Kevin Gillespie's Barbecue Chicken with Alabama White Barbecue Sauce

June 25, 2014

Every week -- often with your help -- Food52's Executive Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: Two legendary grilling techniques combine -- and we never have to worry about dry barbecued chicken again.

The struggle of barbecued chicken has always been in getting it to cook through without going dry or burnt first. In either case, there's a reason we usually find it coated in a sticky-sweet sauce: misdirection.

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This recipe from Top Chef Kevin Gillespie doesn't give chicken the chance to act up on the grill. He borrows from (and improves upon) a couple classic barbecue techniques, ensuring the chicken will stay juicy and flavorful despite any of our own failings.


The first trick comes from the late Cornell poultry science professor Robert C. Baker -- the man who invented the chicken nugget, but is more tenderly associated with Cornell Chicken.

In Baker's recipe -- still a regional favorite near Ithaca, NY -- the chicken is basted every few minutes on the grill with a sauce made from an egg, oil, poultry seasoning, and a full pint of cider vinegar. In this year's Saveur 100 issue, the magazine's editors called it "one of the juiciest, most complex barbecued chickens" they'd ever tasted.


But Gillespie takes the concept even further, by turning it into an overnight marinade -- a coup in its own right.

Acidic marinades can help with flavoring and tenderizing meat, but only to a point. Food science writers love to debunk their effectiveness: high-acid marinades can only penetrate a few millimeters per day, and before they have a chance to get very far, the surface will have gone mealy and unpleasant.

But Gillespie's take on Cornell Chicken decreases the vinegar substantially relative to the amount of oil, and goes all egg yolk -- both of which cushion the vinegar and slow it down, allowing the chicken to hang out in the marinade longer and get that much better, without the texture suffering.

More: The best oven-crisped chicken wings, thanks to egg whites and a couple friends.

The salt and herbs have more time to seep in; the resulting chicken is tangier, moister, less destructible. And Hervé This presents a theory in Kitchen Mysteries that marination actually does have deeper effects -- by protecting the surface from spoilers while the interior ages (much like dry-aging a steak).


Once you fire up the grill, you'll rake the coals to one side (or on a gas grill, just make one side really hot) and start the chicken over indirect heat, then move it in toward the hot side, flipping and basting every 10 minutes with an Alabama-style white barbecue sauce (some of which you'll have held back to serve on the side). According to Gillespie, Alabama-style sauce, first developed by Big Bob Gibson in 1925, "is absolutely the way to go" with lean meats like chicken.

More: Everything you need to grill better this season -- spice rubs to smoke infusers to smarter thermometers.

So yes, this recipe asks you to make two mayos. But if you have a food processor, this is a near-instant task -- blend the yolks, vinegar, and seasonings, then drizzle in the oil till you "hear the sound change to a whop, whop," Gillespie writes (about a minute).

If you're nervous about food safety, you can try doctoring up prepared mayo à la these kebabs for the sauce to serve on the side, but otherwise you should be just fine with this recipe, as long as you've handled the chicken and eggs safely (buy good eggs, keep the sauce in the fridge until you're ready to use it, make sure to cook the chicken -- including the last round of basting -- through to 165° F).

And really, after the marinade and basting have done their work -- unlike with every other barbecued chicken you've ever had -- you won't need any extra sauce at all. But it sure is tasty.

Kevin Gillespie's Barbecue Chicken with Alabama White Barbecue Sauce

Adapted slightly from Fire in My Belly: Real Cooking (Andrews McMeel, 2012)

Serves 4

For the Chicken:

4 egg yolks
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons poultry seasoning (or make your own -- we used 1 1/2 teaspoons each of dried marjoram, oregano, thyme, and rosemary, plus 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg)
2 tablespoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt (or 3 1/2 teaspoons fine salt)
1 cup grapeseed oil
6 chicken leg/thigh quarters
1 1/2 cups Alabama White Barbecue Sauce

For the Alabama White Barbecue Sauce:

2 egg yolks
1/4 cup lemon juice 
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt (or 1 1/8 teaspoons fine salt)
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 cup grapeseed oil 

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Photos by James Ransom

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Bill Testani
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I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Bill T. April 18, 2015
Baker copied it from the EJ corporation cooks. they were serving the EXACT same recipe in the 1930's in Endicott and Johnson City, New York, Baker was a recipe plagiarist.
catherine B. October 27, 2014
For all who wanna do something new in eating and cooking chicken i have a great suggestion for them please use barbecue & co accessories and sauce for cooking your meat you will be delighted to eat after cooking your meat from it......
michelle September 7, 2014
My mom made the Cornell recipe all through the years when we were growing up, and yes, it works for chicken breasts also. I find that the breasts, which are thicker, actually take MORE time to cook than the legs. Mom mom taught me to used heat the leftover marinade (remember, it has raw egg in it and had raw chicken bathing in it) on the stove for about 10 minutes, getting it hot enough to simmer/boil a bit to destroy any bacteria. The proteins congeal into a thicker sauce which is great for serving on the side for dipping. The oil separates from this sauce as it is refrigerated overnight, but whisk it up and it is DELICIOUS for dipping the cold leftover chicken into.
Alexandra S. July 22, 2014
I made this this weekend for my in-laws, and it was a huge hit! Seriously delicious. i made 8 legs, and the four of us ate 7 of them. I wish I had done more because my neighbor, who had made this the week before, told me the leftovers were fantastic. Alas, next time I will make more. I have never made a marinade like this, and I have never made a bbq sauce like this either. I've never liked bbq sauce either, but this one is in its own category. So good! I have leftover sauce...trying to think of how to use it? I might just have to make more chicken. Yum.
Claudia July 12, 2014
Made this per the recipe and it was great. Very moist and flavorful -- would work with any cut of chicken, I'm sure. I didn't have enough ingredients to serve the sauce on the side, but did use it to baste. I'll make it again and be sure I have everything I need on hand - -I imagine the sauce on the side would only make it better.
WendieW July 4, 2014
I used breast and whole legs. I try to get parts that are equal size (small breasts, large thighs) so they cook evenly. Very tasty and juicy, even without the additional basting. Only problem was the mayo didn't thicken. Too much water?
Karen July 3, 2014
If you prefer breasts and thighs, I think this would work really well if you spatchcocked -- remove the backbone and butterfly -- a whole chicken. That said, I am now going to the market to get a chicken so I can try it.
dinaofdoom June 26, 2014
for those of us who can't grill (or for off-season) is there a comparable oven baking or roasting technique? the sauce looks great, and i'd love to use it.
Kristen M. June 27, 2014
I think this would work nicely roasted at high heat (450-500 degrees F), though I haven't tried it myself.
maggiepcs June 26, 2014
Forgive me if this is heresy, but I know the crowd I'm cooking for and breasts would go over much better than legs; is this worth making with breasts?
Kristen M. June 26, 2014
Not heresy -- completely understandable. I haven't tried this with breasts, but I think it would be great, and the marinade and basting will help keep them from drying out. They'll take less time to cook through than leg quarters, so keep an eye on them.