When I prepared last year's Smoked Beer Can Turkey, I wondered if any discernable amount of flavor was being imparted by the beer itself to the fowl - or if the steam was serving just as a delivery system for the aromatic herbs (as well as a moisturizing agent). I went as far as to claim that perhaps using water would be just as good, but only a few of my readers took the bait and commented on this. So, I prepared this simple experiment (which will "prove" nothing) to find out if beer or water makes a difference. (Let the discussion begin!)
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 also decided I would eat both chickens, which meant a few choices had to be made about flavoring. Normally, I would brine the chickens, but because I didn't have two identical containers (so the volume of brining solution needed to cover the chickens would be different), I decided to skip this step. I suspected if one chicken took on more salt than the other then this would be a far greater impact than anything beer steam could provide. Unfortunately, I didn't like the idea of eating an unbrined chicken, so I selected two free range broiler-fryer chickens of nearly identical weight - around 3.5 pounds (1.6 kg). Due to greater activity while alive, free range poultry has a stronger flavor than unbrined conventional poultry.
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. [IMG]
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. [IMG]
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. [IMG]
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. [IMG]
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.) [IMG]
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.
A bottle of year old beer would be just fine!
This "fresh beer tastes better" rubbish from Budweiser (again rubbish) really annoys me. If the receptacle is sealed, you could drink it in 10 years time an d it would still be fine.
Posted: Mon Apr 10, 2006 10:08 am Post subject: Wrong beer
I agree on the choice of beer basically invalidating the test. When you make a beer stew, you would never use a lager or pilsner. I'm not surprised you didn't get any flavour difference; if a light lager won't make a difference when you boil meat in it, it shouldn't do so when being steamed by it either.
For a stew you would most likely use a porter or a stout (I prefer porter); I think you may find a discernible (positive) difference if you'd used something like that instead. It would be interesting to see if you did.
I've done this test myself, and yes lighter beers don't make any difference. But when I used Guinness we could defiantly taste the difference. It was subtle, but you could certainly taste the bitter, chocolaty flavor of the stout.
One side note , the Guinness cans are taller, so if you use a small chicken they tend to get suspended in the air and are a bit unstable.
Posted: Mon Apr 10, 2006 1:00 pm Post subject: Beer and other liquids
I am also an engineer who is not a big fan of beer. I bought Budwizer to make a trap for slugs and even they wouldn't drink it. I find a heavier beer does impart flavor. You can also use soda flavors, such as orange, to make a nice "chicken a'la orange." I slide orange slices between the skin and meat to help infuse the flavor in both directions.
Does using beer vs water make a difference? Don't know but I do know my roasted chicken is the talk of the neighborhood and smells sooooo good.
With all due respect, since when is Budweiser called a beer? If you want to cook with it, you might as well use water. Beer is something entirely different. For cooking (and preparing sauces) I would recommend at least Guinness or Murphy's, or if you can get it, a Belgian Orval or Trappist. All these are ales, but an ale is first cousin to beer so it is OK. By the way, try to taste them, and you might change your mind about beer.
Posted: Tue Apr 11, 2006 9:57 pm Post subject: Beer as an ingredient...
I also am not a huge beer drinker, but I respect it when I use it as an ingredient. You would never use Night Train in place of wine or Ripple in place of cognac in a recipe, would you? As such, I do my best to use the right beer for the job.
I do like to cook with Guinness, but I transfer it into another can when using the "Beercan Method" because of the widget. The other problem with cooking with Guinness is there can be a residual bitterness as it reduces and intensifies. I usually counteract this with brown sugar and/or molasses. Another good option that very flavorful and not quite as bitter is any of the Black & Tan style varieties. I like the Yuengling Black & Tan because it is delicious and relatively inexpensive (not as cheap as Bud, but worth every penny).
Of course adding sugar to the beercan chicken equation probably won't change a thing when it comes to flavor if the bird isn't first brined. HERE IS WHERE BEER MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE IN THE WORLD!!!
Pour two to three cans of beer into your brining vessel. Add a half to three quarters cup kosher salt, two tablespoons of molasses, half a cup of brown sugar (packed), ten or so whole peppercorns, and few shots of hotsauce. Whisk above ingredients... Insert bird... Chill overnight... Cook over beercan (you can recycle the brining liquid for this)... Enjoy... Then get down on one knee and think of Stephen Raichlen who's recipe I just roughly quoted.
PS I have another theory that the "Beercan Method" yeilds a moister bird more because of positioning than steam. Old school kosher technique calls for roasting breast down on a bed of salt for a moister result. Also, see napastyle.com for a roasting pan that holds your bird up by the neck hole. Gravity may just be the key...
Posted: Wed Apr 12, 2006 1:35 pm Post subject: If it's all in one oven...
Just a thought, but dosn't the fact that you roasted the two birds in the same oven at the same time negate the effects of the "beer" test? steam from both liquids no doubt mixed evenly together inside the oven, likely leaving you with nothing more than the effect of using more dilluted beer than you otherwise would have. I've always been a beer can skeptic myself, though (I've tried it a few times and never noticed any effect from the beer). In the end, I'm with you that brining is the way to go!
Posted: Fri Apr 14, 2006 11:38 pm Post subject: In defense of Budweiser
I think good 'ole Bud was a fine choice for this test. At the risk of being forced to turn in my Elitist Foody Snob membership card for saying this, I respectfully submit that there is a good reason for Budweiser being the market leader in the beer industry.
By way of mentioning, I wouldn't use Guiness to strip a tile floor, no matter how trendy and cool it would make me.
Posted: Sat Apr 15, 2006 2:56 pm Post subject: On Bud as Market Leader
...there is a good reason for Budweiser being the market leader in the beer industry.
Indeed. You can buy it at every corner store, it's dirt cheap, they have an enormous advertising budget, and it goes down easy so you get drunk quickly. A teenagers dream!
Perhaps if you're looking to get trashed quickly, Bud is your choice. But for anyone who drinks beer because they enjoy the taste (albeit a small percentage of those who actually drink it), Bud isn't even an option. I'd rather have fizzy water. To say: "I don't enjoy Guiness, therefore Bud is good" is faulty logic (apologies on the paraphrasing). There are plenty of better beers in between the two, many of which compete on price point and certainly trump in taste. I encourage you to branch out a bit in between!
You wouldn't buy Baby Duck and then an expensive Pinot and decide that you liked Baby Duck better, therefore there was a good reason it was more popular? Besides the fact that the comparison is between two different products, you set yourself up to be disappointed...
Posted: Mon Apr 17, 2006 5:43 am Post subject: old beer tastes.....old
As an engineer and a professional brewer I can tell you that Budweiser's campaign that fresh beer tastes better is true, and that most beers taste better than american standard lager. That last one is an opinion just like all tastes, but the first one is a fact. Beer is highly subject to oxidation and sadly a brewing process has yet to be invented that can guarantee no oxygen in packaged beer. Store beer cold and drink it fresh to slow and minimize deleterious flavour effects due to oxidation reactions in package. I can guarantee discostu that 10 year old beer would taste like a wet cardboard box. In fact some beers get this wonderfully bad flavour in under 6 months. Wine doesn't suffer this effect as it is chock full of the preservative and antioxidant sodium metabisulphite when it goes in the bottle and in general the flavours that develop in it due to oxidation over its long shelf life are generally pleasant. Lucky for us, old wine is wonderful.
As far a beer can chicken is concerned. In my own chicken investigations I've found no substitute for dry heat, and I can think of much tastier cavity flavourings than beer.