September 10, 2007

Beer Can Chicken Thoughts

Beer Can Chicken - Try 2

Beer can chicken… can’t it?


Beer Can Chicken Recipe

This weekend I made my second run at “beer can chicken.” It’s not a complicated recipe at all, but the first time I made it I was not careful with my placement of the temperature probe (distracted after burning my fingers) and the breast meat was a little undercooked. The second attempt was a success, so I figured I’d post my observations.

Also, I have questions and skepticism about the reasoning behind using this method. What else is new?

Beer Can Chicken is a pretty darn simple dish to prepare. Roast chicken isn’t complicated in the first place, but the beer can chicken method is compelling mainly because it involves a couple of things so many people have handy - a grill and a can of beer.

Recipes can be found very easily on the internet. The basic steps (which I followed) are:

  1. Get a can of beer and a chicken of about 4 lbs.
  2. Drink about half the can of beer.
  3. Take the giblets out of the chicken cavity, rinse and pat the chicken dry.
  4. Rub dry spices onto the skin of the chicken and inside the cavity.
  5. Grasp the chicken by the legs, slip the chicken down over the half-full can as far as it will go.
  6. Arrange the bird on the grill using the can and two legs as a tripod. Breast towards you and leaning enough so it is quite stable.
  7. Roast the bird with indirect heat — meaning no heat directly below the bird.
  8. Cook until a heat measurement in the breast (near the bone) is 180 Fahrenheit degrees1.
  9. Rest the chicken for 10 minutes before removing the can and serving.

Beer Can Chicken Tips

Now, some of my details and recommendations.

  • Make sure the breast is facing you on the grill or in the oven, for easier access to place your thermometer.
  • You can find suggestions for spice rubs on the internet; use whatever you like. Here’s what I used:
    • Lowry’s Seasoned Salt on the inside of the bird
    • McCormick’s Montreal Chicken Seasoning on the skin.
    • Garlic powder also on the skin.
    • If you’d prefer a wet rub, I’d suggest starting with a base of mashed garlic. You just can’t go wrong with fresh garlic. Add salt, a little sugar, paprika, pepper… and either stop there or wing it with whatever smells good in your spice cabinet. Follow your nose.
  • Using tongs to grasp the beer can at the end of cooking will keep your hands away from hot beer. Or, you could put the chicken in a bowl and stick a skewer through the bottom of the can. The beer will drain out of the can into the bowl and the skewer can be used to pull out the can. It won’t slip like tongs might.
  • I used Budweiser. But the cheapest beer you can use is probably the best.
  • Use a drip pan if you don’t want chicken fat getting on whatever is under the bird. If chicken fat hits flames, it will likely flare up. That can be dangerous and/or can scorch your bird.
  • The beer can has a printed label on it which is not meant to come in contact with food. A gadget for cooking beer can chicken has the advantage of not placing a printed label against your chicken. However, I didn’t notice any visible difference in the Budweiser beer can label when I was done, and I don’t have any evidence that label-to-chicken contact is a problem.

Beer Can Chicken - The Myth, The Legend

OK, now my thoughts on what the heck beer can chicken is all about.

People say that the beer will steam the chicken from the inside, keeping it juicy and delicious while also imparting flavor from the beer. Ostensibly, that’s the reason for using this method. Well, that plus the fact that the can forms a tripod with the legs, and keeps the bird off the grill.

Steaming?

Does the beer steam the chicken? I rather doubt that. Water boils at 212 degrees F. You’re cooking the chicken to 180 degrees; the beer in the can probably stays pretty close to the temperature of the chicken. It’s jammed in the center of the bird where it doesn’t get to boiling temp. This is the exact reason that a stuffed bird results in unsafely-cooked stuffing. The center of the bird doesn’t get to safe temp by the time the meat is ready to eat.

How about the alcohol? Ethyl Alcohol boils at over 170 degrees. So it is hot enough to boil off some of the alcohol, but only for a few minutes at the end of the cooking.

I have serious doubts that this method imparts any moisture to the chicken. I haven’t noticed much of a difference in the liquid level in the can after cooking. Recipes say to use a half full can. I tried using a lot less than half a can of beer and didn’t notice any difference in the chicken.

It’s true that some of the liquid will become vapor during cooking. The air in the chicken will definitely stay moist. It’s also true that the can is plugging up a big hole in the chicken. If air were to pass through the cavity of the chicken, that would dry the chicken out. Blocking the passage of air is already going to keep the chicken more moist. The added moisture in the can probably makes little difference. Without air moving through the cavity, whatever moisture in there will just sit there.
A couple of recipes say that the beer can opening is too small and so you need to cut the top of the can off. I wonder if anyone has tested this. Assuming the beer is becoming a vapor, it is expanding. The increased pressure in the can will immediately vent through the can’s hole. A hole that size is not going to hinder vapor from expanding out of the can. I don’t imagine cutting the can is helpful.

Doesn’t rotisserie chicken stay moist? I am dubious you need the beer can for moistness.

Flavor?

Does the beer impart a flavor to the chicken? I’m skeptical of that as well. This fellow tried a side-by-side test pitting beer against plain water. He found no difference in the chicken. This implies that no taste from the beer makes it into the chicken.

Some people, including those that market gadgets to help you make beer can chicken, advocate adding spices and garlic to the water. I am dubious. The vapor coming off the beer is not really dense with flavors. It’s not like smoke which is chock full of particulate matter and pungent chemicals that penetrate and cling to the chicken. Hold your hand in wood smoke for a second or two and it will smell like smoke for a while later. A little beer vapor does not have the same effect.

Applying spices directly to the chicken is a more effective means of flavoring the bird. Oils from the spices would have a chance to actually penetrate, rather than evaporate, or just steep into the beer where they will be discarded.

In fact, you’re probably better off brining your chicken instead of hoping to get some flavor in their via beer steam. You can even brine the chicken in cheap beer if you like.

Conclusions

The fellow who did the Beer Can Chicken water vs. beer comparison pointed out that being exhaustive with his tests he’d have to cook (and waste) a lot of chickens. While I’d like my questions answered, I’m not about to cook tons of chickens, but I will continue to experiment. But based on my knowledge of chicken and physics, I think that the main reason for the beer can is to help stand up the chicken. So if you already have a device that does this, you are probably ahead of the game. My recommendations:

  • Brine the chicken. Put garlic and spices in the brine. Brining will make the chicken more moist and will help protect your chicken from over-cooking.
  • Use a spice rub you like, and lots of garlic
  • Smoke the chicken if you have the equipment and/or ingenuity. That’s the real way to get noticeable flavor into the bird.
  • If you have a can of beer you don’t mind using, go ahead and use this method. But feel free to drink most of the beer first. Leave 1/4 of the beer in the can. I bet it doesn’t dry out. Rotisserie chickens have no beer in them and they don’t dry out.
  • If you can find a device that stands your chicken up without a beer can, and you can get it for cheap, use that instead.

Despite my skeptical observations above, beer can chicken was certainly fun and delicious. So if you have a beer, a chicken and a grill, go for it.

[Updates]

1 Actually, some recipes I have seen called for the breast to register 160 F. When I have done this, the breast looked under-done. Safe temp for poultry is, according to USFDA, at least 170 F for breast meat and 180 F for a whole chicken. Quite honestly, I don’t like my chicken to be pink at all. I go by the FDA recommendation.

Posted by James at September 10, 2007 8:23 AM
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Comments

I recently heard a derivation on Beer Can Chicken that sounded somewhat intriguing, and goes along with some of your conclusions about what the Beer brings to the party. The derivation involves using a can of beans (or any canned vegtable ... I am even considering a can of onion soup). With the can of beans completely open, perhaps there's opportunity for some of the chicken fat to get into the can and enhance the flavor of the beans. Also, with canned vegtables (or onion soup), you can (and probably should) remove the paper label from the can; this would negate whatever minor concern there is regarding the beer can label thing.

Primarily, the can in the cavity does allow for grease to leave the bird. Since heat rises, breast-side up helps the breast to get done more quickly. OTOH, breast-side down would encourage a moister breast. Bears playing with. I may have to get a cheap charcoal grill to test this out. Currently, I am the contented own of a George Foreman electic grill.

Posted by: Kitten Herder at September 10, 2007 10:17 AM

When I tried this a few years ago I concluded that it might be more trouble than it was worth. I was more or less happy with the results, but not the hassle. Since I didn't have a grill, I put the chicken over a can holder in a pan. Getting that thing in and out of the oven, or just checking on it, without knocking the whole thing over was a challenge. The holder could only do so much; the assembly was top-heavy and the pan was full of hot grease. One false move, even just sliding the rack in or out of the oven, and the grease would splash or slosh.

Obviously, this is not such a problem with the grill since all the grease is dripping out of the way and you don't have to slide the rack around.

I thought the beer (which I believe was Old Milwaukee - cheap enough for ya?) imparted a faintly bitter taste to the inside of the chicken.

Overall, I thought it might be worth trying again with a more suitable liquid, but only if I had an extra pair of hands to help me get it out of the oven. Now I'm thinking maybe I'll skip it.

Posted by: Julie at September 10, 2007 11:03 AM

RIght - I should have mentioned (and you can see it in the photo) that the breast is cooking faster because of its elevation. This is another advantage of vertical cooking.

I prefer this to breast-down cooking. I think you won't have a dry chicken breast if you use a temperature probe, and anyone afraid of drying the chicken out can solve that problem once and for all by brining.

For soup or beans in the chicken the only caveat I would add would be to make certain that the contents of the can reach safe food temperature. For poultry drippings, I would aim for 170 F or above. If you're cooking the breast to 180 F, your can is probably over 170 F, but I would get the thermometer in there before eating it.

FDA Guidelines

Posted by: James at September 10, 2007 11:03 AM

Ahh - good point, Julie, about the drippings. It's probably easier to manage if the grease collector is not attached to the chicken. That'd be a disadvantage of the can holder in the pan that I hadn't considered. Maybe a grease catcher on a lower rack would be better. Or maybe this is a technique best for the grill or smoker and not the oven.

Honestly, I don't think I would be too enthusiastic to cook chicken this way in the oven because of the difficulty of access to a vertical chicken. And everything else Julie mentioned.

I would be enthusiastic to try smoking a chicken this way. If I had a smoker. One day I may try that makeshift smoker-in-a-garbage-can idea.

Posted by: James at September 10, 2007 11:41 AM

A grease catcher on a lower oven rack might be an improvement, but it'd have to be pretty big if I wanted to be able to move the rack with the chicken in and out of the oven (or I'd have to move both racks at the same time). And if it was that big, it might interfere with heat circulation. I dunno. I think it'd be swapping one problem with another.

At my old house, there was a guy down the street who had a homemade smoker in his driveway. It was not pretty to look at, but damn it smelled good.

Posted by: Julie at September 10, 2007 12:22 PM

I'll have to try it this way in the smoker. (Or if the beer doesn't make a difference, on an empty beer can chicken rack.) I've previously split the chicken and smoked it. Splitting the chicken is work, but it comes out good.

Let me know how you make out with a DIY smoker. I'm curious about temperature consistency and control, and fuel usage.

Call me a skeptic about the cardboard box method :-). But if it works, it seems like a good camping solution. I probably wouldn't haul my smoker camping because it doesn't pack well.

Posted by: Jim at September 10, 2007 3:07 PM

If I attempt the cardboard smoker I would likely smoke for a period of time and then finish it off in the oven or grill where I have better temperature control. I'm skeptical that I could maintain a good enough temperature to actually completely cook the meat with just a hot plate in a cardboard box. Although, perhaps a smaller box would be easier.

I wonder what other container would make a good smokebox? Not the Jeep, I can tell you from experience.

I would love to engineer a smallish smoker that could be broken down and put away. The only thing keeping me from buying a smoker is that I don't have a heck of a lot of room in the yard for an ugly smoker.

Maybe I need to take a welding class.

Posted by: James at September 10, 2007 3:56 PM

Random chicken-related comment:

When I was a kid, my parents took the family to Spain. My favorite food there was the ubiquitously-available "Garlic Chicken." It was roast chicken with garlic all over the skin, cooked until the skin was crispy.

I ended up in the hospital with an eye infection (which I now suspect was an auto-innoculation of smallpox) and one of the things that made my stay at the military hospital bearable was the garlic chicken on the menu. And Spider-Man comics.

Posted by: James at September 10, 2007 4:04 PM

We actually have no room in the yard for an ugly anything. Your cousin has a smoker -- go play with him. :-P

Also, not to poop on you foodophiles' parade, but it's really a helluva lot easier to buy a rotisserie chicken at Stop and Shop, and not deal with the grease or the disgusting innards.

(It did taste really good.)

Maggie "give me a baked skinless boneless breast" B.

Posted by: Maggie at September 10, 2007 4:05 PM

What you're saying, Maggie, is that if I really want to impress I'm going to have to make something you can't get at Stop & Shop.

Sounds like I need to build a smoker.

Posted by: James at September 10, 2007 4:47 PM

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