Many people credit grill master Steven Raichlen with inventing beer-can chicken. He didn't. But he did popularize it, bringing the cooking technique from, as he puts it, "the barbecue backwoods to the American mainstream." What Raichlen taught the world was that setting a chicken on a beer can to cook upright, thus melting fat out and crisping the skin on all sides, is a surefire way to grill a better bird.
"It's also cool as all get out," he adds. "And you should never underestimate the cool factor."
If that sounds cavalier, rest assured that Raichlen is anything but. Before releasing the preeminent book on the subject, he put his beer-can chicken recipes through a barrage of laboratory tests. He proved that no metal or label dyes were absorbed by the meat and that the best way to make sure the whole thing won't topple over is to treat the can like one leg on a tripod, the chicken's legs being the other two.
Raichlen recommends that chefs looking to try out beer-can chicken use a charcoal grill and never put the bird directly over the fire, using indirect rather than direct heat to crisp the outside and keep the inside moist. And use a charcoal grill that has enough clearance under the lid – this means a 22 1/2-inch kettle (18 inches is too small). From there, it's just a matter of how creative you want to get.
Steven Raichlen's Basic Beer-Can Chicken
- 1 can (12 ounces) beer
- 1 chicken (3 1⁄2 to 4 pounds)
- 2 tbsp homemade rub
- Optional: Fresh herbs, chopped (thyme, oregano, rosemary, etc.)
- 2 tsp vegetable or olive oil
- 2 cups wood chips or chunks (preferably hickory or cherrywood)
Choosing the right can: You can use a can half full of soda, wine, or fruit juice instead of regular beer, stout, or ale. Use a 12-ounce can for a normal chicken; an 8-ounce can for a game hen; a 1-liter "oil can" for a small turkey. For quail, a small can of pineapple juice is ideal, while a duck needs a tall boy.
1. Pop the tab off the beer can. Pour half of the beer out.
2. Remove the packet of giblets from the body cavity of the chicken and set aside for another use. Remove and discard the fat just inside the body and neck cavities. Rinse the chicken, inside and out, under cold running water and then drain and blot dry, inside and out, with paper towels. Sprinkle 1 tsp of the rub inside the body cavity and 1/2 tsp inside the neck cavity of the chicken. If desired, insert fresh, chopped herbs under the chicken's skin. Drizzle the oil over the outside of the bird and rub or brush it all over the skin. Sprinkle the outside of the bird with 1 tbsp of rub and rub it all over the skin. Spoon the remaining 1 1/2 tsp of rub into the beer through a hole in the top of the can. The beer may foam up – that's normal.
3. If cooking on a can, hold the bird upright, with the opening of the body cavity at the bottom, and lower the bird onto the beer can so the can fits into the cavity. Pull the chicken legs forward to form a sort of tripod, allowing the bird to stand upright. The beer can is the rear leg of the tripod. If cooking on a standup roaster that includes a can, fill it with the beer-rub mixture and position the chicken on top, following the manufacturer's instructions.
4. Tuck the tips of the wings behind the chicken's back.
5. Set up the grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium. If using a charcoal grill, place a large drip pan in the center. If using a gas grill, place all the wood chips or chunks in the smoker box or in a smoker pouch, and preheat on high until you see smoke, then reduce heat to medium.
6. When ready to cook, if using a charcoal grill, toss all of the wood chips or chunks on the coals. Stand up the chicken in the center of the hot grate, over the drip pan and away from the heat. Cover grill, and cook chicken until the skin is a dark golden brown and very crisp and the meat is cooked through (about 180°F on an instant-read meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of a thigh, but not touching the bone), 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours. If using a charcoal grill, you'll need to add 12 fresh coals per side after 1 hour. If the chicken skin starts to brown too much, loosely tent the bird with aluminum foil.
7. If cooking on a can, use tongs to hold the bird by the can and carefully transfer it (in an upright position) to a platter. If cooking on a vertical roaster, use oven mitts or pot holders to remove the bird from the grill while it's still on the roaster.
8. Let the chicken rest for 5 minutes, then carefully lift it off its support. Remove the can or other support from the area. Take care not to spill the hot beer or otherwise burn yourself. Halve, quarter, or carve the chicken and serve.