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?
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
- 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.
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.
Two of our favorite ways to use leftover chicken are in our Crispy Leftover Chicken and Shells and our Chicken Enchiladas.
- 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!
More of our Recipes for the Grill
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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!
Hey Dan. We thought our Dad had this secret recipe for chicken. Then found out so did a zillion other people. Dad has passed and have a question. How high should cinder blocks be on bbq to cook the chicken correctly. I cannot find info on this. I feel there is correct way. Dads were 3 blocks high but wonder if 2 blocks will cook too quickly. Thanks
Dan from Platter Talk
I think 2 blocks will work just fine. As you noted, you'll need to pay close attention to how hot your coals are. Thanks for the great comments; be sure and let us know how your set-up works!
I agree with Dan with a caveat. The old homemade cement block fireplace that still sits in my back yard can hold the grill rack (old oven rack) at either 2 or 3 blocks high. For a chicken wing only grill, 3 works. For chicken parts, 2 works as long as you’re willing to harass the cook over how fast the chicken should cook. The rack on mine can be moved between “2” and “3” Incidentally, my grill (a/k/a “The Shrine”) turned out many a delicious Cornell Chicken party. The man who owned my house, Zanis Niparts, worked at Cornell with the recipe’s creator. My old, yellowed greasy recipe copy is my hand-written copy of the creator’s original given to Mr. Niparts (a/k/a Cornell Chicken Holy Grail 😉) Enjoy your Cornell Chicken!
How cool! We had many Cornell chicken parties over the years. Dad enjoyed all the compliments he received. We will never be able to live up to that reputation. Just hoping it comes out half as good.
You have to have the Central New York staple summer side of salt potatoes with Cornell chicken!!
Air fryer recipients? We found out about this recipie at treasure mountain festival in the late 60's
Dan from Platter Talk
Hi Mike! You can make this in the air fryer. Keep an eye on it and rotate as necessary. Air-fry to an internal temperature of 165°.
Can I make this recipe on a smoker??
Dan from Platter Talk
Hi Jenny. Great question, and technically you can make it on a smoker but I don't advise doing this. I've smoked it once and found the smokey flavor does not pair well with the oil and vinegar base of the Cornell chicken recipe. Also, if you do smoke it, you should sear the chicken over high heat, probably at the end and when your chicken reaches an internal temp of 165°.
Heavenly! I’m in Alberta and we don’t “grill” here either. We barbecue (all year around unless it dips below -20C (-4F). Since I loathe jarred bbq sauce, this was a welcome recipe. It’s fabulous. I always double the poultry seasoning be cause we always do skinless chicken. I’m following you now.
Is it possible to adapt this recipe for boneless skinless chicken breasts? I've made it with bone-in, skin on (yum!) and just tried it with boneless, skinless which we have more of in the freezer. The boneless skinless tasted like vinegar. I suspect it may have been marinated much too long.....put it in the marinade on a Wed night and Thurs night, the BF insisted on going out to dinner. So when I cooked it on Friday - stovetop then finishing in the oven - it was mouth puckering. The only thing I left out of the recipe was the salt. Thanks so much.
Dan from Platter Talk
Cindy, you can absolutely use boneless skinless chicken for this Cornell Chicken Barbecue recipe. I would marinate it only for an hour or two if that's what you are using. I've done it beofre with delcious results. Thanks for the question!
I am barbecuing 100 halfes of chicken. Can you give me the recipe with the correct amount of ingredients for the saice
Dan from Platter Talk
Hi Barbara. For this amount of Cornell chicken marinade, you will want the following:
3 gallons apple cider vinegar, 1.5 gallons of vegetable oil, 2 dozen eggs, 3 cups salt, 1.5 cups garlic salt (optional), 1 cup poultry seasoning, 1/2 cup ground black pepper.
Would the recipe be the same for 75 halves instead of 100? They changed their mind doing 75 instead of 100. Thank you do much for your reply on doing the 100 halves
The best chicken recipe I’ve ever used for BBQ!
Dan from Platter Talk
We love this recipe for grilled chicken too; thanks for the great comments!
We have been making this chicken recipe for years. The recipe has been handed around thru the family, each adding an ingredient that only has enhanced the wonderful flavors of the marinade, some crushed garlic, a little onion powder.... I have had neighbors walk over to see where the mouth watering aroma was coming from, I'll share the original recipe, but will keep the extras a family secret. Let each family put their signature additions to it.
Made it again here in Minnesota. Everyone asked for the recipe! Thanks again, Dan!
Dan from Platter Talk
Love, love, love! Thanks for the feedback Lucinda and it's always especially nice to hear from a Zehr from home! xo
I’ve live 10 minutes from Cornell. I’ve done chicken wings this way since ‘84 when my neighbor, a Cornell employee, did wings (only) on a wood fire. He had a hand-written copy of the recipe he obtained from the two people who originated it. Over the years, it seems the ratios and the type of chicken parts used have changed considerably. The original was intended for wings only marinated for 24 hours. Far less Apple cider vinegar is used, a 1:1 ratio oil/vinegar. For this ratio, 1-2 tbsp poultry seasoning, 1 tsp white pepper, salt to taste, 1 large egg beaten. The egg enables the marinade to adhere better to the wings. I’ve done these on wood coals, charcoal, gas and electric oven. Far and away, grilling slowly on wood fire coals yields the most flavorful and authentic result due to the smoky flavor imparted by the coals. As with other variations, you must pay close attention, watch for flare ups and extinguish, turn frequently.
Dan from Platter Talk
We love your comments and hints for making this Cornell chicken barbecue, Linda. Thanks so much for taking the time to write to us!