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The Great Debate

Beer-can chicken: gimmick or straight gold?

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Among outdoor grillers and barbecue aficionados there exists a hotly debated dish: beer-can chicken. On one side of the controversy, proponents of the culinary creation laud the juiciness and subtle beer flavor this method imparts. Opponents contend that the cooking method does little to determine the outcome of the grilled bird.

The history of beer-can chicken is murky at best. It’s been speculated that the cooking method originated in American hobo culture. With roots dating to the mid-1800s, hobo culture carries a somewhat romantic, ce qui será, será attitude. Part of the hobo way of life was procuring food along the railroads and railyards. Often, chickens were easy to find; thus, they became a source of protein. With the advent of the beer can in 1935, beer was easier to get; legend has it that a culinarily adventurous hobo shoved an open beer can in the cavity of a pilfered chicken and cooked it standing upright on a grill. The practice caught on and voila, beer-can chicken–also called chicken on the throne or drunken chicken–joined the culinary world.

Others, such as barbecue master Steven Raichlen, posit that the dish was born in Louisiana. This version holds that the style was popularized at college football tailgating parties in the 1970s/early 1980s and became a regular category at many barbecue competitions across the land.

Raichlen counts himself among proponents of the beer-can chicken movement. In his appropriately named book, Beer-Can Chicken, he writes, “The idea is startlingly simple: You grill a chicken upright over an open can of beer. What results is the moistest, most succulent, and most flavorful chicken you’ll ever taste.” Glowing praise from a renowned expert.

But Meathead, a self-proclaimed Barbecue Whisperer & Hedonism Evangelist, disagrees with the masses of backyard grillers who espouse the joys of beer-can chicken. He claims that if you try roasted chicken side-by-side with beer-can chicken in a blind taste test, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. Furthermore, he adds, the beer never gets hot enough to boil, and so couldn’t possibly flavor the meat. Let’s take a closer look.

Chicken comes out of the refrigerator at about 38°F, as does a can of beer. By shoving the beer can into the fowl’s cavity, it effectively becomes part of the chicken–at least for purposes of thermal dynamics. Chicken meat is about 70 percent water; beer is 90 percent. Both will heat at about the same rate. That means that when the chicken is finished cooking to 165°F, the beer will be the same temperature, far below the 212°F needed for the beer to boil. Science, it seems, explains why the beer has little effect on the bird.

Whether you’re a yay-sayer or naysayer on this, one thing is certain: Cooking a chicken on a grill is always a good idea. With a can shoved up its butt, it may or may not get a savory beer flavor. Maybe a beer baste would work better.

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