Battle Beer Can Chicken (BBC) was, in many ways, the inevitable outcome of gathering a bunch of socially awkward, Type A science geeks at a backyard BBQ. As the organizer, I quickly realized the following things about my labmates:
- We tend to take after our socially awkward, hyper-competitive, lead geek (otherwise known as our “thesis advisor”) .
- We have an unusually high percentage of people who could be described (for better or for worse) as “foodies.”
- We likely had no other plans for July 4. (Lab, anyone?)
I had always been interested in attempting a beer can chicken, so I began campaigning early for a collective, one-day work stoppage to hold this food contest. Due to above realizations, this was not a tough sell. It just made so much sense. I mean, we all love food, right? Why not try to channel that love toward an activity of mutual annihilation? The rules were fairly simple: Bring, dress, and carve your own chicken. It must be cooked on the grill with a beer can in its cavity. Popular vote decides the winner. To up the stakes, I assembled a mantle-worthy traveling trophy out of a Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboy, a rubber chicken, metallic gold spray paint, and glue. The prize was dubbed “The Golden Gob,” in honor of Will Arnett’s character on the greatest show ever to be cancelled by Fox.
The inaugural BBC was a smashing success, with 8 competitors representing 3 countries. One particularly enthusiastic German (whom I will only refer to as “Mr. F”) entered not one, but two birds for consideration. My wife, just to make us look bad, made a Zuni chicken in the oven. The recipes also spanned the globe, including a Tandoori-style chicken and a black tea dry rub. I personally entered a take on pollo a la brasa, inspired by the signature dish of New York City’s Flor de Mayo. The only mildly awkward thing about the whole affair was that I, uh … won my own contest and trophy. I felt a bit like Stephen Colbert accepting applause on behalf of his interview guests. But I graciously accepted the award with an appropriate degree of humility.
A couple years passed between the first and second installments of BBC. In 2007, Esme was born. And in 2008—well, dealing with a 1-year-old’s nap schedule isn’t exactly a walk in the park. But by 2009, I had run out of excuses. The Golden Gob was to go up for grabs once again. And alas, it fell to foreign hands, as the diabolical Dr. H became the first Austrian national to take home the vaunted prize with a chicken he describes as simply, “The Bruno.”
Confused, disappointed, and frankly a little embarrassed, I immediately began plotting my revenge. The anticipation reached a fever pitch with this year’s BBC III, as official entries rolled in from defending champ Dr. H and foodblogging juggernaut Rice and Wheat, who had previously ghost-written recipes for her husband (“Wheat?”) that were good enough for 3rd and 2nd place in the first two competitions. Game on.
Both Dr. H and r+w employed what we refer to as the “giant chicken” strategy, which is simply: Use the largest bird you can find. According to this school of thought, larger birds will be juicier when done. Also, if grill space is shared with a less attentive competitor, a smaller bird may dry out if not removed early. Indeed, r+w’s entry (described by one onlooker as “Gigantor”) weighed in at a whopping 6.5 lbs, requiring a beer can reminiscent of a pony keg to hold it up. And this time, the two heavyweights went on the grill together.
The remaining entries were all in the neighborhood of 4 – 4.5 lbs. Asian flavors dominated this year, with 4 out of the 6 entries sporting flavors from our planet’s largest continent.
Equipment I cannot say enough good things about the Classic Old Smokey Barbecue Grill (#18), which we used to cook all 6 chickens. What makes this particular make and model ideal for this competition is its 10.5″ of clearance above the grill, which accommodates vertical placement of virtually any chicken we are likely to use. Because the lid is cylindrical (rather than domed), you get this amount of clearance regardless of the lateral position on the grill.
I mocked my friend Reid for bringing a wire beer can chicken holder. Normally, a chicken should be able to stand up with its legs and can in classic, tripod formation. However, I quickly ate my words when I realized that my marination strategy had left my chicken too floppy to be free-standing. Reid was kind enough to let me use the holder, which I now grudgingly recommend.
Grilling instructions None of us is an expert at barbecue, so we worked together to share grill master duties. Though a proper beer can chicken calls for indirect heat, we knew we had to get 6 birds out by lunch, so we put 3 each on 2 grills, which covers much of the usable surface. That’s worked well for us in the past. The target temperature for the grill was 350F. At this temperature, a 4.5 lb bird takes about an hour and a half to cook (with the larger ones taking about 2 hours). You can go as low as 250F, but it takes longer. Fresh coals were added at the one hour mark. Doneness was determined by each individual, but the consensus temperature was about 170 – 175F in the thickest part of the thigh.
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As you might imagine, I can provide the most detailed information about my own entry, which was called “I wish I were short ribs.” It is essentially my sister’s homemade kalbi marinade, which I once used on my weekly oven roast chicken because I had a lot of the marinade around.
“I wish I were short ribs,” a kalbi-style beer can chicken
A 4 – 4.5 lb, high-quality chicken
1/4 C Chinese or Korean rice wine
2 T brown sugar
1/4 C usukuchi (light soy sauce)
2 T dark sesame oil
dash of fish sauce
3 cloves crushed garlic
togarashi (Japanese red chili flakes) to taste
1/4 whole, ripe kiwi
1 can beer (it matters not what kind)
Let me know if I’m crazy, but I dry brined and then followed with the marination. Could I have simply added salt to my marinade? Possibly. But I wasn’t sure how much to add, and I knew that my way would work. So I patted the chicken down with paper towels and rubbed about 1.5 T of salt inside and out. I let it sit in the fridge, loosely covered, for 2 days.
To make the marinade, puree onion and mix with rice wine. In a separate bowl, mix brown sugar with soy sauce, sesame oil, and fish sauce. Stir into onion-wine mixture. Add fresh crushed garlic and togarashi to your liking. Mix well.
Then take 1/4 of a whole, ripe kiwi. Mash with a fork, and stir vigorously with 1/2 cup of the marinade. Using your hands, massage this kiwi-marinade mixture all over the chicken, being sure to put plenty underneath the skin. Put the well-rubbed chicken into a giant zippered plastic bag, and pour the rest of the marinade on top. Refrigerate 24 hours, turning once.
The kiwi will make the chicken extremely floppy and tender, so it does help to have a wire beer can chicken holder. Drink about 3/4 of the beer. Using a “church key” style can opener, punch a number of additional holes on the top of the can and liberally add marinade and juice from 1/2 of a lemon. Use the other half of the lemon (trimmed if necessary) to fashion a plug at the neck hole to trap steam.
Grill @ 350F over indirect heat for about 1.5 hours, or until the temperature reads 175F in the thickest part of the thigh.
Some notes from the rest of the field:
“Bruno 2.0: Bigger, juicier, tastier …” [pictured above]
Ok, here it comes:
dry rubbed the night before (not brined) with the following spices:
some celery salt
full recipe ( in German ) with a not so tasty picture here
We wet brined / marinated for ~5 hours the day before in water, sugar,
salt, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, green onions, and chinese five spice.
We then air dried it overnight on a rack in the fridge. In addition to
beer our can was packed ~1/3 full of garlic.
“Imitation Seoul” [pictured at the top of this post]
i’m sure you’re all on the edge of your seats…
dry-brined for 36 hours with salt and korean chili powder
morning of BBC, brushed chicken with gochujang
made bbq sauce consisting of soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, gochujang, rice vingear
towards the end of grilling, basted chicken with some bbq sauce to get some caramelization on the skin
we also adopted the strategy (a la dr. h) of finding the largest chicken we could – our dream was realized at trader joe’s with a 6.5 lb chicken.
“Pho-king Good Chicken”
My chicken was just a super simple marinade with fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, salt, pepper, and oil. Inspired by grilled chicken you get at Vietnamese restaurants (ga nuong). I think the recipe I followed was from Andrea Nguyen. Other than that, I didn’t really do much to the chicken.. and I didn’t cheat by getting a giant bird
“DNF” [Disqualified in advance for pre-cooking in an electric smoker.]
Are you speaking of my famous “Unjustifiably Disqualified Chicken”?
Brined overnight in liquid
Dry rubbed with a blend of every spice I could find (emphasis on Adobo, and some dried peppers I collected in Oaxaca in 1999)
Smoked 1 hour at low heat (200ish)
Beer can BBQ’ed 1 hour
Finished with a secret bitterness sauce!
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Since this is a popular vote, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there is virtually zero chance of my winning this again next year. But what can I say? Revenge is a dish best served with a beer can up its butt. I think everyone agreed that all of the chickens were absolutely delicious. Not a dud in the bunch. The voting reflected that, as r+w and I required a tiebreaker (most #1 votes) to determine a winner by the smallest of margins. The auspicious “Chicken 888″ rounded out the medalists.
I’m already looking forward to BBC IV, and hope to see everyone here again next year!
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Oh, and we also ate vegetables.