May is Grilling Month at Tasting Table.
It's impossible for us not to smile when we see a beer-can chicken kicking it on the grill. Not only does it makes a pretty ridiculous tableau: a bird propped upright by a beer shoved where the sun don't shine, looking like it's just hanging out, watching the game—we're also certain it's going to taste pretty perfect.
Lots of people have also waxed scientific about why the method works so well: The open can of liquid creates an internal steam bath that keeps the meat marvelously juicy, while the skin smokes to crispness. But we also know full well that others turn their noses up at this technique, roll their eyes like it's overplayed, basic or somehow beneath them. Seriously. We've witnessed this.
Not gonna lie, our first impulse is to banish these folks to the crudite platter, but we're more generous than that. All it will take to win them over is a little finesse and a single bite of this glorious bird. With these steps, all of your guests will be saying, "Cluck yeah."
Re-brand it. So, yes, the name can be a little crass: beer-up-the-butt chicken, beer-butt chicken, butt chicken. (Thanks, Matthew McConaughey.) Call it "vertically roasted chicken," so as not to offend anyone's delicate sensibilities. Swap the beer with another beverage: ginger beer, iced tea, cola, cider or even some of that Champagne in a can that fancy people can surely, ahem, get behind. The effect still stands, so long as the bird is perched upright over a cylinder of liquid. (And yes, there are ceramic or wire devices for sale that mimic the effect, but can't you just let us have that little bit of freakin' whimsy?)
Brine it. Your standard barbecue rub is fine, but our food editor's brilliant addition of za'atar to the blend of paprika, sugar, cumin, black pepper and cayenne brings in a grace note of Middle Eastern flavor that plays perfectly with grill smoke (see the recipe). The kosher salt acts as a dry brine to ensure reliably moist meat that's packed with flavor, all the way down to the bone.
Time it. Yes, you can scrub that rub on right before cooking, and it will taste delicious. But if you can prep the bird ahead, and let it chill in the fridge for four hours, or even overnight, the flavors will permeate the meat even more deeply and tighten the skin for extra crispness once it hits the grill. Allow an hour to get that chicken back to room temperature, and then resist the urge to chow down the second it's off the heat. The bird needs a 15-minute rest to get to its optimum tenderness.
Present it. Half the fun in making the chicken is the eventual extraction of the can in front of a crowd of people. (Be careful: it can get messy and the liquid is likely still hot.) But you can present it impaled on a squash with the end cut off, a clean, inverted pint glass or however the spirit moves you to prop it up. You can even lay it breast-side-down (zzzzzz...) or butcher it off to the side and serve the pieces to your previously reticent guests.
Whatever it takes, man. Just show a little bit of that can-do spirit and even the haters will come flocking for a taste.
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