it's been cooked on a grill.
- Garlic and onion powders: An easy way to add flavor without the prep work!
- Chicken drumsticks: The amount of chicken needed depends on how saucy you like your chicken. 2 lbs (about 4 large drumsticks) will be extra saucy while 3 lbs (about 6 drumsticks) will be just enough.
How To Make It
- Make the BBQ sauce. In a small pot, combine all the ingredients for the BBQ sauce. Bring to a gentle boil, then turn the heat down to medium and let simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Then remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes. Simmering the sauce allows the flavors to deepen. And as it cools, the sauce will thicken.
- Air fry the chicken. Pat your chicken dry and season generously on all sides with salt and pepper. Then preheat your air fryer to 350°F. Once warm, carefully line it with foil and place your chicken inside. Leave a little space between each one and don't overcrowd the fryer. No need for oil either. Air fry until the thickest part reads 160°F on a meat thermometer, about 10-15 minutes. Don't forget to flip halfway. If you don't have a thermometer, open up a drumstick to check doneness - if the juices run clear, it's fully cooked.
- Reserve some sauce. If you'd like, save about ¼ cup of the barbecue sauce for dipping.
- Glaze the chicken. Use a brush to generously sauce the chicken on all sides. Then air fry for an additional 3-5 minutes. The glaze will get sticky and caramelized! Let cool for a couple minutes before serving.
- Don't let the BBQ sauce boil. This easy BBQ sauce doesn't require much but you do need to keep a close eye on it! As soon as you see bubbles forming, turn the heat down to let it simmer at medium to medium-low. Stir it very often so the brown sugar and honey doesn't burn.
- Make sure your chicken is dry. This will help the BBQ sauce to stick onto the chicken. Pat it really thoroughly with paper towels before air frying it.
- Line your air fryer with foil. The BBQ sauce will make the fryer super messy so I like to line it foil for easier cleanup. Just make sure you line it after it's preheated so it isn't flying around. Be careful though!
- Skip the oil. We're not trying to get the chicken super crispy for this recipe so there's no need for oil. It also helps dry out the skin so more sauce will hold on!
- Use a meat thermometer. This is an absolute essential in the kitchen! Chicken drumsticks come in all different sizes so the cooking time will vary. You want to cook it to 160°F at the thickest part of the drumstick, avoiding the bone, before covering it in sauce. The additional 5 minutes of cooking and resting will bring it up to the desired 165°F. If you go over this temperature, don't worry! Dark meat (like chicken legs, wings, and thighs) are more forgiving and will still stay juicy!
Substitutions & Variations
- If you don't have apple cider vinegar, you can replace it with another mild vinegar like rice wine, raspberry, white wine, or red wine vinegar.
- If you're missing brown sugar or honey, you can replace it for the other. For example, use ¼ cup + 2 tablespoon brown sugar if you don't have any honey on hand.
- If you have a BBQ seasoning blend, feel free to use it in place of the spices. You can also season the chicken with it in addition to the salt and pepper
- The smoked paprika in this BBQ chicken helps adds a smoky element like it was grilled outdoors. But you can make it taste even more like it was cooked on a smoky, flame grill by adding a few dashes of liquid smoke to the barbecue glaze. A little goes a long way though!
- Love spicy barbecue sauce? Add a little chili powder, cayenne pepper, or hot sauce to take it up a notch.
- To make things even faster, you can use your favorite pre-made or store-bought BBQ sauce.
- Make a big batch and shred the chicken meat. Use the BBQ pulled chicken for pizza, quesadillas, sandwiches, salads, or nachos!
Storing & Freezing
Storing: To store any leftover air fryer bbq chicken, leave it to cool to room temperature before placing inside an air-tight container or a zip-loc bag. The barbecue chicken will keep in the fridge for up to 5 days. Store any leftover BBQ sauce in a separate sealed container in the fridge for up to 1 month.
Freezing: You can also freeze the cooke. Let cool completely, then place into a freezer-safe container or zip-top bag. It will keep in the freezer for up to 4 months. You can pour any leftover barbecue sauce into a separate sealed container and freeze for up to 4 months, too.
Reheating: For the best results, reheat the chicken in the air fryer. Preheat the air fryer to 350°F (or let it warm up for 3-4 minutes) and cook 3-4 minutes until the chicken is hot, with or without foil. Add a couple more minutes if reheating from frozen.
Make sure to use a meat thermometer to make sure you don't overcook and dry out the chicken. I also recommend using dark meat (chicken thighs, drumsticks, or wings) for juicier results. For extra soft and juicy chicken, brine it for 24 hours before cooking. You can do a dry brine with salt or your favorite BBQ rub or a wet brine with salt and water.
I recommend putting the BBQ sauce on after the chicken's been cooked. Glazing the chicken too early can burn the honey and brown sugar that's in the sauce.
Ketchup or tomato sauce is usually the base for BBQ sauce. Make sure to add plenty of seasoning, sugar, and liquid to transform the ketchup into BBQ sauce. Cooking the sauce also helps mellow out the ketchup flavor.
You can even add new ingredients to taste. Chili powder, cayenne pepper, and lemon juice will all reduce the ketchup flavor from the sauce.
Looking For More?
I've got a delicious line-up for air fryer recipes for you! These are great for any party or get-together.
- Air Fryer Chicken Meatballs
- Air Fryer Honey Garlic Chicken Wings
- Air Fryer Beef Taquitos
- Air Fryer Cheese Quesadilla
- Air Fryer Parmesan Potato Wedges
Air Fryer BBQ Chicken Drumsticks
- In a pot, combine ketchup, vinegar, brown sugar, honey, Worcestershire sauce, ground mustard, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, 1 teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper. Bring to a gentle boil, then simmer over medium heat for 4-5 minutes until thickened and darkened slightly, whisking often. Then remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes. Season to taste.Continue with the rest of the recipe while the sauce is cooling.
- Preheat air fryer to 350°F. If your air fryer doesn't have a preheating function, turn on and let warm up for 3-4 minutes.
- Pat chicken drumsticks dry and season generously with salt and pepper. Once the air fryer is preheated, carefully line with foil (for easier clean up) and place chicken in a single layer on foil. You may need to cook in batches.
- Air fry for 10-15 minutes or until internal temperature is 160°F, flipping halfway. The time will vary depending on your air fryer and the size of your drumsticks. If you don't have a thermometer, check doneness by cutting deep into one of the drumsticks. If the juices run clear, the chicken is cooked.
- Set about ¼ cup of the BBQ side aside for dipping. Then use a brush to generously glaze the chicken with BBQ sauce on all sides. Air fry for an additional 3-5 minutes. Let cool for 5-10 minutes, then serve warm.
- Each air fryer is different. I tested this recipe with a 6-Quart Instant Vortex. I recommend testing a drumstick to determine the best temperature and cook time.
- Serving size is for 1-2 medium drumsticks.
- To bake: preheat oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with foil and place seasoned drumsticks on foil about 1" apart. Bake for 18-20 minutes or until internal temperature is 160°F, flipping halfway. Then brush with BBQ sauce and bake for an additional 5-10 minutes.
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