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Beer-can chicken: popular classic based on science

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Photo provided)
Beer can chicken.

You may not find too many restaurant chefs plopping their poultry on cans of PBR, but all those tailgaters and beachside grillers are on to something.

There are solid scientific reasons that chicken really does roast better in a more upright, lifelike pose than when it is flat on its soggy back. And by adding a couple of extra prep steps to the technique and taking your care with the temperature, you can get the best of both worlds: succulent, juicy meat and crispy, golden brown skin.

On top of all that, you get to drink the beer! The chicken doesn't actually need it.

Beer-can chicken recipes are everywhere on the Internet, but most of them don't address the two biggest challenges of roasting poultry. The first is to avoid overcooking the meat. Nothing is more disappointing at a Labor Day cookout than to bite into a beautiful-looking chicken breast only to end up with a mouthful of woody fiber that seems to suck the saliva right out of your glands.

The solution to this first challenge is simple: take your time, measure the temperature correctly and frequently, and choose the right target for the core temperature (as measured at the deepest, densest part of the thigh). When you cook the bird slowly, the heat has more time to kill any nasty bacteria living in the food, so you don't have to cook the heck the out of thing.

The federal government recommends bringing the meat to 165 F for at least 15 seconds. But guidelines issued by the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service show that 35 minutes at 140 F achieves the same degree of pasteurization, even in the fattiest chicken.

The recipe below calls for several hours in the oven and a core temperature of 145 F to 150 F, which will meet those guidelines as long as you slow-cook the bird at a low temperature. But be sure you use a reliable, oven-safe thermometer and place it properly as directed in the recipe. The tip shouldn't be touching or near any bone.

The second challenge that most beer-can chicken recipes fail to overcome is crisping the skin. Here, liquid is the enemy, and adding additional liquid in the form of a can full of beer is the wrong approach. So empty the can first — the specifics of that will be left as an exercise for the reader— and use the empty can merely as a way to prop up the bird and to block airflow in its interior so that the meat doesn't dry out.

Also, give the skin some breathing room by running your (carefully washed) fingers underneath it before roasting. As the subdermal fat melts away, it will trickle downward; a few well-placed punctures provide exits without compromising the balloon-like ability of the skin to puff outward under steam pressure. Held apart from the juicy meat, the loose skin will dry as it browns, especially during a final short blast of high heat in a hot oven.

Done right, each slice of tender meat will be capped with a strip of wonderfully flavored skin, which will be at its crispiest when it emerges from the oven. So have your table ready, and don't be slow with the carving knife. But do take a moment to remove the can before you tuck in.

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SLOW-ROASTED CHICKEN ON A BEER CAN

Start to finish: 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 hours (30 minutes active)

Servings: 4

1 medium roaster chicken

12-ounce can of cold beer (any variety you like to drink)

Set an oven rack in the lowest position in the oven. Remove the upper racks. Heat the oven to 175 F, or as low as your oven will allow if its controls do not go this low.

Wash your hands well with soap. Remove the neck and bag of giblets, if included, from inside the chicken. Slide your fingertips underneath the skin at the neck opening and gently work the skin away from the meat. Use care to avoid tearing the skin as you pull it loose from the body; continue as far as you can reach on both the front and the back. Turn the chicken over, and repeat from the cavity opening at the base of the bird, making sure to loosen the skin on the drumsticks so that it is attached only at the wings and the ends of the legs.

Use a knife to pierce the skin at the foot end of each leg and at the tail end of the front and back. These small incisions will allow the cooking juices to drain away so that they don't soak into the skin.

Pour the contents of the beer can into a glass, and enjoy it at your leisure. Push the empty can into the tail end of the bird far enough that the chicken can stand upright as it rests on the can.

If the neck was included with the chicken, use it like a stopper to close up the opening at the top of the bird. Otherwise you can use a bulldog clip to pinch the skin closed so that steam inflates the loose skin like a balloon and holds it away from the damp meat as the chicken roasts.

Set a baking sheet in the oven. Insert the probe of an oven-safe thermometer into the deepest part of the chicken's thigh. Stand the chicken upright (on the can) on the baking sheet and roast until the core temperature reaches 145 F if you want the white meat to be juicy and tender; for more succulent dark meat, continue roasting to a core temperature of 150 F. A medium-size roaster will need 3 to 4 hours.

After the first 30 minutes of roasting, check the effective baking temperature by inserting a digital thermometer through the skin to a depth of 3/8 inch. The temperature there should be within 5 F of the target core temperature (either 145 F or 150 F). If it is too high, open the oven door for several minutes; if too cool, increase the oven setting slightly. Repeat this check of the near-surface temperature every half hour or so.

When the core temperature hits the target, take the chicken out and let it rest, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, increase the oven temperature to its hottest baking setting. Don't use the broiler, but do select a convection baking mode if your oven has one.

Return the bird to the hot oven, turn on the light, and watch it carefully as it browns. The goal is crisp, golden brown skin. The skin will start to brown quickly, and browning will accelerate once it starts. So keep your eye on it. Once the chicken is browned, remove the can, carve the bird, and serve immediately, while the skin is still crispy.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: W. Wayt Gibbs is editor-in-chief of The Cooking Lab, the culinary research team led by Nathan Myhrvold that produced the cookbooks "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking" and "Modernist Cuisine at Home." Their new book, "The Photography of Modernist Cuisine," will be released in October.

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