"Beer Can Chicken": Sure, it's cheesy, but it works
By LairBob in Culture
Fri Aug 08, 2003 at 06:52:30 AM EST
Tags: Food (all tags)
I know...you've probably heard of this before. This guy has been all over TV in the past year or so, acting like he invented it, and now you can even buy cooking paraphernalia to make your life easier. So I'm not purporting to bring some blindingly innovative technique to light.
Nevertheless, if you can look past the faddish element, and get over the kinda goofy "white trash" aspect, this is a very consistent route to an impressively tender, flavorful roasted chicken. Think of this as a low-budget, low-risk equivalent to the whole "deep-fried turkey" thing--it really does make a great chicken, and equally importantly, if you're having friends over, it's got pretty good entertainment value.
Much as I might joke about it, this really is a remarkably consistent and successful technique for cooking chicken. For many folks who like to cook, roasting or otherwise preparing a whole chicken is the real test of someone who knows what they're doing. Ending up with a chicken where the white meat and dark meat are both thoroughly cooked, but they're both moist, and the dark meat's not greasy while the white meat isn't dry, is no simple thing. As Esquire notes:
Although bistro classics (like steak frites and roast chicken) have become ubiquitous, they are still an excellent way to judge the overall quality, the integrity, of a kitchen. There's no hiding the facts with a straightforward dish like this: It takes focus to roast a bird with crispy skin and tender juicy meat, and the ability to produce one at home is second-nature to any cook worth his kosher salt.
Ironically enough, this goofy approach does a great job of just that. What's more, this happens to have the added virtue of cooking a very lean chicken, as well--roasting the bird upright allows most of the fat to run off the bird, and for the entire skin to get lean and crispy (instead of half-crispy, half-soaked in fat). If you do like to cook chicken, this is really something you ought to try.
When I generally write recipes out for my friends, I'm assuming that the value to them is in the hard-won personal insights. If it weren't for that personal component, why not just look it up in a cookbook, or on the Internet, right? For myself, I've worked through most of the tiny mechanical details that make this a painless and very reliable dish, but it took a fair amount of experimentation and failure to get there. I'm hoping that if you're genuinely interested in trying this, I can help you get it right on the first try, and then you're on your own, to take it where you want.
For anyone who already knows how to basically cook a chicken and just wants to hear the basics, let me summarize the process up front. If you're interested in the details that should really help you get it right, I'll go on after that to the pedantic, excessively detailed version.
"Beer Can Chicken": Short Version
1. Mix up a dry rub, and prep the chicken
2. Punch out the top of the beer can, pour out 2/3 of the beer, and throw in some dry rub
3. Stick the can up the bird, and stand it up on the grill
4. Cook the bird, on a covered grill (lid closed), over indirect heat
5. With 30 mins left to go, glaze/sauce the bird
6. When chicken is done, let stand for about 10 mins
7. Remove can, carve bird, and enjoy
"Beer Can Chicken": Loooong Version
Step 1) Mix up a dry rub
Make up the "dry rub" in a big, big bowl. Don't bother buying any of the store-bought crap--it sucks, it's full of chemicals, and you'd have to buy 3 or 4 canisters to have enough. You've got a lot of leeway here--almost any tasty mix of dry ingredients will work fine. I usually use...
Several people have commented that this sounds like it's very sweet--trust me, it's not, but if you're still leery, adjust or change the ingredients to anything you'd like. In general, though, by the time the sugar's been roasting for a couple of hours, it's caramelized and picked up the grill flavor, and turned into a much more savory flavor component than you might expect. Still, to each his own.
- 1/2 cup or more each of brown sugar, white sugar, salt, pepper
- About 1/4 cup of paprika
- Big dashes each of cayenne pepper, red chili pepper flakes, cinnamon and ground dried garlic.
- Whatever else you can think of that might be good--curry, cumin, dried herbs, chocolate powder...go nuts
Just make sure you end up with a lot of the rub--enough to thickly coat the whole chicken, inside and out--so be generous with the ingredients. Really flavorful spices, like curry, cayenne pepper, etc. are just too intense to apply in this kind of quantity, without being cut with something, so even if you choose not to have a lot of sugar and salt, you need enough of a milder "base", like mild paprika, maybe, that you can coat the chicken thoroughly. Someone's also suggested starting with a mustard rub, and then applying the spices--I've never tried that myself, but it sounds like it might be really good.
(Incidentally, there are a couple of different companies now that make those "spice mills" with built-in grinders that you can pick up in the supermarket--the garlic isn't garlic salt or garlic "powder", but actual dried garlic in a disposable little mill. That makes a huge difference. I find that all the different milled spices are pretty good, except--ironically--for the salt and pepper.)
Step 2) Fire up the grill.
You basically always want to grill chicken, especially a whole chicken, over indirect heat. If you've got burners that you can control independently, turn off any burners directly below the chicken, and cook the bird on the indirect heat from the outer burners (with the lid down). If you've got a better charcoal grill, like a Weber, you can do the same thing by banking the coals to the outside of the grating. Get the grill to about 350-400F (175-200C).
That brings up maybe the single biggest element to grilling chicken successfully...thermometer(s). You want to be pretty confident of the actual temperature you've got going inside, so one of those "oven rack" thermometers is great. More importantly, the chicken isn't really done after a fixed amount of time...it's done when the bird reaches an internal temperature of at least 170-180F (77-83C). (Many books will tell you 180-190F/83-87C to be safe.) With some experience, you can gauge this by eye, but the best way to learn what a fully-cooked bird looks like in the first place is by using an internal meat thermometer. Considering that thermometers cost about $3 a pop, don't hesitate to pick one up.
(See, I told you this was going to get pedantic.)
N.B. Like any technique that's going to uniformly cook a piece of food this thick, this really involves roasting the chicken in a closed space (over an indirect fire), and not actually grilling it over an open flame. (If the fire were cooking the chicken directly, you would end up with a bird that's totally charred on the outside, but still almost cold and raw on the inside.) Make sure you've got an appropriate roasting environment before you bother trying this--a grill on which you can maintain a controllable temperature, through indirect heat, for an extended period of time, with a lid that's high enough to close over a standing bird. If you've got a decent-sized gas grill, or one of the larger Weber charcoal grills, you should be just fine. At the moment, I've got one of those black Weber "Genesis" gas grills that everyone is selling, and it works great, but just about any moderately-sized grill should work. If you've got a small, shallow grill, or no grill at all, you'd be better off trying this in the oven. As long as your oven can hold a standing chicken, with the shelf at the lowest level, you should be able to stand the chicken in a deep pan and follow the rest of the directions. You won't end up with the yummy flame-kissed flavor of the grill, but it should still be a damn fine chicken.
Step 3) Prep the beer can
Get a can of beer, and rinse and wash the outside thoroughly before you open it. I've found that those little Heineken "keg cans" are perfect--not only does their angled shape make them easier to get in and out of the bird, but they're also mostly unpainted. (That's the only reservation I've ever heard about this technique--the potential toxicity of putting a painted can over the fire. Personally, I've never smelled or tasted anything that would make me worry, but it is something you want to be conscious of. Somebody's going to bring it up.) Open the can, drink about half the beer, and then open up the top more by either punching holes with a can opener, or using a cheap knife to cut some radial slots and bend the metal down. (If you're using a big bird--like 6lbs or more--then you can use one of the larger "oil-can" size Heineken kegs. The bigger cans work really well with a larger bird, and you can use a rolling can-opener on them like a can of tuna fish to take the lid clean off.)
Throw a handful of rub into the beer that's left in the can. Crack open another can of beer, because you're the goddamn chef, and you deserve it, dammit.
Step 4) Prep the bird
Trim excess fat and skin off the whole bird, and rinse it thoroughly inside and out in the sink. Get the bird as dry as possible using paper towels, especially inside, since if there's a lot of moisture left in the nooks and crannies, it'll run out and rinse off the rub.
Step 5) Coat the bird
Put the chicken into the big bowl, and get the dry rub all over it, inside and out. You want to get as thick and as even a coating as possible...in the armpit, down the neck, all over. Do this when you're just about ready to go--if you do it too far in advance, the rub will start to take up moisture and get all runny, and it'll just start sliding off when you prop the chicken up on the grill.
Take the bowl with the chicken in it and the prepped can out to the grill. (Then go back inside and get yourself another beer--it's hot outside, and you're about to start standing over a friggin' fire.)
Step 6) Mount the bird
At the grill, put a couple fingers down the neck of the bird (that's the little hole), pick up the bird so the drumsticks are pointing down, and stick the prepped can up its tuchus. (That's a technical term, from Escoffier. It means the big hole.) Quickly put the bird on the grill, so that it's standing up, like in that old Sledgehammer video. Make sure the can is flat and solidly placed first, then work the drumsticks out wide as a tripod to get the chicken as stable as possible. It may help to use a spatula to help hold the can up inside the bird's cavity until it's situated.
Step 7) Cook the bird
The chicken should cook at an oven temperature of around 350 degrees, and again, over indirect heat, if possible. It usually takes a couple of hours, depending on the size of the bird, and whether you're cooking two at once, etc.
This is where the gas-grill heretics have a real edge--say what you like about the flavor advantages of charcoal over gas, it's no mean feat to keep a charcoal fire going at a reasonably constant, controlled temperature for hours without spending a ton of money on the grill itself. Nevertheless, it is doable, especially if you're using real wood charcoal instead of cheap-ass briquets. (Don't even talk to me about those "Everything tastes like lighter fluid!" MatchLight obscenities.)
Send the older boy in on a regular basis for more beer, and regale your companions with ribald tales of youth while your SO rolls his/her/its eyes.
Step 8) Glaze the bird
When there's about 30 min left to go, mix a cup or so of honey with about a quarter-cup of balsamic vinegar. (The cheap supermarket kind of balsamic vinegar, not the real stuff that costs like $50 a bottle.) Use a spoon to ladle the honey mixture completely over the chicken, glazing it as completely as possible.
Here, again, you've actually got a lot of leeway. Instead of going for a honey-type glaze, you can go for an olive-oil/herb-type dressing approach, or use a more traditional tomato-based sauce (although they tend to burn more easily). Soy/teriyaki-based sauces work great, too. Whatever you do choose, please, just make sure it's home-made, OK? None of that store-bought stuff. Unless you're worried about the condition of the grill (see below), you do want to do something to add moisture back to the outer layer of the chicken. The inside's getting very nicely steamed by the beer, and ladling some kind of wet application to the outside helps the areas that are more exposed to the heat keep up.
How do you know when there are 30 minutes left? That's a very good question. Basically, if you've been cooking the chicken at a solid 350F/175C for about 90 mins, you're in the neighborhood. If you've got a thermometer, you can check the bird, and the internal temperature will be around 160F/71C, climbing towards 170F/77C. If you've cooked a lot of chicken, it's at that point where the skin is just losing that fatty pallid white color, and is going over the edge from yellow to brown.
When you're glazing the bird, don't use a brush...use a spoon. A brush is going to just wipe off the dry rub--you want to use stroke the edge of a tablespoon horizontally across the bird's skin, and let the glaze or sauce run down and cover the bird as completely as possible, in all the nooks and crannies.
It's time to switch to wine, at this point, don't you think? This is going to be a pretty flavorful dish, so I usually prefer either a robust white like a Sauvignon Blanc, or even a good, tasty red. My personal, current favorite right now is still Bogle Vineyards' Petite Syrah, which is delicious, and a real bargain. Even if you never make this recipe, try that wine. I've been drinking it all summer.
Step 9) Make sure the bird is done
Technically, the chicken's done when a meat thermometer that's stuck deep inside without touching the bone reads at least 180 degrees, but basically, if it looks like the meat--especially the breast at the top, near the neck--is starting to pull away from the bone, it'll be fine, even if you don't have a thermometer. (If you get a chicken that's got one of those little pop-thingies on it, it'll pop when the chicken's still 170F/77C inside, or even less. You might want to cook it a little bit longer, since I don't know if I trust that little plastic bit over a flame, but you're probably safe from that point on.) The chicken will probably look blackened all over by the time it's ready, but that's because of the glaze, not because the bird's burnt. The skin will still taste awesome.
If you're not sure, that's where this specific technique comes to your rescue. The steam from the beer can keeps the inside of the bird so moist that it's alright to leave it on a little too long. You might even like it better that way--the outside meat's going to be really crispy, but the breast meat and all the rest of the bird is still going to be very, very moist, so you don't have to risk having too rare a bird.
The most important thing you'll want to start to experiment with, once you master your grill, is temperature over time. The "straight 350F/175F" approach I'm describing here works just fine, and you should really just stick with it the first time, or if you have a hard enough time keeping a constant temp. If you start a bit higher (400F/205C), though, for about 20-30mins, kick it down to 350F/175C for the main stretch, and then modulate it down to 325F/165C or so after you glaze it, it may take a little longer, but you're more likely to have a crisp, outer skin, that isn't as charcoal-burnt when you're done. I wouldn't start playing with that until you've done this successfully a couple of times, though, and I still often don't bother.
Step 10) Remove the chicken, and carve it
To take the chicken off the grill, you're probably going to have to use a spatula to chip the drumsticks off the grate, since the honey glaze will have welded them there. Once you've broken them free, use some tongs to pick up the bird and a spatula to lift the can with it, all as one unit. Put it aside and let it cool, still standing on the can, for a couple of minutes.
If the can doesn't slide out on its own when you lift the chicken again, use the handle of a wooden spoon, and slide it into the neck from the top. Get the spoon handle pushed against the bottom of the can to hold it down against the board, and you should be able to use the tongs to slide the chicken up enough to get it off the can. Once it's off the can, let it cool some more on its side, for a total of about 10 minutes, before you carve it--it'll stay much moister that way.
(Last pedantic note...if you hadn't heard this before, you always want to do this with meat before you carve it. The meat has been in an environment that's 350F/175C or more, maybe for hours, and much of the internal moisture is going to be above 212F/100C degrees. Cutting the bird open right away allows most of that great moisture to escape as steam--it's like popping a balloon. Ideally, you don't want to poke, prod, pierce, cut or otherwise break the surface of a piece of cooked meat at all, if possible, until it's had a chance to cool internally. Use tongs, not a fork, to turn a steak and then take it off the grill, and learn to judge "doneness" by touch, rather than cutting it open to look and see.)
I won't go into detail on how to carve a bird, since there's no single best way, and it's something you really learn by doing--just use a good, sharp knife, with a blade that's not too wide front to back, and follow the contour of the bone.
Kick back, relax and enjoy. You'll almost certainly find that the dark meat and the light meat are both almost perfect--cooked all the way through, but still really juicy. Anyone who's taken it as a culinary challenge to learn how to roast an excellent chicken can tell you--that's no small accomplishment. Any technique that makes it happen consistently is a real find.
It's also a very, very lean way to cook chicken, since most of the fat runs down off the chicken as it's cooking. You're basically using the same technique as all those "low-fat standing chicken roasters" everyone was pushing a couple of years ago. The best part, to many people, is the skin--not only is it incredibly flavorful, because of the rub and the glaze, but it's also about as lean as skin's going to get, so you can actually indulge yourself a bit without feeling like you're eating raw bacon.
After dinner, stretch out on the patio with a nice single malt, like Glenmorangie (the most popular single-malt in Scotland, and for good reason). Bask in the glow of a meal well-cooked. Try to get someone else to do the dishes.
There you go! The only thing to be careful of about this recipe is that the honey glaze really turns into a lot of charcoal on the grill, and can be kind of a mess to clean up. If it's not your grill, or if you're wary of making a mess on your own, you might want to skip that step and just stick with the rub.
I hope, that if you've bothered to read this far, that you found this informative and enjoyable, and that it inspires you to try it yourself. One great thing about this is that it's really more a "technique" than a "recipe", which means that it lends itself to an almost infinite number of variations. Try it a couple of times, master the technique, and then every chicken you cook this way will be different, and delicious. If you didn't like this, and you're still reading it, then what the F#%K are you thinking?