Crispy Cornell Chicken: An Upstate New York Classic

If you like grilled chicken with golden crispy skin, say "thank you, to Bob Baker."
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If you like grilled chicken with golden crispy skin, say "thank you, to Bob Baker."

Baker was a professor of food science at Cornell University and I once had the honor of meeting him when my wife was a microbiology PhD candidate at Cornell and I taught part time there. A specialist in poultry, he helped invent such oddities as chicken nuggets, turkey ham, and poultry hot dogs. But in picturesque Ithaca, NY, where Cornell is located, about six hours from Manhattan, he is best remembered for Cornell Chicken, and there is nothing odd or artificial about his recipe. In fact, the recipe has become so popular it is served all across Western New York.

I lived in Ithaca for 18 years and fell in love with this recipe in a hurry. Every fund-raiser, every fire department cookout, every little league barbecue, must serve this recipe or nobody would come. Even though Baker died in 2006, his family continues to operate Baker's Chicken Shack at the New York State Fair in Syracuse.

2010-10-21-cornell_chicken.jpgCornell Chicken is often served with Syracuse Salt Potatoes, small white local potatoes boiled in salty water. The area is also a major cabbage producer, so my recipe for Waldorf Slaw is another natural NY themed side. Wash it all down with a white wine from the Finger Lakes. Riesling is the strong suit there. End the feast with Concord Grape Pie a unique invention from nearby Canandaigua Lake topped with a scoop of ice cream from Cornell's Ag School's Dairy Bar where they students are taught to make it properly. I'll have the world's best butter pecan, please.

Bob Baker's Cornell Chicken Recipe

16 chicken quarters

Preparation time. 20 minutes

Cooking time. About 1 hour

1 egg
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups cider vinegar
1 tablespoon table salt
1 tablespoon poultry seasoning (click for recipe)
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
4 broiler chickens cut into quarters

About quartering the bird. The original recipe calls for cutting the birds in half, but I think it is better to quarter them since the breast and thighs cook at different rates, with the breasts being thicker, but less forgiving. You can overcook thighs and drums a bit and still have moist meat, but not breasts.

About the sauce. It is very close to a mayonnaise, so you can store the sauce in the fridge for a couple of weeks, even though there is raw egg, because the vinegar, salt, and cold will prevent salmonella from multiplying. Cooking, of course makes it perfectly safe. You can cut the recipe in half by discarding half the egg after whisking it.

About the salt. I found Dr. Baker's original recipe just a bit salty at 3 tablespoons, so I cut it back to 1 tablespoon.

Do this
1) In a large bowl, whisk the egg white and yolk together with a balloon whisk or a hand mixer. Add the oil and whisk until it gets thick, homogenous, and a bright yellow, for about 2 minutes. A balloon whisk is the best tool for this job since the wire strands really do a good job or emulsifying (mixing together) the two ingredients, one oil based, the other water. Now whisk in the vinegar, salt, seasoning, and pepper.

2) Stab the chicken skin several times with a fork or knife so the marinade can get in and so fat can get out when cooking. This will help make the skin crispy. Marinate the chicken for 3 to 24 hours in zipper bags. You can do this in a bowl or pan, but you need more marinade than if you use zipper bags. Every hour or so, turn the meat a bit so all surfaces get well coated.

3) Set up the grill for 2-zone indirect cooking. This is an important technique. Click the link if you are not familiar with 2-zone grilling. Place the chicken over the indirect zone and close the lid. Every 5-10 minutes baste, turn the chickens on both sides, and move the ones closer to the heat away and the ones away closer.

4) Cooking about 30 to 45 minutes until the internal temperature of each part is 150F and stop basting. Then move them over the hot direct heat side of the grill, skin side down, and crisp the skin without burning it for 10-15 minutes. Flip and heat for about 5 minutes more. This step is important to finish cooking, crisp the skins, and make sure the meat is sterile since raw egg can contain salmonella. When the skin is crisp and the joint temp is at least 165F, take the meat off. For the dark meat stick the probe of a good instant read thermometer in the joint between the drumstick and thigh. That's the place that takes longest to cook. Even if it is a bit red in there when you cut in, it is safe at 165F according to USDA. I strongly recommend you use one of the fine new digital thermocouple thermometers available nowadays to make sure your poultry and other foods are cooked properly for taste and safety.

All text and photos are Copyright (c) 2010 By Meathead, and all rights are reserved

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