Even to a chef, there's something irresistible about a recipe that begins with, "Open a can of beer; drink half of it." It immediately tells you that this is a recipe that shouldn't be taken too seriously. It also invites you to have a little fun with it. Despite the whimsical factor of the technique, 'beer-in-the-rear' chicken consistently produces some of the moistest, most flavorful birds I've ever had.
There are many ways that chefs try to keep whole chickens moist during the roasting process. Some choose to soak (or 'brine') the birds in a solution of salt, sugar, water and spices (see my Thanksgiving article, where I detail this process for a whole turkey). Others pack butter or compound butter (butter mixed with herbs and/or spices) under the skin, and rub the outside of the skin with yet more butter. 'Beer-in-the-rear' chicken not only makes achieving moist flesh ultra-simple; it's also a technique that lends itself better to a grill than a conventional oven, freeing the oven for other uses. As the summer months approach, it has the added advantages of keeping excess heat out of your kitchen and getting you outdoors (where more beer and even a cigar might further enhance the experience).
The principle of the method is very basic. The liquid in the can boils and gently steams the interior of the bird as it roasts. It adds moisture back to where moisture would normally be lost. The position of the bird also ensures that the breast meat - typically the leanest and therefore, driest portion of the bird - is the main beneficiary of the moist steam. It is also a very easy method, as you will soon see.
Although the recipe begins with opening a can of beer and drinking half of it, it really doesn't matter what liquid you have in the can. Beer, stock, water, vinegar - all achieve the same results. Nor is it necessary to spice the liquid, as it will make absolutely no difference in the flavor of the finished product. I've cooked literally hundreds of birds this way over the years, and I can say with certainty that there is no difference in the flavor of the meat no matter what liquid you put in the can. Why, you ask? Because no matter what flavor is in the can, it isn't carried in the steam when the liquid boils. I know. It sounded counterintuitive to me as well when I first started. But, after experimenting with everything from lemon juice to Worcestershire sauce, none of those flavors ever made it into the roasted birds. So, go ahead. Drink the whole beer. Just don't throw away the can.
Since the steam doesn't carry any flavor with its moisture, concentrate on what you rub the bird with (inside and out) instead. This is the single most important way that you can affect the flavor of the meat. The possibilities are truly endless. I've used everything from commercial spice rubs (I'm partial to Chef Paul Prudhomme's Poultry Magic - my favorite, actually - Tony Chachere's Cajun seasoning, and Zeus Greek seasoning) to homemade spice rubs (recipes below), to even doing something really radical with only Kosher salt, cracked black pepper and fresh slices of lemon tucked immediately under the skin (the juice in the lemons perfumes the meat beautifully). Start off with the master recipe below and then turn your imagination loose. As inexpensive as whole chickens are in the summertime (the one I cooked for the photographs accompanying this column was on sale for fifty-nine cents per pound), you won't lose much money (or prestige) if it isn't dead solid perfect each time.
1/4 C sugar
2 T paprika
1 T onion powder
2 T seasoned salt
1/2 T garlic powder
1/2 T chili powder
1/2 T lemon pepper
1 T dried, rubbed sage
1/2 T dry basil
1/2 T ground rosemary
1/4 t cayenne pepper
Mix to combine.
1/3 C light brown sugar
1/3 C sugar
1/4 C paprika
6 T kosher salt
2 T onion powder
1 T garlic powder
1 T black pepper
1 T chili powder
1 t dry mustard
1/2 t poultry seasoning
1/2 t ground ginger
1/4 t ground allspice
1/4 t cayenne pepper
Mix to combine.
Selecting a chicken has become much more complicated over the last few years. In the past, you only had a choice between whole chickens, cut up chickens or individual chicken parts packaged together. As American tastes have shifted and health concerns have arisen concerning the methods of raising and processing chicken, the market has responded by giving consumers a fairly wide array of choices. Free-range chickens are now available, and these are not kept in cages or fed any particular diet. They are likely the closest to an 'organic' bird as you're likely to find. They're also fairly expensive compared to the garden-variety supermarket bird. The larger chicken processors have begun to offer chickens raised without antibiotics or hormones. These are more expensive too, but are also free from any of the concerns associated with the potential effects of antibiotics and hormones. Another recent development is the practice of injecting a saline solution (basically salt water along with a little bit of preservative) into the bird 'to enhance flavor'. While it might enhance flavor by seasoning the bird much like brining the bird would, it also enhances the weight of the bird. Salt water is a lot cheaper than chicken flesh and the 'enhanced' product sells for the same price per pound in the market as the untreated chickens. Fortunately, the FDA requires labelling of each of these varieties, so a little label reading will go a long way towards getting the chicken you desire. Whichever variety of chicken you choose, keep in mind that chickens are processed and sold according to their age. Rock Cornish hens aren't a separate species of bird - as the name would suggest - but are slaughtered at 4-10 weeks of age. The average 'fryer' chicken is processed at roughly 6-7.5 weeks of age. The 'roaster' category is even older, averaging about 8.5 weeks of age or more (Source: University of Florida IFAS extension unit, http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/PS035). The operative principle is that younger means smaller and more tender. With that in mind, use the trick that supermarkets employ in making their in-house rotisserie chickens: use the smaller ones. Four pounds is your target chicken. If there aren't any that small in the meat case, ask the butcher to get you one out of the freezer. If four pounds isn't going to be enough to feed your audience, buy and cook two of them. Besides, leftover chicken is always easy to find a secondary use for.
Take the chicken out of the package, rinse it well and pat it dry. Then, remove any excess fat from the entrance to the cavity.
Most recipes using this technique call for the beer's opener to be removed and, using a church key, for you to pierce the top two more times. The idea here is to create vents for the steam that will cook the chicken evenly. In my experience, removing the entire top works even better. Not only does it allow the steam to escape evenly inside the cavity, but it makes it easier to remove the can later without spilling or splashing hot liquid on your hands. Grab the can opener out of the utensil drawer and cut the top off as you would any regular can.
Using a can opener, remove the lid from the beer can.
Having prepared the can, now it is time to do the same for the bird. Remove the bird from its packaging and rinse it under the tap, inside and out. Pat it dry with paper towels. Remove any excess fat from the inside of the cavity (there's usually a fairly large piece or two of it on the average bird near the opening of the cavity). Flip the chicken over on its breast and tuck the wing tips back underneath the wing (I call this 'copping' the bird, as when completed, it makes the chicken look like it is in the classic 'under arrest' position with its 'hands' behind its 'head'). The purpose of this has nothing to do with anything related to cooking the chicken, but rather reduces the number of points the bird can be snagged and tipped over both on and off the grill. Season the inside cavity of the bird liberally with whatever spice rub you have chosen. For extra flavor, slip your index and middle fingers up under the skin and work more rub in under the skin. Rub the skin of the chicken with oil (I like olive oil for this step), and liberally season the skin as well.
Tuck the wing tips back behind the wing. Your bird is now 'under arrest'.
Be generous with your rub, both inside and out. The steam from the can won't add any flavor to the chicken, so this is your best chance to add flavor.
Fill the can halfway with water and stand it up on the counter. Holding the cavity of the bird open, gently ease it down onto the can and position the legs so that, between them and the can, you have a stable tripod for the chicken to sit on the grill grate. Insert the probe of your thermometer straight down into the deepest part of the breast, but away from the bone. Take a small potato or onion and plug the neck cavity with it. This will keep any steam from easily escaping. Your bird is now ready to be roasted.
When the bird is 'mounted' on the can, arrange the legs so that between the legs and the can there is a sort of tripod formed for stability on the grill.
A two-tiered fire is in order for roasting. For even roasting, this fire should be banked on both sides of the grill with the center empty. For gas grills, turn the burners on either end on and leave the ones in the center off. Smaller gas grills with only two burners can still be used, but the chicken will need to be rotated 180 degrees halfway through the roasting process to insure even roasting. Just be sure you light only one burner in that case. My charcoal grill comes with two charcoal baskets that are designed to fit snugly against the sides of the coal box, and these are sized so that a generic aluminum pan can be fitted between them. This comes in handy for a number of reasons. In addition to providing a ready-made catch basin for any fats or juices that might drip out of the bird while roasting, it also allows me to put the baskets together to form an easily lit pile and easily separate them again when they are ready for cooking. There are a lot of different methods people use to light charcoal, ranging from chimney starters to lighter fluid. Neither of them are fast enough for me. I've switched to a propane weed-burner
(basically a propane-powered flamethrower). With it, I can get a load of hardwood charcoal ready for use in approximately three minutes. What can I say? I'm a guy. I like toys.
A two-tiered fire. Coals at the top and the bottom for heat and a disposable aluminum pan to catch any drippings.
When your fire is ready, position the chicken in the center of the grill. I prefer to have the breast facing one side of the fire and the back facing the other. Connect the probe to the thermometer, set the alarm to go off at 165 degrees, close the lid and walk away. If you want some smoke flavor, you can add a few chunks of smoking wood to the fire at this point. It will take a little more than an hour to roast the bird, so a few more beers and a cigar would be the perfect way to pass the time.
Place the bird on the grill so that the breast faces one of the banks of coals and the back faces the other.
When the bird reaches 165 degrees, remove it from the grill and place it on a rimmed baking sheet for transport. Bring it in to the carving area and let it rest for fifteen minutes before carving. The juices inside the bird are pulled to the surface of the meat while roasting, and letting the bird rest will allow those juices to move back towards the bone. Carving it before resting would result in all of the moisture that you've given the chicken ending up on your carving board instead of on your plate.
The finished bird, ready to come off of the grill.
Carving a chicken is a relatively easy process, so long as you break it down into a multi-step process. The first challenge is to remove the can from the chicken without spilling the boiling-hot liquid left in the can. Fortunately, you've already planned ahead for this step. Since the top of the can has been removed, the long handle of a wooden spoon can be inserted through the neck cavity into the bottom of the can. Holding the spoon by the bowl end and pressing down, use a pair of tongs to grasp the chicken between the neck cavity and the outside. Gently pull the chicken off of the can, holding the can firmly in place with the wooden spoon. Once the chicken is clear of the can, set it breast side up on the carving board, and use the tongs to dispose of the can and its contents.
Using a wooden spoon or other long-handled utensil, push down on the can while you pull up on the chicken to safely remove it from the can. This is why you cut the top out of the can.
Slice the skin between the breast and the thigh. With your hands, push down on the leg-thigh quarter until the thigh bone disjoints from the spine. Cut the thigh quarter away from the body through the joint. Repeat with the other side. Placing the thigh quarter skin side up on the carving board, locate the joint between the leg and the thigh and cut through the joint, separating them (if desired).
Removing the thigh quarters from the chicken.
Flip the chicken over on its breast, and locate the joint where the wing meets the breast. Remove the wing by slicing through this joint. Repeat for the other side. Flip the chicken back on its back, and remove the breast meat by slicing on one side of the breast bone. Follow the wishbone until you reach the bottom, being careful not to slice the small bones at the back end of the cavity. Repeat for the other side. The breasts may be divided in two, sliced or left whole for presentation. It's purely a matter of personal choice.
Separating the wings from the breasts.
To remove the breast, cut down either side of the breast bone, following along the wishbone. With a little practice, you'll easily get the breasts off in one piece.
I hope that this demonstration has de-mystified the process of making 'beer-in-the-rear' chicken. Once you get the basic technique mastered, you can unleash your creativity and make what will become as favored a method for making roast chicken in your household as it is in mine.
A leg quarter, served with 'Sufferin' succotash and maple-glazed carrots.
CW Editor-at-large and Executive Chef Jason Clabaugh (BigO) hailed from New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, and has settled in a suburb of Atlanta. With the addition of a new baby to his family, he's refocused his energies on fatherhood and a new project bringing his famous mango-habanero salsa and unique barbecue sauces into commercial production.