Beer Can Chicken, Myth or Fact?


Introduction
Ok, it's time to look into all this excitement you see everywhere about putting a chicken on a can of beer when you roast it in an outdoor cooker. The internet is just chock full of claims. People are simply giddy with excitement over cooking a chicken sitting on a can of beer! Here are some examples:

"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.com
Phew! 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?
Well first of all, it goes by many names. Beer Butt Chicken. Beer In The Butt Chicken. Beer Can Chicken. Chicken On A Throne. Basically, they are all the same thing. You place a chicken on a can of beer so that the legs are down and the wings are up. The can holds some type of liquid and you may or may not add flavorings like rub, onion, garlic, herbs, etc. The chicken then sits upright in the cooker with the can and the two legs providing the support to hold the bird in the upright position.

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
We searched the web for "beer can chicken" and "beer butt chicken" and lordy, you do find a lot of recipes. Of course, all the recipes use essentially the same technique of putting the chicken on a beer can that contains some sort of liquid and flavorings. The variations all have to do with what you put in the can. Here is a sampling of what we found:

  • 1/4 cup of minced rosemary and crushed and minced garlic 1/4 teaspoon each of cayenne pepper, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, dried oregano Ground coriander, cumin, and cayenne pepper equal portions
  • Discard 1/2 the beer, leaving the remainder in the can. Add remaining butter, garlic salt, paprika, and desired amount of salt and pepper to beer can.
  • Add onion, vinegar and garlic to beer.
  • Open can of beer and discard half of it. Place, minced garlic, rosemary, thyme, lemon juice, and pepper flakes in it.
  • Open can of beer, take a big swallow or pour out one ounce. Add liquid crab boil to beer. (Zataran's crab boil)
  • Combine the chili powder salt, light brown sugar, black pepper, cumin, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper together in a small bowl. Pop open your cola and drink 1/2 of the soda. Make two additional holes at the top of the can with a church key-style can opener, and toss in about 1 teaspoon of the rub.
  • Here in Louisiana we have been doing beer can chicken for years. We usually put water in an empty can with onions, peppers, a little liquid flavoring of your choice such as BBQ sauce, liquid smoke, soy sauce, hot sauce etc.
Whew! A lot of different ideas there. We also found comments indicating some cooks preferred dark flavorful beers to lighter colored beers to provide more flavor to the chicken. And of course, there is Steve Raichlen's book, Beer-Can Chicken: And 74 Other Offbeat Recipes for the Grill , which contains 12 recipes. So, time to test and see what this method is capable of.


Experiment 1 -- How Hot Does The Beer Get?
The first thing we wondered was whether or not the beer got hot enough to steam or boil. One claim we read was that the beer will boil which forces the beer up and into the chicken. That's pretty hard to believe considering the beer is inside a chicken, and the temperature of the chicken meat will be between 160 and 180 when the chicken is done. So we placed a chicken on a can filled half-way with beer. Into the beer we inserted a Thermoworks 113-372-T PTFE Tip Thermocouple in order to record the temperature during the cook.

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


To gauge the level of steam produced that these temperatures, we simply heated up some water and used our Thermapen to measure the temperature. We took photos at 170 and 185 degrees. As you can see there isn't that much steam at either temperature:


Beer Can Chicken Very little steam at 170 degrees. Beer Can Chicken Some steam but nothing impressive at 185 degrees.


The level of the beer was not noticeably lower in the can after cooking either bird, so no significant amount of moisture could have entered the birds, if indeed that is even possible. We found a reference on the web indicating that the chest cavity in chickens is lined with a serous membrane. The purpose of the membrane is to essentially provide a smooth and lubricated surface for the internal organs to rub against as they move. The serous membrane can pass moisture through osmosis, but not directly. So, it is doubtful that any significant moisture enters the chicken by filling the can with a liquid. (For those of you going "Aha! Osmosis! That's what happens with brining and brining puts flavor into the meat!", remember that when you brine, the liquid and the spices and herbs are in direct contact with the meat and thus dissolved compounds can indeed be transported into the meat. However, with a beer butt chicken, the only thing that comes into contact with this serous membrane is a bit of steam. Maybe.)

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
A discussion arose on one of the BBQ boards about whether or not our observations of beer temperatures between 170-180° would have been higher had we not put the can so far up the chicken's insides. In theory, if more of the can were exposed to the hot air inside the cooker, perhaps the beer would get hotter and do the supposed magic that beer is supposed to do. This got us thinking about the various gadgets you see on the market and whether any of them might be more successful in getting the beer to boil. So we decided to first of all try each device with no chicken attached to see what the best case performance would be in terms of getting the beer to boil. The devices tested were:

  • Beer can
  • Porcelain turkey sitter
  • Porcelain chicken sitter
  • Cheap metal pan/rack
  • Weber heavy aluminum tray/cup

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:

  • It wouldn't have mattered how long we left the can of beer in the cooker. It never got above 207° except for very brief bumps up to 208° and back down. Obviously, the beer never boiled and never was going to. The beer in the can had small bubbles on the bottom, but the beer essentially was just sitting there still as can be. A few other observations. You couldn't see any steam coming off the beer or rising out of the cooker. No condensation formed on a piece of foil held over the top vent of the cooker. Also, after placing the ceramic top on the cooker to snuff the fire. After a minute or so, there was no condensation on the inside of the cap.

  • The Weber device didn't hold much beer and as you can see, the beer got hot fast, and boiled away rather quickly.

  • The cheap metal pan device wasn't much better than the plain can of beer. It got up to 207 and then wavered back and forth between 207 and 208. (Note that the graph for the pan started at 183 degrees because we forgot to turn the data recorder on. However, we have normalized the time scale on all the graphs so that they more or less line up time-wise.)

  • The porcelain chicken and turkey sitters performed about equally, except the larger turkey sitter got hotter faster. Both devices had the beer boiling after about 45-50 minutes.
So, surprise! It is possible, with the right device to get the beer boiling. That is, if the device is in the cooker by itself with no chicken attached to it. It appears that the more mass the device has, the hotter it can get the beer. Using a plain can of beer appears to be pointless since as we showed with the first graph in this article, put a chicken on a can of beer and the beer will only get about to 170° to 180°. The same is true for the cheap metal pan and rack device.

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
Our next experiment was to test the juiciness/moistness claim through practical application. In other words, let's cook something. Does sitting a bird on a can of liquid produce a juicier chicken that a bird sitting on an empty can? We took two chickens similar in weight (only .01 pounds different according to the label) and cooked one on an empty can and one on a can half full of Budweiser. (The point here was to test the difference made by the presence of a liquid, not to test the flavor!) We used two Harris Teeter whole chickens, described on the label as "Fresh, All Natural, No Artificial Ingredients." We roasted them in a Komodo Kamado charcoal cooker at about 360-380 degrees until the birds registered 160 degrees in the breast:


Beer Can Chicken The birds ready for cooking. Beer Can Chicken Two beer cans, one empty, one half full. Beer Can Chicken The birds sitting on the cans.

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
Ok, so the beer doesn't do a thing to make the chicken more moist, but what about flavor? What if we load up the beer with herbs and spices? Will the flavor make its way into the meat?

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
When we did the testing with the additional devices, we also decided to retest the flavor claim using a beer of known origin. For some reason we didn't document the exact brand of dark porter used when we first did this experiment. We also used beer cans, but now we know we can get the beer hotter with porcelain chicken sitters, so this time, we used Czar Imperial Stout from Avery Brewery. This beer was strong and full of intense flavor. Frankly, we can't imagine a stronger or more flavorful beer. Again we added about 7 cloves of crushed garlic and two tablespoons of Dizzy Pig Jamaican Firewalk rub to the beer. We used two chickens, both bought from the same store at the same time. The two chickens were within less than 2 ounces of each other in weight. One chicken was cooked over this mixture in the chicken sitter, while the other chicken was cooked over an empty chicken sitter.

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.


Conclusion
We suppose the conclusions here are pretty obvious. Doing beer can chicken to produce moist and flavorful chickens is a waste of time, good beer and good flavorings. Side by side comparisons showed that birds cooked with and without beer in the can turned out identical in juiciness. A bird cooked over beer with flavorings turned out identical in flavor to a bird cooked with no beer and no flavorings. On the other hand, cooking beer can chicken makes a mess, and takes longer than cooking a chicken without the beer.

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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