How to Do Everything Wrong and Still Make Beer Can Chicken

August  4, 2015

The dinnertime adventure that is beer can chicken.

This irresistable photo that sent me along my beer can journey.

As Murphy says, "Anything that can go wrong while making beer can chicken will." Maybe that's not the exact adage, but about one hour, a smoking oven, and an injured boyfriend into Cara Nicoletti's chicken recipe, it might as well have been.

On a slow Saturday afternoon that should have been spent napping alongside a deli sandwich in Central Park, I dragged my boyfriend to Whole Foods to buy a four-pound chicken and a can of beer. While he struggled with the logic of placing a beer into the the cavity of a dry-rubbed chicken, I clung to Cara's promise that it would result in the "most flavorful and juiciest chicken you've ever made." Since Cara suggests any generic, 12-ounce "larger or ale," we opted for a double IPA, 24-ounce tallboy. The more beer the better, right? Wrong. But let's continue.

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Once we'd returned home, chugged half of our tallboy in a sort of drunken relay race (the recipe calls for it), and interpreted "Place the can inside of the chicken cavity, so that that chicken is sitting on top of it" to the best of our abilities, we doused the chicken with Cara's dry barbecue rub and approximately twice as much butter as the recipes calls for. As the saying goes: Double the beer, double the butter. (It's a new saying.)

It was around this time that our oven's capabilities dawned on us: Not only does it do a liberal interpretation of 350° F, but it is about the size of an Easy Bake—perfect for pie, less than ideal for a bird perched atop an 8-inch tall metal cylinder. Onward.

A properly-stuffed beer can chicken: Attempt at your own risk.

After my boyfriend removed all of the oven racks, I carefully slid our contraption into the 500-degree inferno. Turns out I wasn't careful enough: Just as I got the bird into place, it clipped an edge, did a quick dismount from its perch, and slid, butter and carefully-placed rub be damned, across the bottom of our oven, sending a cascade of beer in its wake. As I chased down the buttered bird—which is easier said than done while donning oven mitts and trying to avoid a Plath situation—my usually-calm boyfriend let out of string of expletives that ended in, "MY HAND!"

I righted the can just in time to save a quarter of the ale, then spun around to find my boyfriend clutching his hand. He had picked up the metal thermometer we usually have hanging off of the oven rack—the one removed from the 500-degree oven moments before. "Run it under cold water!" I yelled, while I mentally chanted: most flavorful and juiciest chicken, flavorful and juicy, flavorful and juicy. I scooped up the chicken, plopped it back on the beer can, and set it back into place before hanging up my marinated oven mitts to dry.

After an hour and a half of ice baths and mopping, we determined that the bird "looks to be about 160° F" and removed it—carefully—from the oven to break it down for dinner. Basking in the safety of a cooled oven, a dislodged and discarded beer can, and a crispy-skinned chicken, we reflected on our accomplishment: All said and done, it was an adventure. (Have you ever cooked anything that touches every wall of your oven at the same time??) And it was delicious. It was, as promised, the most flavorful and juiciest chicken I'd ever made—so good I had to do it all again.

(Choose your own adventure: If you're a fan of cooking stories with successful endings, now's a good time to stop reading.)

My first attempt at beer can chicken (left) was an adventure but turned out beautifully, but my second attempt (right) took a dive.

Attempt 2: 

After selectively retelling my beer can chicken experience to the editors, I decided it was a good time to show off my new cooking skill at an editors' dinner. With a whole beer can chicken under my belt, I confidently went about my preparation, aquiring a 12-ounce can of ale, and this time, measuring out the called-for 2 tablespoons of butter. Instead of chugging half of a tallboy, I had a few glasses of rosé instead. 

Sure, I had to subsitute demerara for the dark brown sugar, and maybe I had a little trouble getting the beer can into the chicken. But a smaller-than-average chicken butt was not about to get in my way: I did what I had to do and worked the can into position.

But, as it turns out, drinking wine while cooking is not as care-free as Diane Keaton lead us to believe. The reason the beer can had so much trouble getting into the chicken is because it was upside-down, and chicken necks are not as happy a home to beer cans as its lower extremities are. Amanda, our Home and Design editor, came over to my side of the butcher block from her sauce station just in time to observe the can-stuffed, head-standing, spread-eagled chicken in all its glory.

When all else fails, truss your chicken with an onion stem and throw it in a pot

So we pivoted: We trussed the chicken legs into a more modest, Emily Post-approved position using a green onion stem and a handful of toothpicks, then we stuck it all into a stainless steel pot. With nothing left that could be done, we hailed Mary, channelled Julia Child, and popped the whole thing into the oven.

The potted chicken wasn't the crispy, juicy bird that the original had been (onions don't make the most reliable truss), but served with a warning to watch for toothpicks, it was still delicious. The best part though, we discovered while cleaning up, was the buttery sauce that had collected at the bottom of the pot—a sauce that would have tasted delicious poured over the chicken. Third time's the charm?

Top photo by James Ransom

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • rachiti
  • Bob
  • ruthy
  • Lisa Renner
    Lisa Renner
  • Michael
I eat everything.


rachiti December 21, 2015
When cooking this atop a grill - We only use half a bottle (transferred to a customized can) of good quality beer. We've been using Beck's lately. The beer does infuse flavor into the chicken so better quality beer results in moist yet not bitter results. We have also modified the 'can' it sits on. We use one of those beer can chicken stands but the can has it's entire top cut off so that more steam can escape and drippings which land in the can will further infuse it with delightful flavor. The outside of the bird gets a generous sprinkling of Season Salt & onto the grill it goes. We find transferring the standing bird atop can stand onto a plate makes for easier transport to/from grill. Tongs are essential for transferring the bird. This is one of my husband's favorite meals - and mine because it's so quick to prep and delicious. We toss a couple of sweet potatoes in foil onto the grill over indirect or low heat & they cook in about the same time.
Bob December 12, 2015
What a great idea. I love it. And it taste brilliant
ruthy October 12, 2015
I loves this story! I haven't tried beer can chicken but this makes me wanna! Thanks for the inspiration!
Lisa R. October 12, 2015
Ok, I am LAUGHING OUT LOUD! This is hilarious! Loved it! I've made beer can chicken but not with that spice rub- I'm going to definitely try it. Of course, I'll have the wine- and hopefully NOT spill the beer! Promises, promises... :)
Michael October 12, 2015
We brine the bird, truss, dry rub, use a "contraption" (very brave to do it freestanding) that holds the can and acts as a stable base and place it in a cast iron skillet to save the juices. We then cook at 350 for about an hour (depends on size) and then smoke over indirect heat, around 300 (tough to be exact) for another hour. Superb!
Jane M. September 17, 2015
Too funny.
Christina September 17, 2015
Here in South Africa, you can actually buy a contraption that has handles, a grid as a base, and a cylinder in the centre that hold the beer can secure. It is properly secure and there are never any accidents - you can use in a conventional oven or on a kettle barbecue. Would be happy to supply a picture if you tell me how.
Amanda S. September 17, 2015
We sell that, too!!
Melanie A. October 12, 2015
I have one! Acquired in RSA...
Anne September 5, 2015
I made two beer can chickens on stands from Target ($2.78 ea.) on indirect heat 1.5 hr.. It was beautiful and delicious. Your stories were great and believable, for sure!
It definitely was a two-person job as I had two chickens in a disposable alum. pan to carry in and out doors.
Caroline S. September 5, 2015
Chicken wrangling! What a hoot. I used to have a pottery cooking dish to cook beer can chicken in, but alas it cracked somewhere along the way. Perhaps the creative folk at Food 52 could look into this--it's a utensil that takes away a lot of the "fun," to be sure, and the results are still delicious
Amanda S. September 17, 2015
We sell that in the Shop (and Leslie and I clearly need to both acquire one)!
Ceecee M. September 5, 2015
Is it really healthy to be cooking with an aluminum (BPA lined)beer can...?
Nanci September 5, 2015
Maybe not... but it tastes SO GOOD!
Nanci August 14, 2015
There's a rack that makes this adventure into the poor chicken's umm cavities. (Here we call it Beer Butt Chicken). The first time I tried making this delicious recipe I didn't know about the rack and it was a disaster. A Delicious one, but a disaster nonetheless. Afterwards, I googled Beer Can Chicken and found the rack. No more disasters... just OMG delicious juicy chicken!
Nicole W. August 13, 2015
Your tale of beer can chicken makes me laugh and remember similar experiences of my own! I discovered that soaking my chicken in Spice Done Right Flavor Enhancer works better than the beer can method. It has all the flavor and juiciness and I can drink the beer without scalding my hands and no messy oven or grill clean up!!! Check it out for trial number 3!
Leslie S. August 13, 2015
It actually has more to do with the methods than the spice used—though Cara's spice mixture is delicious! You should try it! Best of luck with your company.
Nicole W. August 13, 2015
I am sure her spice mixture is delicious and I plan to try it. I am always interested in trying new flavors. She can still use that spice mixture in what I am suggesting. The method I was referring to with The Flavor Enhancer is using a brine for moisture and flavor instead of sticking it on the beer can. Similar results, less mess.
Lea A. August 13, 2015
I got a Norpro vertical roaster which does what the can is meant to do. It's safer and you can add a liquid to it. I've used it both in the oven and on a gas grill. The chickens were outstanding. A terrific recipe for it is Cooks' Illustrated Peruvian Roast Chicken which has a wet rub that goes under the skin.
Seth C. August 9, 2015
I have not attempted to make a beer can chicken just yet, but I see one in the near future for sure! Thanks for an enjoyable read and story too!
Kaitlyn D. August 5, 2015
"As the saying goes: Double the beer, double the butter. (It's a new saying.)"

Haha! This will be a saying I adopt myself, it can only lead to good things. Love it!
Riddley G. August 4, 2015
The beer can chicken saga was the highlight of the weekend.
Leslie S. August 5, 2015
Definitely the cherry on top of an already-hilarious day!
Bk August 4, 2015
Just as an FYI the liquid in the can really doesn't do anything(it never gets hot enough to steam. All it does it put the chick in a good position for cooking on a grill where the dark meat is close to the flames and the breasts don't get overcooked get the dark meat to the right temp.
Leslie S. August 5, 2015
The beer can in my oven was definitely boiling and steaming since I cooked it at 350° F and the chicken was noticeably moister—maybe it's different over the grill?
rachiti December 21, 2015
If the liquid in the can really didn't do anything for your chicken then you're doing it wrong. We cut the top open on our can. I also make a point of using a chicken with skin left near the neck so that I can close up the top of the bird to encourage moisture to remain inside.

I can attest to the fact that it makes for an incredibly moist bird AND the flavor of the beer infuses into the meat itself - especially towards the top. With some of the beer choices my husband has made in the past the top part of the bird was so strongly flavored with beer (I hate beer normally) that I made him eat that part of the breast because all I could taste was beer. Now that we use a beer which isn't as strong, I like the mild flavor it imparts.
rachiti December 21, 2015
We use a grill - always - and it does work.
Amanda S. August 4, 2015
Beer can chicken hero, you are mine.