Beer can chicken. Drunken chicken. Beer butt chicken. Dancing chicken. Chicken on a throne.
This is the stuff of barbecue legend, and even if you haven’t heard of it, you’ve probably (hopefully) seen one: A whole chicken, wings casually folded behind the neck, propped up on a beer can as it leisurely roasts on the grill. All that’s missing (hopefully) is the cigarette.
Beyond the obvious entertainment factor, there’s the whole mythology. It’s been said the beer steams the meat, keeping it moist and juicy. That the beer and spices in the can infuse the meat with flavor. And, of course, that the malts, hops, alcohol or whatever in the beer itself keep the skin crisp as the chicken takes a steam bath on the rack.
Sigh. If only it were true.
“There are people who believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and they will not accept the science,” says Meathead Goldwyn. “It’s right there in black and white. It’s really easy to demonstrate.”
Don’t get Goldwyn started on beer can chicken. The man behind the popular website AmazingRibs.com isn’t shy about his opinions, and he has the science to prove it. He’s but one of several online cooking authorities to set his sights on the sitting bird.
“You understand why you don’t cram a turkey with stuffing. It’s the same thing. You don’t stuff a chicken with a beer can. The beer never gets hot enough to steam,” he explained recently over the phone. “If it did, where would it go? It’s not going into the meat, because the can’s in the way.”
The main problem, he and others explain, is that the chicken essentially insulates the can from heat of the grill, meaning the outside of the chicken cooks first. By the time the innermost meat is cooked to a safe temperature of 165 degrees, the beer is still way below the temperature it would take to steam and flavor the meat, not to mention the outside of the chicken is overcooked and dry. No steam, no added flavor. And a waste of good beer.
A better way? Try brining your chicken in beer.
Brining is a proven method for infusing flavor and moisture, helping to keep the bird moist as it roasts. Go with a rich amber ale, complementing the flavors with toasted mustard seeds, fresh rosemary and maple syrup. Overnight brining is all it takes to infuse the bird with flavor. The next day, drain the bird and rub it with a rich spice blend to enhance the flavor composition.
When you’re ready to roast, prop the chicken on a beer can chicken holder — it’s a little cage meant to hold a beer can to keep the chicken steady as it roasts. Leave the holder empty this time, propping your chicken over indirect heat on the grill. Then roast away.
Cooking your chicken vertically will help fat drain from the bird as it roasts, crisping the skin similar to how Peking duck is prepared. And keeping the beer can holder empty will allow the heat to penetrate the center of the chicken as it cooks the outside, so the chicken cooks more evenly. If you’ve ever tried traditional beer can chicken, you’ll find this method actually cooks the chicken faster.
Don’t worry. You’ll still have chicken leisurely sitting on the grill when you want to show off to the guests. Only this time you’ll actually have the beer cans handy when the guests want to toast your cooking skills — and knock back with their perfectly cooked chicken.