I sat down to think about how I wanted to proceed on this particular "test" and decided that there was no way I could be exhaustive or scientific about it if I didn't want to be wasteful. I knew I had to minimize the potential differences between the birds I was cooking, so I made a few decisions. First, I would use chickens because a turkey is too big. The chickens would be roasted in the oven at the same time - but would not be rotated or positions swapped (because I didn't want to risk scalding myself with boiling hot beer as the chickens inevitably tilted while I manhandle them around).
I was still concerned about eating two minimally seasoned chickens, so I decided to rub onto each bird a simple spice rub so at least the skin and surface of the meat would be flavorful. I chose to use essentially the same rub from the aforementioned turkey recipe. I would also be applying a few herbs (one bay leaf and a teaspoon of dried thyme) to each of the steaming liquids. The liquids - I decided - were to be beer and water. Because I was only interested in seeing if beer made a difference when compared to water, I would not prepare a third chicken using a non-beer can method of preparation.
When I was in the checkout line with my two chickens, I mentioned the test I was about to undertake. The man waiting behind me immediately jumped to the defense of using beer. He claimed that not just water was steaming; it was also the alcohols and flavorants - for if you could smell it, surely it must be getting into the food. I countered by saying that there are many volatile compounds that we can smell during the cooking process, but many of these dissipate so quickly that they don't enter the meat. If alcohol in gaseous state is such a good flavorant, why doesn't anyone steam vegetables or delicate meats with a pot of top quality cabernet sauvignon (hmmm... maybe I should try it, but it will have to wait until I'm rich).
Now I had to select a beer. In retrospect, I should have selected the darkest brew I could find, but while shopping for beer, I mainly had one priority - something that came in an individual can. I went to two markets and one convenience store and realized that no one seemed to sell a dark beer outside of glass bottles (which would not be useful for supporting the chicken) and six-packs (which is too much beer). The problem stems from the fact that I have never learned to truly appreciate beer as a beverage and view it as an ingredient that I occasionally use. As alcoholic libations go, my tastes tend to lean toward red wines - at least for now. I didn't want tons of left over beer in my fridge. (Once I found a year old bottle - definitely several beer life times past its prime - in the back of my refrigerator.)
So I ended up with a large can of Budweiser. Not the best choice, but at least I can say it's widely available. It turned out that I skipped over the glass bottles for nothing - in the end I would execute my test using Poultry Pal Beer Can Chicken Cookers (see Poultry Pal website). The Poultry Pals worked amazingly well - the design is simple and functional. As an added benefit, there isn't a colorful logo imprinted on the side of it that was produced (probably) without the intention of being roasted in a hot oven with steam and hot oil rolling over it.
I whipped up a large batch of spice rub (brown sugar, paprika, kosher salt, and black pepper) for use on the inside and outside of the chickens. I also measured out 8 oz. (235 mL) beer and 8 oz. (235 mL) bottled water.
Into each Poultry Pal, I poured the liquid and the herbs (after crushing the bay leaf). The Poultry Pal is really quite simple and yet so much better than the old beer can. With a beer can, the pop top opening is too small to be effective, so I have to cut the entire top off using a can opener. Depending on the can, this can leave sharp jaggies and maybe even a partially crumpled can. The Poultry Pal is a two piece structure - a pan that looks like it could double as a round cake pan and a plate with a protruding tower that holds the chicken. Pinky-sized holes are liberally placed throughout the tower and the plate has a few holes to allow drippings from the poultry to enter the liquid holding pan. There are no unnecessary ridges, so washing was easy by hand.
I then got my hands dirty by removing the giblets from each chicken (setting them aside for dirty rice and stock). The inside and outside of the chickens were rubbed with the spice rub.
I stood each chicken up and deposited them onto their Poultry Pal. I baked them in the oven at 350°F (175°C) until they were done. Unfortunately, my notes fail me at this time, and I don't know how long they were in the oven for - but that's okay because they were both in for the same amount of time. Both chickens reached proper temperatures at the breast (about 165°F) at the same time. The thigh meat had a fairly high temperature of almost 180°F. Usually I don't worry about the legs drying out because they have more intramuscular fat which helps keep the meat moist, but in this case, they were a bit overdone - probably a by product of sticking out away from the body as the chicken is "sitting" on the beer can (or, in this case, the Poultry Pal). But, that's not the purpose of this test (I already knew that would happen).
I pulled the chickens out and let them rest about ten minutes before attempting to remove them from the Poultry Pals.
When I use beer cans, they have a tendency to become welded to the cavity of the bird as it bakes. The can holds almost boiling beer (or water) and is, obviously, hot to touch. You don't want to spill the contents of the can because it's a lot of oil and drippings that don't need to be reintroduced to the chicken (and sloshing liquid onto the crispy exterior may ruin that sublime texture). Even with the Poultry Pal, it's easiest with two people. The chicken is removed from the cooking liquid first before extracting the tower. One person lifting the chicken and the other holding down the plate of the Poultry Pal (protecting all hands involved with wads of paper towels) seemed to work best. The non-stick finish really worked; the chicken slid right off. In fact, after removing the second chicken, it occurred to me that I probably could have laid the chicken down and pulled out the plate horizontally. I allowed the chickens to cool a bit longer to make carving easier. (I thrust a wood skewer I had nearby into the chicken prepared with beer so I could tell the difference later as I carved and served up chicken for tasting.)}?>
I cut pieces from the thigh and from the breast, removing the seasoned surface and skin (that was for Tina and me to enjoy later as we finished off the birds - for tasting, I wanted a clean piece of meat). I expected the thigh meat would taste the same, but wasn't too sure about the breast meat. Could the flavorants from the beer penetrate the chest cavity and enter the breast? The answer, in short, is no.
The thigh meat, as expected, tasted exactly the same on both birds. The breast meat was juicy (but not as juicy as it could have been had it been brined) and had the barest hint of herbs, but no difference could be detected between the two types of chicken. I even cut new pieces, this time with some skin and seasoning, and tasters still couldn't tell the difference. Maybe I needed a stronger, darker beer - but some difference should be detectable, even using Budweiser vs. plain water. The experiment was done and I had my answer - I won't be running to the store to buy beer to fill my Poultry Pal in the future.
Tina and I dutifully ate the meat off both chickens, used the remaining meat on the bones for creamed chicken, the livers, hearts, and gizzards for dirty rice, and utilized the final remains for chicken stock (which ended up as the base for matzo ball soup).}?>