Beer Can Chicken is a controversial recipe in the BBQ world.
The internet raves about it. Amateur grill chefs aspire to cook it. And experienced pit masters groan when they are asked to make it.
Beer can chicken (also known as drunken chicken, chicken on a thrown, beer butt chicken or dancing chicken) seems like such a cool idea but the actual technique is cumbersome and even unsafe. It is a waste of beer too, which might be its greatest culinary crime.
The reality of beer can chicken does not live up to the hype. Plenty of science-minded grill masters have debunked the technique. It looks neat and makes for a great photo op but other than that it doesn’t have a lot going for it.
Never fear! There are better ways to roast your chicken vertically on a grill and even infuse it with the aroma of your favorite brew.
In this post we break down the classic beer can chicken recipe and explain how you can produce a fantastic version without sacrificing a can of beer to the gimmick.
- 1 Beer Can Chicken With a Beer Can
- 2 Beer Can Chicken with Vertical Holder
- 3 Best Beer Can Chicken Holders
- 4 Beer Can Chicken Rub Ideas
- 5 Conclusion
Beer Can Chicken With a Beer Can
Beer can chicken is a showstopper of an entree in theory, no question about it.
What’s not to love about moist, tender roasted chicken with crispy skin and the aroma of your favorite lager? No one can resist taking selfies in front of the grill with that bird so proudly perched atop a tall boy!
Therein lies the problem with beer can chicken. It is a technique that is all about appearances. It looks cool but doesn’t actually make a great beer-flavored roasted chicken.
We are sorry to tell you this, but stuffing a can of beer inside your chicken contributes nothing to the flavor or moistness of your meat. A good rub will add more flavor to your roasted chicken than any bit of beer steam ever could. If you really want to enhance your chicken with beer, there are much better ways to do it.
There are also better ways to prop up your chicken vertically so you can easily roast it on your grill.
So what is wrong with the classic beer can chicken concept, and how can you make it right?
What is Beer Can Chicken?
Simply put, beer can chicken is a whole chicken roasted indirectly on a grill while propped up on a partially filled can of beer.
The theory goes that the beer will gently steam inside your chicken, infusing the meat with moisture and a light flavor while the exterior of the chicken gets roasted to perfection.
The ideal beer can chicken should be moist and tender, with a super crispy skin and a subtle aroma from the beer.
Have we mentioned how funny a chicken looks with a can of beer tipping it up on its hind end? Presentation is really what this method is all about.
Problems with Chicken Cooked on a Beer Can
Let’s start with that beer can. Appearances aside, that’s the primary way that the classic beer can chicken recipe goes wrong.
Beer Doesn’t Enhance the Flavor or Moisture
The truth is that the can of beer inside your chicken never gets hot enough to boil unless you cook it directly over the hot coals (don’t do this unless you like your chicken carbonized on the outside and raw in the middle).
If the beer doesn’t boil it can’t produce steam to flavor or cook the inside of your chicken, right?
To roast a whole chicken on a grill, you have to set up two cooking zones and grill the chicken indirectly until the white meat is 160 °F and the dark is 170-180 °F.
Water boils at 212 °F and alcohol at 173°F. When you are cooking a whole chicken over indirect heat, by the time your beer is warm enough to begin producing any vapor your chicken is done. So, no, the warmed beer isn’t adding any flavor or moisture to your chicken.
Even if the beer got hot enough to produce a lot of steam, what would that steam be composed of? Since beer is mostly water, beer steam is mostly water vapor. Water isn’t going to add much flavor to your meat either.
This is the point where folks who have tried the classic recipe pipe in “But I can smell the beer while it is cooking! So it must be adding flavor to my chicken! And I add all kinds of herbs and spices to my beer too!
We hear you, but the truth is that just because you smell it doesn’t mean you can taste it.
Side-by-side comparisons by the folks at Nakedwiz.com have proven that the beer in this recipe never gets warm enough to produce steam. Even when it does boil, the beer steam makes no difference in the flavor of the chicken. Adding herbs or spices the beer doesn’t change the flavor either.
The only real benefit of using a partially filled beer can is to hold up your chicken on the grill while it is roasting. The beer can is a prop and nothing more.
Beer Can Safety Considerations
As a prop, that beer can isn’t doing your chicken any favors either.
Sure, grilling a whole chicken vertically is a great idea. It is the perfect position for roasting a whole bird. It also allows the white and dark meats to finish cooking at about the same time.
But that beer can is not safe to use as a cooking implement. You probably don’t want to ingest the inks and dyes on the outside of the can.
Some cans of beer contain plastics, which could start to melt under heat and produce dangerous fumes. Then there is the worry that metals in the can itself could leach into the meat of your chicken. Yuck.
Contaminants aside, there is another reason that beer can doesn’t do a very good job as a prop. It is really hard to maneuver a chicken perched on a partially filled can of anything.
It is difficult to get the chicken on the grill and leaves you (and anything you touch) covered with raw chicken juices. This is a great way to contaminate things with salmonella. The base of a can isn’t very wide and the stability of a chicken on a can is precarious at best.
Also, the inserted can actually slows down the cooking process because hot air can’t circulate inside your chicken. Instead, a chicken filled with a can will cook unevenly and the meat closest to the body cavity might end up undercooked.
Then there is the challenge of rotating the chicken while it is cooking so that it browns evenly. If you are like me you will likely knock it over and make a mess of things since the can isn’t very stable.
Removing the hot bird-on-a-can from the grill is an especially dangerous proposition. Awkward to say the least. It is very easy to accidentally tip things over and shower yourself with hot beer and chicken fat. It is very difficult to carry the whole set-up and keep it upright.
Good luck getting that can out of the chicken as well. It may not have reached the boiling point, but it’s still a scorching 160°F. Since your chicken has contracted a bit while cooking that can is now jammed tightly into the cavity. The burn potential is high with this method.
Classic beer can chicken does a few things right, but it is the wrong technique for safely making a great roasted chicken flavored with a hint of beer.
Beer Can Chicken Pros
There are a few advantages to beer can chicken. But in truth, they are pretty much the same advantages you should expect from any good roasted chicken recipe. The only difference is that a true beer can chicken will also have the subtle hint of beer about it.
- Crispy, flavorful chicken skin.
- Moist, tender, and evenly cooked white and dark meat.
- Vertical positioning allows for an evenly browned exterior.
- Subtle aroma of your favorite beer.
- Cool presentation.
Beer Can Chicken Cons
The disadvantages to cooking a whole chicken on a can of beer are where the recipes really lose their luster.
- Beer can is just a prop and doesn’t enhance the flavor or texture of your chicken.
- Partially filled beer can slows down the cooking process and leads to unevenly cooked chicken.
- It is hard to safely handle a chicken when propped on a can.
- It is difficult to rotate the chicken on a can to ensure even browning.
- To remove the can from the cooked chicken is nearly impossible without burning yourself.
- Beer cans are not safe to heat over a fire and could lead to dangerous chemicals leaching into your food (inks and dyes, plastics, metals etc).
Beer Can Chicken with Vertical Holder
Where beer can chicken recipes go right is with the vertical cooking position. As we mentioned above, this is the perfect method for evenly cooking a whole chicken on a grill.
Vertical positioning allows the chicken to roast evenly and brown nicely on all sides. The dark meat is closer to the top of the grill, allowing it to cook in the slightly warmer environment. This way, the white and dark meat finish cooking at the same time.
Of course, the easiest way to cook chicken on a grill is to cook the pieces individually. That way you can cook each piece until a thermometer tells you it is ready. Then there is no chance you will undercook your dark meat or overcook your white. You can also butterfly, or spatchcock, a whole chicken to make it easier to grill.
But if you want the showy presentation of a whole chicken, a vertical roaster is the best way to do it safely.
Best Beer Can Chicken Holders
Vertical chicken roasters are a newer solution to the beer can chicken problem. They allow you to grill a whole chicken in the ideal vertical position without the challenges of maneuvering a big chicken on a narrow base.
Vertical holders share some features in common, but each model has its own benefits and disadvantages. Most come with an insert that can hold beer or another liquid to “flavor” your whole chicken while it cooks.
If you still want to go for a classic-style beer can chicken, using a holder with a fillable container will at least avoid most of the shortcomings of using a can of beer as a prop.
The features we especially recommend in a vertical chicken holder are a wide, stable base and an insert or device to hold your chicken securely in place. If you can, get one with handles on the sides to make it easy to transport to and from the grill.
Weber Gourmet Barbeque System Poultry Roaster
The Weber Gourmet is a 2-in-1 roaster designed especially for Weber grills with the gourmet BBQ grates. The good news is that even if you don’t have a Weber grill with these grates, you can still use this roaster!
Constructed from sturdy stainless steel, the roaster has a perforated pan that you can use on its own to grill veggies or even small pieces of meat. Or you can snap on the insert to roast a whole bird.
You can use the insert while empty, or you can add 12 ounces of beer or another liquid if you opt to go for a classic beer can chicken. It can easily accommodate the average 3-6 pound chicken and some folks have had success using it for small 16 pound turkeys!
The best feature of this roaster is the solid handles on the sides. You will need to use a pair of grill gloves, but otherwise, this system is really easy to rotate and to transport to and from the grill.
This roaster works in your oven as well, though it will need a pan under it to catch the drips. It can be a bit challenging to clean and it is not dishwasher safe.
It also comes with Weber’s fantastic 2-year warranty!
Steven Raichlen Best of Barbeque System Poultry Roaster
Steven Raichlen is a huge fan of beer can chicken and it is no surprise that his vertical poultry roaster is specifically designed to make this recipe.
Made from stainless steel, the roaster is solid, sturdy and very well designed. It comes in 3 pieces, with a drip tray, a rack and a covered canister that can stand in for a beer can.
We really like how flexible this roaster is. You can use it with just the drip tray and rack, or you can actually put a beer can in the rack if you want to go for the classic presentation.
You can also use the larger canister in place of a beer can. The canister is a bit tricky to remove from the cooked bird, however.
This roaster is dishwasher safe and can be used in an oven as well as on the grill. The rack is very stable and the handles make rotating and transporting it easy.
It can handle the average roasting chicken but is too small to accommodate a turkey. Steven backs his roaster with a 100% satisfaction guarantee, so there is no risk in trying it out.
Ultimate 5-in-1 Grilling Accessory
If you are looking for a roaster that can moonlight as a multipurpose grilling tool, then this Ultimate 5-in-1 accessory may be the one for you. This is the most versatile roaster on our list and is perfect for folks who like having a lot of options.
This roaster has a base with a sliding, compartmented drawer, an upper grilling rack with clip-on roaster insert, and 5 kabob skewers. The base can double as the skewer holder. And you can use the drawer as a smoking tray, vegetable pan or a drip tray.
Made from stainless steel, the flexible roaster works for many different dishes and can even be used for multi-tier cooking. You can grill veggies or potatoes on the bottom and cook your meat on top, so the juices drip down on them.
The poultry insert works both empty or filled with your favorite brew. The insert clips into place on the upper rack and is pretty stable, allowing you to rotate and transport your chicken.
It is easy to clean in the dishwasher, although you may need to scrub it occasionally to remove the crusty bits. You can use it in the oven with the drip tray in place or on a grill in any configuration.
If we had one quibble about this product, it is that it lacks handles. It is a little tricky to remove it from the grill but a pair of grill gloves will make the job easier.
Ceramic Steamer Beer Can Roaster
For those who want to make beer can chicken and want to avoid using a metal vertical holder, this ceramic roaster is the perfect solution. Think of it as a wide-based ceramic beer can.
Made from glazed ceramic, you will have no worries about any contaminants or toxins penetrating your meat. You can fill this simple roaster with any liquid you choose and it fits the average size chicken. There is also a turkey-sized roaster you can purchase for the bigger birds.
The wide-mouth opening has steam vents built right in, and the base is solid and quite stable. There won’t be any problems with your chicken tipping over by accident.
You can use this roaster on the grill or in an oven as long as you use a drip tray to catch the grease. It’s safe to wash it in the dishwasher. But it may occasionally need a good hand cleaning to get the crusties off.
This roaster has a couple of downsides. Ceramic containers are fragile and will break if you drop them. They can be temperamental and liable to crack if their temperature changes too rapidly. You will definitely want to use a liquid in this one to help moderate the temperature changes.
The main problem with this roaster is that it doesn’t have any handles. The wide base makes it very stable. But getting it on and off the grill might be a bit challenging for some folks. Be careful and use your grill gloves.
Beer Can Chicken Rub Ideas
So if using a can of beer (or other liquid) inside doesn’t add anything to your finished roasted chicken, how should you be adding flavor?
The answer, my friend, is to use a rub. A rub is a mixture of herbs and spices and often includes salt and pepper among the ingredients. Some rubs may also include sugar. But be aware that sugared rubs are likely to burn if the heat is too high.
Smother that raw bird inside and out with the flavor combination of your choice and you will be in roasted chicken heaven. You can even put the rub underneath the chicken skin for some extra oomph!
In choosing your rub, consider how you plan to finish your chicken. If you are going to use a BBQ sauce then pick a rub that compliments the flavors of your sauce. Keep in mind that sweet sauces will definitely obscure the aroma of beer. (If you do opt to use a liquid inside your roasting chicken).
The sky is really the limit when it comes to chicken rubs. Herbs such as thyme, sage, savory, bay leaf, rosemary, oregano and marjoram all coordinate really well with chicken and complement the aroma of beer. You could also go for a premade herb mix such as Herbs de Provence.
For spices, don’t neglect to use plenty of salt and freshly ground pepper. Paprika and smoked paprika are both excellent options. And you can also add some heat by using cayenne pepper or a chili blend.
Granulated garlic is a nice inclusion in most rubs too, and it won’t burn as fresh garlic would. A bit of chipotle powder adds a nice touch of hot smokiness and goes especially well with BBQ sauces.
There are many commercial and boutique rubs on the market and most of them are well suited for making beer can chicken. We especially enjoy Weber’s Beer Can Chicken Rub, so if you are looking for an idea that’s a great place to start!
How to Bring the Beer Flavor
For bringing in the beery notes to your beer can chicken, consider brining your bird in advance and adding a bit of beer to the brine. A touch of beer will enhance the aroma of your finished chicken.
You can also use a marinade injector to directly infuse beer or another flavor into the meat of your bird. If you are finishing your chicken with a sauce, toss some beer right into it for that added beery aroma.
Our favorite trick for preparing a beer-flavored beer can chicken rub is to soak some whole peppercorns in beer for a day or so. Let them dry for a few hours and then hand crush and add to your chicken rub. You will notice the beer aroma even when mixed in with other herbs and spices!
Beer can chicken is more popular than ever. Even though the original method is unsafe and doesn’t actually add any beer flavor to your meal. The can is an unsteady prop and is difficult to maneuver, and it could introduce contaminants to your chicken meat.
Instead of messing with a can, use a vertical chicken roaster! You can even get one with an insert to hold liquids if you still think that is worth wasting a beer on. Vertical roasters are the perfect method for preparing a whole chicken on a grill and ensure that your white and dark meats are finished at the same time.
Rather than using beer inside your chicken, you can use a rub to flavor your bird and save the beer for drinking. Or use the beer in a brine, marinade or sauce. There are many ways to make a fantastic beer can chicken. And a vertical roaster will make the job easy and safe.