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How to Make Beer-Can Chicken

A backyard barbecue favorite that’s easy to master

June/July 2015 Issue
Photographs by Scott Phillips
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When I was pledging a college fraternity in 1982, I had to kowtow to a lot of humiliating demands from the upperclassmen in the house, including waiting all night at the Stanford stadium to get good seats for the Saturday football games. It was there that I met my first beer-can chicken. The poor bird had it much worse than I did. Some tailgating fans had shoved a can inside the chicken and stood it upright on a grill in a most undignified way.

Funny that what was once just kicks for college kids is now a point of pride for competition barbecue teams, backyard cooks, and even some respectable restaurants. It turns out that by grilling a chicken vertically, you can achieve a crisp bronze skin all the way around, and the vapors from the slowly evaporating beer keep the meat supremely juicy. While Beer-Can Chicken goes by several names, including Drunken Chicken, Chicken on a Throne, and Beer Butt Chicken (plus a few others I can’t mention), one thing is certain: No matter what you call it, it’s delicious.

Get the recipe: Tex-Mex Beer-Can Chicken

Need to Know

Use any beer (or other liquid) you like. The truth is, the flavor of the beer is almost impossible to taste in the chicken, and juice or other liquids work just as well at keeping the meat moist. You’ll want the beer to start evaporating as soon as possible, so pour most of it out (into your beer glass, of course), leaving just about one-third of it in the can. Also, let the beer come to room temperature before cooking so it gets hot faster on the grill.

Don’t overdo the smoke. Smoldering mesquite chips add a layer of woodsy smoke to the meat, but if you use more than a cup of chips, the meat could turn sooty and bitter.

Use indirect heat. Set up your grill so that there’s an area of the grate without coals or a lit burner beneath it. This is where the chicken goes. Heat will circulate around the chicken, giving it a golden exterior, but because it’s not directly over the heat source, it won’t burn.

Tent the top. When cooked upright, the chicken’s neck and wings tend to brown first. If they get dark too quickly, loosely tent that area with aluminum foil.

Use a spatula and tongs to move the chicken off the grill. Lifting the hot can and chicken off the grill without burning yourself may be the hardest part of this recipe. Grab the chicken by its neck with tongs (staying clear of the breast meat), then tilt the chicken just enough to slide a metal spatula under the beer can. Carefully lift the whole thing off the grill and onto a tray, supporting it with the spatula on the bottom and the tongs on the top.

To remove the can, use two sets of tongs—one to hold the chicken by the neck and one to hold the can. Twist the can back and forth until it comes loose. It’s best to do this in a sink, just in case liquid comes pouring out or you lose your grip on the chicken.


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