The Biggest Difference Between Buffalo Wings And Nashville Hot Chicken

Americans love fried chicken. It's one of the nation's top 10 favorite foods, ranking as the eighth most popular dish in a 2024 survey by YouGov. While there's the classic preparation of Southern fried chicken, two more varieties of the finger lickin' good food have also become increasingly popular — Buffalo wings and Nashville hot chicken. Both are known for being spicy, but there are a number of characteristics that set them apart, with the biggest difference being the sauce. They also get their trademark kick from different ingredients, and cooking methods likewise are a differentiator.

Buffalo wings are distinctly tangy due to the variety of hot sauce used, which, when not made from scratch, is often Frank's RedHot. The wing sauce gets its flavors from cayenne pepper, vinegar, garlic, paprika, and butter. The richness of butter gives the sauce a silky smoothness that accentuates the spices and helps balance the chili pepper's heat. 

On the other hand, Nashville hot chicken's sauce is more elaborate, with a profile that's both piquant as well as sweet. It's also made with cayenne, paprika, and garlic, and includes brown sugar. Unlike Buffalo's butter-based hot sauce, Nashville's version is made with oil. This helps to make it more like a paste than a sauce, with the oil acting to not only carry the flavors but also amplify the fiery heat. True to its name, Nashville hot chicken is usually always significantly spicier than Buffalo wings.

The origin of Buffalo wings

Two things likely come to mind when you think of Buffalo wings: bar food and football. As one of the most well-loved Super Bowl foods, an estimated 1.45 billion chicken wings were devoured during 2024's Big Game (per the National Chicken Council). It's not surprising that wings are an in-demand bar snack considering how well they pair with beer, which acts as a cooling accompaniment for the spicy (and often greasy) food.

In fact, a bar is where Buffalo wings originated. It all went down at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, a spot founded in 1939 by Frank and Teressa Bellissimo. One night in 1964 when the couple's son Dominic was working as bartender, some hungry friends showed up, so he turned to his mother to whip them up a meal. She came up with deep-fried chicken wings coated in a secret hot sauce. According to the makers of Frank's RedHot, the sauce Mrs. Bellissimo concocted was made from a mix of its trademark condiment and butter.

The dish is still commonly made with halved chicken wings that are deep-fried without any batter or breading. They're served with blue cheese or ranch dressing and celery sticks for dipping. Of course, home cooks and chefs alike have their own takes. Marcus Samuelsson's "wild wild wings" recipe opts for Cholula instead of Frank's RedHot. And Giada De Laurentiis spices up her chicken wings with tequila and lime before glazing them in a sauce made from harissa paste.

Nashville hot chicken was invented as a punishment

As the hotter option of the two, it's fitting that Nashville Hot Chicken's origin story is also spicier than Buffalo Chicken's tale. In short, Nashville hot chicken got its start over a bad breakup. It happened in the early 1930s as an act of revenge, the retribution for love gone wrong. A man named Thornton Prince had been known as a lady's man, and his girlfriend suspected that he'd been cheating. The jilted woman took out her anger by feeding him a meal that she assumed would teach him a lesson — she secretly cooked his favorite fried chicken with what she thought was an unpalatable amount of peppers. Shockingly, he wasn't at all phased by the extraordinary spice level — just the opposite — he loved it and asked for another helping. 

Along with his lady's broken heart, Prince took her recipe and ran with it, eventually opening his eponymous Nashville, Tennessee restaurant, Prince's Hot Chicken. Still in the family, the single restaurant turned into a chain with multiple locations now run by Thornton Prince's great niece, Andre Prince Jeffries.

Unlike bone-in Buffalo wings, Nashville hot chicken is made with boneless breasts or thighs. It's sometimes soaked in a buttermilk and pickle brine before being slathered in spicy-sweet paste, breaded, then fried crispy. The crunchy chicken is often served as a sandwich with pickles. Their ability to tone down the heat is one reason why hot chicken and pickles taste so good together.