The dinnertime adventure that is beer can chicken.
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.
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.
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.
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