Do you realize it’s been over 25 years since beer-can chicken entered the American culinary lexicon? For more than two decades, people have been cooking this intriguing dish for parties and cookouts and even competitions. It is an undeniably fun way to cook a chicken, but we wondered: is it a better way to cook a chicken?
We hooked up our Signals™ multi-channel BBQ thermometer and our ThermoWorks app to get to the bottom of what’s happening in beer-can chicken, from a thermal angle. What we found may or may not surprise you, depending on how dedicated you are to this cooking method. Let’s get into the data and find out what’s going on.
What is beer-can chicken, and why do people make it?
Beer can chicken is a grilled/barbecued chicken that is cooked with a half-emptied can of beer inserted into its body cavity. The idea behind this method is that the beer cooks off and transfers both flavor and moisture to the meat, creating tender, juicy, beer-y chicken. And if it is doing that, it will certainly be worth it!
Now, whether or not those things happen (we’ll look at the data in a minute), I expect people will keep cooking this dish. Why? Because you barbecue a chicken with a can of beer in its cavity—it’s an incredibly fun idea.
Beer-can chicken: experimental design and procedure
To test this cooking method for efficacy, our plan was to use four probes. One—the air probe—with the Billows™ BBQ control fan, one in the breast meat, one in the thigh meat, and the last one in the beer in the can.
To prepare our chicken for cooking, we seasoned it under the skin with BBQ rub and with a little butter (to help the skin crisp up), we also rubbed the skin on the outside with a neutral-flavored oil and more BBQ rub.
We heated a smoker that was set up for indirect cooking to 325°F (163°C) using the air probe with our Signals and Billows. While heating, we removed half the contents of the beer can, then weighed it so we could measure any mass lost to evaporation/boiling. It weighed 198 grams.
We shoved the can into the chicken and stood it up in the smoker. We put a probe in the thermal center of the chicken breast and set its high-temp alarm to 157°F (69°C). We put a probe in the thigh and set that alarm for 175°F (79°C). (We were hoping, of course, to hit our doneness temperatures in both the breast and the thighs, with the dark meat being cooked to a higher temp than the light meat.) The probe in the beer didn’t get an alarm, since we weren’t looking for any particular doneness temp.
The cook was monitored remotely using Signals’ cloud capabilities, watching the pit and probe temps throughout the cook on our desktops.
Results: is beer-can chicken worth it?
This is a data-centric post, so we’re going to put up the graph of the cook before we get to the pretty roasted chicken pictures. Here you go:
Let’s examine the data.
We can see the temperature of the beer in green. Its temp rises more quickly than do the meat temps, which makes sense as the can was closest to the heat and was a metal conductor.
Then we see the thigh temp in yellow, rising to meet the beer temp as the cook finishes. The breast meat is interesting. I inserted the probe in what I thought was the thermal center, but when a high-temp alarm sounded on it, but Thermapen verification showed that there were places in the chicken that were still well cooler than the 157°F (69°C) target. I moved the probe into one of these locations in the breast, which you can see as the precipitous drop in breast temperature at about 12:05 p.m.
What is great here is that we did get the temperature differential that we wanted between the light and dark meat. I suspect that has something to do with the legs being closer to the heat source and free to rotate away from the body of the bird. I honestly didn’t expect the differential to come out quite so nicely, so that was a pleasant surprise.
The leg, wing, and thigh meat of this bird were excellent. It was exceedingly tender and not at all gummy. The breast meat was a little dry in places, and I’d probably drop the internal temp to 155°F (68°C) were I to do this again. Overall, it was delicious but, as you’ll see below, we surmise it had less to do with the beer can and more with a well-seasoned chicken being cooked to proper temperatures.
What about the beer? Did it affect the chicken?
One of the reasons to do this cook is to get beer-infused chicken that is extra juicy from the liquid that is cooked off into it. Unfortunately, the data just doesn’t support that.
You see, the boiling point of pure ethanol (alcohol) is 173.1°F (78.4°C), and water boils at 212°F (100°C) (at our elevation, those numbers change to about 164°F (73°C) and 203°F (95°C)respectively.) But a combination of the two liquids will boil at a point between those temperatures. We used a beer that was 4.8% ABV, which has a boiling point 7.49°F (4.16°C) below the boiling point of pure water, so at our elevation, the boiling point of our beer was about 196°F (91°C). (And no, it isn’t the case that the alcohol in a water mixture will boil at its boiling point while the water stays put.) Since the temperature of our beer never rose above 178°F (81°C), none of it boiled off. Sure, there may have been a little vapor loss—as you might see in a pan when you’re bringing water up to a boil but haven’t gotten there yet—but it wasn’t much.
In fact, when we weighed the can of beer after taking it out of the chicken, its mass had increased to 211 grams. More chicken juices had dripped into the beer than beer evaporated out.
So, no, the beer isn’t evaporating to make your chicken juicier, and it isn’t “distilling” the flavors of the beer into your chicken. *Sigh.*
In the end, this was one tasty grill-roasted chicken. Was it any tastier than a standard grill roasted chicken? Not really, no. In fact, it’s much slower than a grilled spatchcocked chicken, and the spatchcocked chicken has skin that is more crisp.
That being said, this method is really no more difficult than roasting a chicken another way (and easier than spatchcocking a chicken), and the presentation really is fun.
So I say if you like it, go for it—get out there and cook some good food! Your family will laugh as you bring the bird to table, still stuck on its can. And as long as you’re paying attention to critical temps and using your Signals or another leave-in probe thermometer to track them (and verify with a Thermapen), you’ll end up with good chicken every time. There’s nothing wrong with it, but you might want to save the beer for someone who will appreciate it more than the chicken will.
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