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Can-do barbecue

That bird is sitting pretty on a rather unconventional cooking process. For the birds? Think again. Cooks swear by it. Cheers.

By Compiled by JANET K. KEELER and DON MORRIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000


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[Times photos: Fred Victorin]
An open can of beer steams the chicken from inside, the flavor permeating the meat. A perforated grate placed over the grill rack steadies the vertically roasting chicken. Atop the chicken, beer bubbles up.
It is one of the oddest things you'll ever see: A whole chicken cooking upright on the grill, steadied and flavored by an open can of beer.

It also may be the most succulent barbecued chicken you've ever tasted.

Beer-can chicken, also called drunken chicken or chicken on a throne, is becoming a modern American classic. Its roots are difficult to trace, but it has been making the rounds on college campuses and at backyard barbecues for about six years. The beer-can technique steams the chicken from the inside, infusing it with the flavor of the beer and other aromatics, on essentially a vertical roaster. The result is moist and tender chicken.

On Epicurious.com, a culinary Web site that dispenses cooking advice and recipes, it is one of the most talked-about recipes. Cooks from all over the nation have left comments and confessions.

"What a fun and great recipe. My parents laughed right out loud when they saw the chickens sitting there on the grill. Great flavor. We loved it," wrote a woman from Portland, Ore.

"Very tender and delicious chicken with the touch of beer-smoky flavor," fawned J.J. from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

In honor of the Fourth of July, the biggest barbecue holiday on the calendar, we offer instructions for making this funky chicken. Don't be intimidated. It's easier than it seems.

The recipe here, from Stephen Raichlen's Barbecue Bible, calls for a coating of spices called Memphis rub to flavor the chicken, but that's only one way to kick it up. Use your imagination to put your own mark on this dish. Substitute ginger ale for beer and spice your chicken with Asian flavors (sesame oil, powdered ginger, soy sauce) or try Dr Pepper and barbecue sauce.

Beer-can chicken

  • 1 large whole chicken (4 to 5 pounds)
  • 3 tablespoons Memphis rub (recipe below) or your favorite dry barbecue rub
  • 1 12-ounce can of beer

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A spice mixture rubbed on the chicken will give it more flavor if it’s on for at least four hours before grilling.
Note: Before beginning, read "How to set up your grill" on this page.

Remove and discard the fat from inside the body cavities of the chicken. Remove the package of giblets, and set aside for another use. Rinse the chicken, inside and out, under cold running water; then drain and blot dry, inside and out, with paper towels. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the rub inside the body and neck cavities; then rub another tablespoon all over the skin of the bird. If you wish, rub another half-tablespoon of the mixture between the flesh and the skin. Cover and refrigerate the chicken while you preheat the grill.

Set up the grill. See grilling instructions below.

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Dump out about a third of the beer, leaving room to add herbs, spices and sauces.
Pop the tab on the beer can. Using a "church key" type of can opener, punch six or seven holes in the top of the can. Pour out the top inch of beer; then spoon the remaining dry rub through the holes into the can. Holding the chicken upright (wings at top, legs at bottom), with the opening of the body cavity down, insert the beer can into the lower cavity.

Oil the grill grate. Stand the chicken up in the center of the hot grate, over the drip pan. (You can use a perforated rack on top of the grate for added stability.) Spread out the legs to form a sort of tripod, to support the bird.

Cover the grill and cook the chicken until fall-off-the-bone tender, about an hour. Use a thermometer (see "The right temperature," this page) to check for doneness. The internal temperature should be 180 degrees.

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Tying back the wings closes the neck hole and keeps more steam inside the body. Do not completely close the hole.
Using tongs, lift the bird to a cutting board or platter, holding a metal spatula underneath the beer can for support. (Have the board or platter right next to the bird to make the move shorter. Be careful not to spill hot beer on yourself.) Let stand for 5 minutes before carving. (Toss the beer can out along with the carcass.)

Serves 4 to 6.

Memphis Rub

  • 1/4 cup paprik
  • 1 tablespoon firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons Accent (MSG, optional)
  • 1 teaspoon celery salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 to 3 teaspoons cayenne pepper, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder

Combine all the ingredients in a jar, twist the lid on tightly and shake to mix. Store away from heat or light for up to six months. Makes about 1/2 cup.

The right temperature

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is urging people to use thermometers to ensure food is heated enough to destroy dangerous bacteria.

Food thermometers can be purchased for a few bucks at most grocery stores, and the USDA says it's important to get the right kind for your kind of cooking. Small, instant-read thermometers are easier to use with thinner pieces of meat. Forks with built-in thermometers are good for barbecuing. The following are safe internal temperatures for some popular foods:

  • 145 degrees: Beef, lamb and veal steaks and roasts.
  • 160 degrees: Hamburger, meatloaf, ribs, pork chops and pork chops, egg dishes.
  • 165 degrees: Ground turkey and chicken, stuffing and casseroles, leftovers.
  • 170 degrees: Chicken and turkey breasts.
  • 180 degrees: Legs, thighs, wings and whole birds of all poultry.

How hot is it?

Hold your hand, palm down, about 6 inches above coals. Count "one thousand one, one thousand two" until the heat is uncomfortable and you have to pull your hand away. If you can keep your hand in place for two seconds, it's hot, about 375 degrees or more. For three seconds, it's medium-hot, 350 to 375 degrees. Four seconds, it's medium, about 300 to 350 degrees, and 5 seconds, it's low, about 200 to 300 degrees. For beer-can chicken, the heat needs to be about 350 to 400.

How to set up your grill for beer-can chicken

To cook beer-can chicken on a backyard grill, you need to use the indirect method, which means that you configure your fire so that it is hottest away from the food.

In a charcoal kettle grill, light the charcoal. When it glows red, arrange it in two piles at opposite sides of the grill. (Some grills come with side baskets for this purpose.) Place a foil drip pan in the center of the grill between the mounds of embers. Place the grate on the grill and cook the chicken in the center over the drip pan. Toss soaked wood chips, if desired, on the coals to generate flavored smoke.

Keep the grill covered, adjusting the vents to keep the temperature at 350 degrees. After cooking the chicken for an hour, add 10 fresh briquettes or an equal amount of Charwood. Leave the grill uncovered for a few minutes until the coals ignite.

On a gas grill, if it has two burners, light one side on high and cook the chicken on the other. On a three-burner grill, light the front and rear or outside burners and cook the chicken in the center. On a four-burner grill, light the outside burners and cook in the center.

Many gas grills come with smoker boxes in which you can put the wood chips. If you don't have a smoker box, loosely wrap the chips in heavy-duty foil, make a few holes on top and place the foil package under the grate over one of the burners. -- STEVEN RAICHLEN, The Barbecue Bible

Real people can do this

We made three beer-can chickens, using Steven Raichlen's basic directions but veering completely from his spices. What is clear about this dish is that it's like potato salad. Each person who makes it will have his own touch.

Here are some tips if you're trying it for the first time.

If you use a rub, maximize the flavor by putting it on at least four hours before grilling. Overnight is best.

We used 16-ounce Budweiser talls because they seemed to give the bird a sturdier base. We were probably overly worried.

Don't want to use wood chips on your gas grill? Don't. Grill the bird over medium heat and you'll still get great flavor.

Resist the urge to overcook. A 4-pound chicken will cook in about an hour. If you're cooking several at a time, the cooking time will increase. Use a meat thermometer and take the chicken off when it reaches 180 degrees.

No grill? Roast the bird in the oven at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes per pound. Again, use a meat thermometer to assure doneness.

Don't fuss with the chicken after you've put it on the grill. Keep an eye on it to make sure flames aren't charring the skin. If flames erupt, spray them with water. You'll get more flame if you baste the bird a lot, especially if the liquid has a lot of oil in it. Give the chicken a swipe in the last 15 minutes of cooking if you want added flavor.

A perforated rack, a grill accessory you can buy at a hardware store, will keep the chicken from toppling. Place it on top of your barbecue grill for sturdiness.

Use bread bag twist ties (you'll have to twist three together) or kitchen twine to tie up the wings. Longer twist ties can be purchased in the garden supply department of Home Depot or Lowe's. This will partially close the neck hole, trapping more of the steam from the beer inside. Do not close the hole completely or your chicken might launch!

Pour out, or drink, about a third of the beer before putting the chicken on and there will be room to stuff the can with herbs, spices, bottled marinades or barbecue sauce. Not all recipes direct cooks to poke holes in the top of the beer can as the Memphis rub one does. We didn't and the chicken was great.

There are two holes in a chicken. Make sure you put the beer can in the larger one; the smaller one is the neck.

Barbecuers in crisis

The Weber Grill-Line, (800) 474-5568, operates 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays through Labor Day. Experts answer questions and offer tips, even on Fourth of July. Callers also receive free booklets: "Grilling Through the Seasons" and "Beyond Burgers Barbecue Booklet." Weber's Web site is http://www.webergrills.com.

Direct or indirect heat?

Foods that take less than 30 minutes (boneless chicken, steak, fish filet, burgers, hot dogs) can be cooked directly over the coals.

It takes about 30 briquets to grill 1 pound of meat or poultry directly over coals.

Foods that take longer than 30 minutes and are higher in fat (whole turkeys, bone-in chicken, ribs) require indirect heat; otherwise, they will char on the outside before they are done on the inside. Bank fuel on one or both sides of a drip pan and place food on the rack over the drip pan. The grill lid must be closed for cooking over indirect heat. About 25 briquets should be used on each side of drip pan for up to 1 hour of cooking. Add new briquets periodically for additional cooking time.

Information from Times wires was used in this report

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