Cornell Chicken Barbecue
on Sep 01, 2019, Updated Mar 31, 2023
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Try this original Cornell chicken recipe, and you’ll agree it may be the best barbecue chicken you’ve ever tasted.
Whoever thought that New York Chicken could taste this good? Hands down, this is one of my favorite chicken recipes.
What is it?
We make a lot of delicious grill recipes. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Things like jerked beef on the grill, easy smoked brisket, and our course, this fireman chicken from New York state where I grew up and learned to make this.
Anyone reading this post and who has followed Platter Talk knows that my love of all things tasty started in my early childhood.
The foothill region of upstate New York state’s Adirondack mountains is known for its harsh snowy winters, its soft hilly landscapes, outdoor recreation of all kinds, and like any area, unique foods not found anywhere else. Like this New York chicken.
I grew up calling this Barbecue Chicken
Growing up, I always believed this was my Grandpa Zehr’s recipe for barbecued chicken. Of course no one referred to it as grilled chicken back then, nor do they today.
Throughout New York state this is called barbecued chicken. Through the years, with just a little bit of personal disappointment, it gradually dawned on me that it wasn’t my grandfather who invented this New York state classic.
I was nothing less than shocked when I discovered just a few years ago by googling Cornell Chicken; there were multiple web pages referencing this grilled chicken recipe. For me, it was as if my Grandfather who would be well over 100 years old today, had suddenly aligned himself with Google.
My family often makes this Cornell chicken in 40 lb. batches!
The recipe is instead credited to Dr. Robert C. Baker, who was a former Cornell University poultry science professor. You can read about the creator of Cornell Chicken here.
Thus, this is really Dr. Baker’s Cornell chicken recipe! Some call this barbecue chicken recipe “The most famous State Fair food you’ve probably never heard of.
Cornell Chicken is the unofficial food of the New York State Fair which goes through 40,000 chickens every year.
This recipe for New York Cornell Chicken is a delicious way to prepare any cut of the bird. Sometimes I’ll buy a package of drumsticks to make this way, which is how our boys love it.
In the mid-west, specifically Wisconsin, there are “brat fries” every single Saturday, somewhere throughout the state – winter, spring, summer, and fall.
In northern New York state, chicken barbecues are almost as frequent. The New York state fair chicken is also made for benefit events, community auctions, church functions, family reunions, the New York State Fair, and in and around just about any life event that can be accompanied by food.
Traditionally this Cornell Chicken is served with salted small white local potatoes also known as Syracuse salt potatoes. We usually enjoy it with a green salad and baked beans. It always hits the spot!
Dan and Scot, on Living with Amy, show folks how to barbecue using the famous Cornell Chicken Recipe.
What’s in it?
- Bone-in chicken (I think it is better with the skin on.)
- Oil and Vinegar
- Raw Egg and poultry seasoning
- Salt, black pepper, and optional garlic salt or garlic powder.
Be sure and buy apple cider vinegar (the dark stuff.) One of the mistakes I used to make when first learning how to make this recipe was to use clear distilled vinegar. The clear vinegar is too mild for this recipe. As my sister, the chef would say, “Like kissing your sister.”
How to make it
I try to put this Cornell chicken recipe together once or twice a year. On this past Memorial Day weekend, I decided to make the original recipe the old fashioned way, over coals.
A day before I made it, I called my brother Don, some 1,200 miles away to gain some input from him on the technique. It’s not unusual for him to put 40 lbs. of juicy, plump poultry over a barbecue pit with a hotbed of coals, encased with cinder blocks. You just won’t get the same flavor using a gas grill.
He offered no direct advice but just some cautionary words about wind, about the importance of not covering the grill while the meat grilled, and the advantage of being able to adjust the height of the rack depending on the heat of the coals.
Realizing he couldn’t give me any more specific hints on a successful outcome since he was in Florida and I was in Wisconsin, I was happy for at least having an excuse to chew the fat with him over the phone and to have the chance to say hi.
We never get together enough anymore.
Pro Tips for How to Make Cornell Chicken Barbecue
Food Safety Tip: Chicken should have an internal temperature of 165° F before consuming. I love using this instant-read thermometer, and it is the one I always recommend using.
- Your coals have to be white-hot
- The vegetable oil in the marinade will fuel the fire. Have a glass of water to quell the flames when necessary.
- The skin may look burned, that’s OK! Just don’t let the fire get away on you.
- You can’t leave the grill unattended when making Cornell chicken; it’s a very hands-on process.
- You can even bake this in the oven (in the event of rain or earthquakes or snow flurries, etc.)
- Often the chicken is grilled in chicken halves, providing a serving size for the most serious of eaters. You can also grill smaller chickens, chicken quarters, chicken thighs, or just a variety of chicken pieces.
When making this Cornell chicken barbecue, it’s normal (I even prefer) to have some char on the chicken skin. There is nothing better than crispy skin! The coals will be kept hot with the oil in the marinade. Be sure to have some water handy to put out any flames; otherwise, it will become a fire department cookout!
If you haven’t ever had Cornell chicken, make it a goal for this grilling season!
To Marinate the Chicken (or Not!)
When I was a boy, we never marinated this recipe. Instead, my mom or dad would constantly baste the meat as it was barbecued over the hot coals.
The raw egg in the basting sauce creates a layer of custard with every layer of marinade brushed on the chicken. This creates a subtle but distinct crusty shell of flavor around every piece.
If marinating, it’s best to soak the meat a minimum of 2 hours, but up to 24 is even better. I have marinated it for 2 days before grilling it and it turned out beautiful and delicious.
How to Marinate Chicken
- If marinating, it’s best to soak it for a minimum of 2 hours but up to 24 is even better.
- Use large zip-lock bags to soak the meat. Remove as much air as possible before sealing and then place the bag(s) in a large mixing bowl in the refrigerator.
- Rotate the bags (turn/flip) every couple of hours to ensure an even soak.
- Always refrigerate while marinating.
Teaching the Next Generation How to Barbecue Chicken
Back to where I started with this post, and back to where I started this life, I grew up eating this New York chicken and my family has continued to make it for many decades now.
I couldn’t help feel some pride as I watched my then 16-year-old son tend the grill over Memorial Day weekend. Realizing he was the fourth generation of my family to make this down-home-food, a recipe standard that is now a part of my roots.
Now he’s a commercial airline pilot, and I have a good feeling he will pass this recipe on to the next generation and beyond.
This New York Cornell chicken has been a tradition in my family for nearly 100 years, spanning five generations.
Two other families joined us for the “barbecue” and this Cornell chicken central New York specialty recipe was a hit with everyone. The taste was as I remembered growing up, and I loved having the chance to tell my boys a little about the recipe and how it was a part of their heritage that someday they would be making for their kids.
Good outdoor weather is here now, and I realized that we have to plan a chicken barbecue again, very soon.
Take a look at our favorite grilling and smoker accessories. We use these products all the time!
Common recipe questions
You can bake Cornell Chicken in the oven. More than once we’ve started on the grill and finished in the oven due to rain! Is it the same as on the grill? No, but it’s still delicious!
Bake, covered or uncovered, at 375° until the juices run clear or the internal temperature of the chicken reaches 160° using a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh.
- Green salad
- Grilled Beet Salad
- Waldorf slaw
- Potato salad
- Baked beans
- Potato chips
- Corn on the cob
- Rolls and butter
- Scalloped potatoes
- Dessert bars
If you’re grilling out but someone isn’t a chicken fan, you can make some healthy turkey burgers in the air fryer. They’re delicious and are great for any cookout!
Watch the Platter Talk Guys making this Cornell Chicken Recipe, on Living with Amy!
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Cornell Chicken Barbecue
- 2 chickens, halved or cut up
- 2 cups apple cider vinegar
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 1 egg
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon garlic salt, optional
- 2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
- 1 teaspoon fresh ground peppercorn
- In a large bowl, combine oil and vinegar, add egg and beat thoroughly until will mixed. Add remaining dry ingredients and stir well.
- The poultry can be marinated from 2 hours to overnight, or it can be basted with a brush, while on the grill. To marinate, place chicken in bowl, and pour sauce over it and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until ready to grill.
- Prepare charcoal in grill and heat till coals are starting to turn white, then evenly distribute coals throughout base of grill. Place oiled rack on grill. Place chicken on grill and barbecue on each side 20 to 30 minutes, depending on heat of coals. Turn frequently to avoid burning. Grill until juices run clear when cut with tip of knife, or internal temperature reaches 165 degrees.
- Adjust Cornell chicken sauce/marinade quantity to the amount of chicken you are grilling, and maintain a 2:1 ratio of cider vinegar to oil. Similarly, adjust salt and other seasonings to quantity and taste.
- If marinating, place meat in gallon-size zip-lock bags. Place sealed bags in a large bowl or basin in refrigerate. Rotate the bag periodically to ensure even distribution of marinade.
- The poultry will require constant attention while grilling due to the oil dripping on the coals. Have a glass of water available while grilling to squelch flames from hot coals.
- If chicken is cut up into breasts, thighs, wings, and legs, start off by grilling the breasts and thighs as they will take longer than the smaller pieces.
Avoid closing the lid on the grill if possible to avoid a smokey flavor. If you have to close lid, be sure to open the vents on the lid.
- You can make this on a gas grill as well. Preheat grill to medium-high setting and tend to chicken as outlined above.
- Nothing goes better with this barbecue recipe than a green salad and baked beans!
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.