Make the Famous Dr. Baker's Original Cornell Chicken Recipe

Whole chicken halves on grill
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  • 70 mins
  • Prep: 10 mins,
  • Cook: 60 mins
  • Yield: 4 portions
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This central New York specialty was invented by Dr. Robert Baker, a Professor Emeritus of the Department of Animal Sciences at the New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. He wanted to create a delicious way to grill smaller chickens so that the local farms could sell more birds, sell them sooner, and make them more affordable. One taste of his Cornell chicken recipe and you'll know why he was so successful.

The combination of vinegar, oil, seasoning, and an egg makes a basting sauce that is somewhat similar to a mayonnaise. Cooking the birds in this mixture results in an incredibly juicy and complex tasting barbecue chicken. This recipe makes enough basting sauce for 4 to 5 whole chickens, and any extra can be stored in the refrigerator for several weeks.

What You'll Need

  • 2 whole chickens 2 1/2 to 3 pounds each (cut in half)
  • For the Basting Sauce:
  • 2 cups cider vinegar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tablespoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon poultry seasoning

How to Make It

  1. Combine the basting sauce ingredients in a blender and blend until emulsified.
  2. Place the chicken halves in a large zip-top plastic bag and pour in 1/2 cup of the sauce. Seal the bag and shake gently to coat the chicken evenly.
  3. Refrigerate for 2 hours. Remove the chicken from the marinade, and wipe off excess sauce from the surface. Discard marinade.
  4. Grill over charcoal, turning and liberally basting with the remaining sauce every 10 minutes, for about 1 hour, or until cooked through. 

    Dr. Baker's Mission

    In 1950, Dr. Baker published "Barbecued Chicken and Other Meats," a bulletin that included recipes to make broiler chickens (chickens bred for their meat instead of eggs) ideal for the barbecue. The idea of cooking chicken was somewhat new at the time, as most people ate beef and pork, and Dr. Baker saw the publication as a way to educate home cooks while helping poultry farmers.

    The bulletin also featured instructions on how to build your own outdoor cooking fireplace using cinder blocks. Dr. Baker's original recipe used a barbecue pit with the chicken cooked on racks, several feet away from the coals so that the chicken cooked relatively slowly. (He had even built a grill 50 to 60 feet long, large enough to feed 5,000 people.) You can construct something like this if you are so inclined, but this recipe still works fine on a deep, kettle-style grill. 

    At the New York State Fair in the 1950s, Dr. Baker opened a stand called "Baker's Chicken Coop" (still in operation today by his daughter) where he cooked up over a million chickens. He also contributed to the invention of the chicken nugget, as well as chicken hot dogs and turkey ham.

    The Secret to the Sauce

    It may seem odd to include a raw egg in the marinade and basting sauce, but it is actually the key ingredient. When the egg is blended with the other ingredients, a protein breaks down which helps keep the oil and vinegar emulsified, and causes the egg (and therefore the marinade) to bind itself to the skin of the chicken.

    This enhances the sauce's abilities to penetrate the skin and tenderize the meat while adding plenty of flavor. 

    If you are concerned about using a raw egg, bear in mind that the vinegar should kill any bacteria present. If you have leftover sauce and would like to store for later use, you can boil it down and add more vinegar before placing it in the refrigerator. Or you can use pasteurized eggs if you are worried about salmonella.