Steven Raichlen started his food writing career with the classic French cooking he learned at La Varenne, then made stops in Latin American and Caribbean cuisine before arriving at this: propping a chicken on an open beer can and roasting it on the barbecue grill.
Raichlen enjoys the delicious irony of this 180-degree swing from the techniques of French chefs to the down-home wisdom of the barbecuing Bubbas in Memphis who first schooled him in beer-can cooking. “It’s the sociology of food that really interests me,” says Raichlen, a 1971 graduate of Milford Mill High School now living in Coconut Grove, Fla.
His current fascination with the grill has produced a series of cookbooks, from 1998’s “The Barbecue! Bible” to “Barbecue! Bible Sauces, Rubs and Marinades” (2000) and “How to Grill” (2001). Just out from Workman Publishing, his “Beer-Can Chicken [And 74 Other Offbeat Recipes for the Grill],” is as much about theatrics as it is about succulent, flavorful poultry. Raichlen offers recipes for cooking poultry, fish and steak in strange and interesting ways— on planks, beneath bricks, with hay… “I just let my imagination run wild,” says the author, now at work on “America on Fire,” a guide to regional grilled specialties. Here, Raichlen offers four takes on beer-can chicken.
What is it that makes beer-can chicken so irresistible?
Well, first there’s the flavor and texture. The rising vapors impart a delicate beer flavor, simultaneously keeping the bird juicy and tender. And because the steaming takes place inside the chicken, the meat stays moist but the skin doesn’t become soggy.
Then, there’s the benefit of grilling the chicken upright. A vertical position allows the fat to drain off and the skin to cook evenly, even on the back. The result is a bird that’s crackling crisp on the outside, moist and tender inside, and bursting with barbecue flavors.
Next, there’s the irresistible tang of wood smoke, for beer-can chicken is almost always cooked in the presence of smoldering wood or wood chips. To reinforce the beer flavor, many pit masters actually soak their wood chips in beer.
Finally, of course, there’s the wow factor. Few sights are more amusing or arresting than a chicken on a can of beer on the grill, its breast thrust forward, its legs stretched out in a leisurely fashion.