Update (06/26/21): We first debunked this myth about beer can chicken back in 2008. Since then, we have watched with great amusement as one after another, the big boys have signed on and published their own articles debunking this myth. So, just remember, you read it here first!
"Why Beer?: So why does this work so well? First of all, you are adding a source of moisture to the chicken that keeps it from drying out. Second, you are adding beer. Now, more than the fact that beer is good, the yeast and malt found in beer reacts with the chicken, particularly the skin, making it thin and crispy while the meat remains juicy. " - from bbq.about.com
"The basic idea in making Beer Butt Chicken is that a whole chicken is shoved over a can of beer, then placed on a grill and roasted until tender. Though the novel idea tickles the fancy of most guys, kids, and other assorted persons with prominent funny bones, the superior flavor of chicken roasted on a beer can is what keeps folks making this dish time and time again. Beer Butt Chicken simply tastes better than the typical chicken parts grilled over coals. The meat stays juicy while the skin crisps up. The bird comes out bursting with flavor." - from www.yesyoucangrill.com
"The virtues of grilling a chicken vertically over a beer-can, which creates an extremely moist and flavorful bird, are disseminated countless times over the internet and cookbooks, but I've never let the phrase "beer-can chicken" pigeonhole this into a singular dish. Instead I use the concept as a starting point for endless experimentation to create some unique versions of this grilling classic. This time around I took a cue from Steven Raichlen and tried it out with cola, Dr Pepper (my favorite cola) to be exact, which resulted in a subtly sweet and spicy bird that easily held its own against those made with beer." - from www.seriouseats.com
"This delicious chicken dish is also called beer butt chicken. The method involves placing a can of liquid up into the cavity of the chicken, then roasting. The liquid inside the can boils forcing flavor up and through the meat." - from homecooking.about.comPhew! These folks are really into the beer can chicken thing! Which prompted our curiousity and shall we say, natural skepticism? We wondered how hot the beer actually gets. We wondered how any flavors from the beer and any additions might get into the meat and flavor it. And of course, we wondered how big a difference in juiciness and flavor the beer and additions might make. Can you even taste the flavor of the beer and additions at all? So, we pulled out the scientific equipment and began testing!
In addition, sharp-eyed readers will notice that this is the second version of this investigation that we have published. Initially, we only tested using cans of beer. Since then we have seen additional claims regarding different devices and different beers, so we went back to amend our testing. In our first go round, we found that beer in a can will not boil. But what about using one of those metal racks/pans for holding the can? What about those porcelain chicken and turkey sitter devices? What about Weber's pan/cup combo device? Also, we didn't document the beer we used in the first test, so this time, we will repeat the beer/no beer test using the "best" device and using a known beer.
Beer Can Chicken -- What Is It?
Why go to all this trouble? Well, the claims are many. The bird will end up moist and juicy and delicious. The bird will be suffused with the flavors from the liquid and the spices and herbs you add to the liquid. As you can see in the quote from bbq.about.com, it is even claimed that the malt and yeast in the beer will somehow magically react with the skin, making it "thin and crispy." Well, if any of this is true, it might be worth the trouble. Trouble? Well, personally, we dislike dealing with whole hot chickens full of juice and grease. Getting the can of hot liquid out of a hot bird can be a challenge some times. (Yes, we know you can oil the can to make getting the can out of the bird easier, but it can still be a challenge handling the hot bird and getting the hot can of hot liquid out without spilling.) Frankly, we far prefer spatchcocked chicken since you can do all the hard work while the bird is cold. Once the bird is cooked, carving is trivial. But what if the beer can method does produce a juicier and more flavorful bird? That's why we had to test.
Beer Can Chicken Recipes
Experiment 1 -- How Hot Does The Beer Get?
What we observed was that the beer only reached 170 degrees F by the time the chicken was done cooking. Clearly, the beer never boiled. We placed a pan of water on the stove and heated it to 170 degrees. At this temperature steam is just beginning to come off the surface of the water. Also, ethanol boils at about 173 degrees, so what little alcohol was in the beer may have just barely boiled away during the cook. But clearly, while the liquid in the can may have raised the humidity inside the cavity of the chicken, that's about it.
For fun, we did a second bird and recorded the temperature of the bird and the beer. This time out setup was a bit different and the beer did get up to about 185 degrees. Still, not even close to boiling:
Figure 1. Graph of beer and chicken temperature vs. time
Of course, in addition to the fact that the beer doesn't really boil or produce that much steam, when you think about it, the beer can is probably at least three-quarters of the way up into the chicken's cavity. (Through the modern miracle of Whiz-Ray Vision, we have produced a picture to the right that shows how the can goes into the bird. Notice how little of the upper part of the bird is going to be exposed to any steam that comes off the beer. We "borrowed" that photo from The Virtual Weber Bullet web site, so thanks Chris!)
So only a very small area of the chicken near the top is even exposed to any liquid or steam coming from the beer. How is all that liquid supposed to distribute itself throughout the entire chicken to make it juicy? Seems that it doesn't. What steam there is actually exits out the top of the bird, hardly providing any moisture to the bird.
How Hot Does The Beer Get? Part 2
We placed a disposable aluminum pan on the lower grid of a large Big Green Egg cooker. We then placed each device on a raised grid with a Thermoworks 113-372-T PTFE Tip Thermocouple in the beer. The cooker was kept at 380° by a BBQ Guru ProCom4 controller. We then recorded the temperature of the beer over the course of an hour, about the time it took to roast a chicken in our previous experiments. Here are the results for each device. In the following graphs, the green line shows 212 degrees, while the pink line shows the beer temperature over time:
As you can see from the data:
For the next part of our testing, we compared chickens cooked on chicken sitters, with and without beer. So, let's see how the beer temperature goes in a chicken sitter with chicken attached:
Oh dear! The beer never got above 200 degrees! The beer temperature was 198.1° when the chicken was finished cooking. We'll see in a later section how the bird turned out.
Experiment 2 -- Beer vs. No Beer
So how did the birds turn out? Was there any difference? Well, frankly, no. None whatsoever. Both birds were incredibly juicy. So we guess myth number 1, that the can of beer keeps the bird moist and produces a more moist result, is busted.
Experiment 3 -- Beer Plus Flavoring vs. No Beer
To test this, we repeated experiment number 2, except we used a dark porter instead of Budweiser. We also added 5 crushed cloves of garlic to the beer. We also added two heaping tablespoons of Dizzy Pig Jamaican Firewalk rub to the beer. Again, we roasted the chickens at about 360-380 degrees until the breasts registered 160 degrees F. We also let the birds rest for an hour to cool down after roasting. We then carefully removed the cans so as not to spill any beer/garlic/rub onto the surface of the chicken that had the flavorings in the can. Finally, we tasted all parts of the bird. The wings, thighs, drumsticks and breasts. Was there any added flavor in the chicken which had been cooked with flavorings? Again, no. A resounding "no!" Both birds tasted identical: essentially flavorless save for the taste of cooked chicken meat.
To emphasize how obvious it was that the flavorings had not made it into the chicken, we'll pass along this little story. The wife (yes, the wife who...) was out of town while we were conducting these experiments, but she returned the day after experiment number 3 with the flavorings in the beer. For supper, we reheated one of the chicken breasts as well as a leg quarter from the bird that had been cooked on the can containing the beer an flavorings. We served the chicken over plain white rice. We said nothing at the dinner table about how the chicken had been prepared. But later, as we walked Scooby the Wonder Dog, we mentioned to her that while she had been away, we had cooked a LOT of chicken, and explained why. We then told her that the chicken she had just eaten was from the chicken that had been cooked with the beer and flavorings. She then said that the chicken had no flavor and "You might as well have boiled it!" Precisely! That's worth repeating. "You might as well have boiled it." Myth number 2 busted.
Experiment 3 -- Beer Plus Flavoring vs. No Beer, Part 2
Both birds were cooked to 160° in the breast. The bird on the chicken sitter with the beer in it took 26% longer (88 minutes vs. 70 minutes) than the bird on the empty chicken sitter. Portions of the breast of each chicken were then presented to a taster who had no knowledge of which chicken was which. Her comment relative to the juiciness of the chicken was, "I can't tell any difference." Her comment relative to the flavor of the chicken was, "I can't tell any difference." Our comment relative to the juiciness of the chicken was, "I can't tell any difference." Our comment relative to the flavor of the chicken was, "I can't tell any difference." We think we can sum up this test by saying that there wasn't any difference.
It just plain doesn't work. Or at least, we can't seem to make it work. If there is some secret we have missed, or if you have to use some incredibly esoteric beer to obtain even the slightest of improvements, we say fine, let those with the secret and the magical beer cook away! But, we think that no recipe you will find for beer butt chicken contains any secret methods or requires any special sort of beer. So for 99.99% of the outdoor cooking poplulation, beer can chicken is, based upon all our testing, a total waste of time. The only reason we can see for putting a chicken on a can is cook it vertically so you can fit more birds into your cooker. If you want to increase the juiciness of your chicken, or if you want to get some flavor into the meat itself, you would be far better off investigating the art of brining. And just as far as cooking goes, spatchcock chicken produces birds just as juicy and flavorful as a beer can chicken without all the mess and fuss of dealing with containers of hot beer.
And to those of you who still doubt our findings and want to conduct your own testing, remember, to be a valid test, you have cook two identical birds side by side, in the same cooker, at the same time, using the same devices. You shouldn't complicate your testing by doing other things to the birds like adding a rub or sauce. And then you must get someone else to taste the two birds, side by side, with no knowledge of what you are doing.
And finally, since we have shown that a beer can is the worst device you can use to cook beer can chicken (how ironic!), we might suggest you invest in some porcelain chicken sitters or other devices that have a broad base, if you want to cook vertical chickens or go ahead and try the beer and flavoring route. They will get the beer hotter, for what that's worth, and they will be much more stable, making the handling of the chickens safer and easier.
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