Cut up chicken pieces are marinated in a tangy vinegar-based marinade and grilled over hot charcoal to juicy perfection in this Cornell Chicken recipe. Also known as Dr. Robert Baker's Cornell Chicken or Fireman Chicken, it's not just a meal but an event meant to be shared with friends! Every bite of chicken bursts with a tangy, smoky flavor that is perfectly balanced and impossibly tender and moist.
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Of all the recipes I have made to represent New York for my American Eats series, I think this Cornell Chicken just might be the favorite. It's so simple to prepare and it reminds me of relaxed summer barbecues as a kid.
For the uninitiated, Cornell Chicken that is perfectly cooked has a delicious skin that's flavorful and crisp, with tender and juicy chicken on the bone underneath it. You pick your favorite piece, whether it's the drumstick, breast, or thigh, and dig in!
It's finger-licking good and is perfect for a family dinner, summer BBQ, or a special occasion.
We love cooking on our grill, even in the cold seasons, and this is just the kind of recipe we love all year round! Quick to prep and ideal for any occasion, this Cornell chicken recipe is a ticket to rave reviews at your next cookout.
Why is it called Cornell Chicken?
The original Cornell Chicken recipe was developed in the early 1950's by Dr. Robert C. Baker, a food science professor at Cornell University. Dr. Baker's innovative recipe made for delicious chicken dinners but also supported local farms by promoting the use of smaller chickens.
The simple recipe quickly became a staple at the New York State Fair and fire department cookouts (hence its alternative name, Fireman's Chicken). The dish was so popular that it even contributed to the upsurge of New York State’s poultry industry and quickly established itself as a Central New York specialty!
It's an easy recipe that has stood the test of time, proving that sometimes the simplest things in life are the most enjoyable.
Why We Love This Recipe
- It's an iconic recipe that encourages the use of local produce, promotes local farming, and strengthens local communities!
- This easy recipe uses simple ingredients but produces a flavorful chicken dish that somehow tastes more "chicken-y", perfect for almost any occasion.
- With very little prep time, the secret to this recipe is in how it's marinated and the delicious way the chicken is cooked over charcoal.
What You'll Need
Scroll down to the recipe card below this post for ingredient quantities and full instructions.
- Egg - Acts as an emulsifier for the marinade, ensuring that the oil and vinegar blend together seamlessly.
- Oil - Vegetable oil carries the flavors of the spices and helps keep the chicken moist during the grilling process. You can use another cooking oil, like olive oil or canola oil, if you prefer.
- Apple Cider Vinegar - The acidic component of the marinade, which tenderizes the chicken and adds a bright, tangy flavor profile.
- Salt - Enhances the natural flavors of the chicken and helps in the brining process.
- Poultry Seasoning - Aromatic herbs that infuse the chicken with classic flavors that pair wonderfully with the smoke from the grill.
- Pepper - Adds a mild heat and earthiness, complementing the tang of the vinegar. Use freshly ground black pepper for the best flavor.
- Chicken - I used a whole chicken that I cut up (here's my tutorial on how to cut up a whole chicken yourself), but you could use only bone-in chicken thighs as they're ideal for grilling or other kinds of chicken pieces if you prefer.
- Charcoal grill - The marinade and chicken are delicious on their own, but for authentic Cornell chicken, it should be grilled over hot coals, not gas.
How to Make This Recipe
- Mix egg and oil. Whisk the egg in a large bowl until frothy. Whisk in the oil to emulsify.
- Add seasonings to make marinade. Whisk in vinegar, poultry seasoning, salt, and pepper. Set aside about ¾-1 cup of the marinade for basting later.
- Marinate chicken. Marinate chicken for at least 2 but up to 24 hours (our preference is at least 12 hours).
- Prep the grill. Light your charcoal and get the coals burning nice and hot. We have a simple and inexpensive Weber grill that we use all the time when the weather is nice, and use a charcoal chimney to get our coals going. Once the coals start turning white around the edges, spread them on one side of the grill to create a hot zone for searing the chicken (direct heat) and a cooler zone for a slower cooking space for the chicken (indirect heat.)
- Sear chicken. Place the marinated chicken skin side down on the preheated charcoal grill over direct heat for 2 minutes to sear until they have some nice grill marks. Use long tongs to turn the chicken and transfer it to the indirect heat side of the grill. (See image below for an example of chicken over indirect heat.)
- Cook chicken. Brush the seared chicken with the reserved marinade. Grill over charcoal using indirect heat and baste with reserved sauce for the remainder of the cooking time. Turn often, brushing with marinade, for about 30 to 45 minutes until nicely browned and an instant digital thermometer reads 165°F when inserted in the thigh meat near the bone.
Absolutely! While charcoal grills provide a unique flavor, a gas grill can be used effectively, especially with the indirect heat method. It won't have quite the same flavor as chicken cooked over a charcoal grill, but it will still be tasty and moist.
Definitely. The marinade can be prepared ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator for up to two days before you plan to use it.
For the best flavor, a minimum of 2 hours is recommended, but if you can push for at least 12 hours, your taste buds will thank you.
Yes, discard any marinade that has been in contact with raw chicken to avoid cross-contamination.
Yes, marinating for over 24 hours could result in a mushy texture due to the acidity of the vinegar.
Once it has cooled to room temperature, place the chicken in airtight containers or wrap it tightly with aluminum foil or plastic wrap. Properly stored, cooked chicken will last for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator. This method retains moisture and prevents the chicken from picking up odors from other foods.
Tips for Success
- Prep the grill. A well-prepared grill is the foundation of great barbecue. Make sure your grill grates are clean and oiled to prevent sticking. If you're using a charcoal grill, know how to set up a two-zone fire, which allows for both direct and indirect cooking—a critical aspect of the Cornell method.
- Have extra charcoal, just in case. Maintaining the right temperature on your grill is essential. You want a hot direct heat side for searing and a cooler indirect heat side for cooking through. Use a grill thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature, and have a plan for controlling it, whether that means adjusting gas flow on a gas grill or managing the coals (you might need to add more) and airflow on a charcoal grill.
- Don't forget to baste! Basting the chicken keeps it moist and adds flavor. Use a brush to apply the marinade, and do it frequently, turning the chicken each time. This not only flavors the meat but also helps achieve that coveted crispy skin.
- Use a thermometer. The best way to know your chicken is cooked is by using an instant-read thermometer. The internal temperature should reach 165°F in the thickest part of the thigh, away from the bone. This ensures the chicken is safe to eat and prevents overcooking, which can dry out the meat.
- Cut breast pieces in half. The bone-in breast pieces are the hardest to cook through on a charcoal grill because they are so much larger and thicker than the other chicken pieces, but by cutting them right in half through the bone, they are the same size and much easier to grill. Plus, there is more surface area exposed to both the marinade and charcoal smoke, which means more flavor.
What to Serve with Cornell Chicken
In Central New York, where Cornell Chicken is a staple, it's often served with local accompaniments. Consider Syracuse Salt Potatoes, which are boiled in heavily salted water until creamy on the inside with a subtle salty crust. Add a fresh Waldorf slaw or Corn on the Cob from local farms to bring some sweetness and crunch to your plate.
For a themed dinner, stay true to the origins of the recipe. Serve the chicken with sides that are popular in Upstate New York, like sweetcorn during the summer or a hearty squash dish in the fall. A mixed green salad with a cider vinegar-based dressing or this Homemade Caesar Salad to mirror the tanginess of the chicken's marinade.
If comfort is what you’re after, try some classic American sides like this Easy Homemade Macaroni Salad with Egg, Baked Beans, Crispy Onion Rings, or Creamy Pea Salad with Bacon. They're rich and satisfying, balancing out the lighter, tangy profile of the Cornell Chicken. This chicken dish also goes well with a side of French Fries or my Baked Sweet Potato Fries.
Substitutions and Variations
- The original recipe called for 3 tablespoons salt but I've halved this as I felt it was a bit too much. You can change this as you wish.
- If you can't find poultry seasoning, make your own blend with thyme, sage, marjoram, rosemary, black pepper, and nutmeg.
- White Wine Vinegar can be used instead of apple cider vinegar if desired, although the flavor will change slightly.
- Skin-on chicken is essential for this recipe to protect the meat during grilling and keep it moist. However, if you're looking to cut down on fat, skinless pieces can be used—just watch them closely to prevent drying out. Using pieces of chicken with the bone in means they are easy to grab and turn, but it also allows the flavors from the bone to seep into the chicken while cooking. You can use boneless pieces if you wish, but the results will be a bit different, and the cooking time may be less.
More Delicious Grilled Recipes You’ll Love
- Grilled Shrimp Skewers
- Grilled Turkey Burgers
- Smoked Spatchcock Chicken (Pellet Grill)
- Grilled Ribeye Steak
Did you make this recipe?
Let me know what you thought with a comment and rating below. You can also take a picture and tag me on Instagram @houseofnasheats or share it on the Pinterest pin so I can see.
Cornell Chicken Recipe (aka Fireman's Chicken)
- 1 large egg
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 2 cups apple cider vinegar
- 1½ Tablespoons table salt
- 1 Tablespoon poultry seasoning
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 whole chicken, cut into bone-in chicken thighs, legs, or breast pieces
- Whisk the egg until frothy. Whisk in the oil to emulsify. Whisk in vinegar, poultry seasoning, salt, and pepper. Set aside about ¾-1 cup of the marinade for basting later.
- Marinate chicken for at least 2 but up to 24 hours (our preference is at least 12 hours).
- When you are ready to cook, light your charcoal briquettes. We like to use a chimney lighter to get the charcoal going. Spread the lit charcoal over one side of the grill only to create direct and indirect grilling areas.
- Remove the chicken from the marinade and place the marinated chicken skin-side down on the preheated charcoal grill over direct heat (right above the area with the coals) for 2 minutes to sear until nice grill marks form.
- Turn the chicken and transfer it to the indirect heat side of the grill. Brush with the reserved marinade.
- Continue to grill the chicken over indirect heat. Turn often, brushing with the reserved marinade, for about 30 to 45 minutes until nicely browned and an instant read thermometer reads 165°F when inserted in the thigh meat near the bone.
- Salt: Dr. Baker's original recipe called for 3 tablespoons of table salt, but I halved that amount for this recipe.
- Store: Once cooled, place the chicken in airtight containers or wrap it tightly with aluminum foil or plastic wrap. Properly stored, cooked chicken will last for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator. This method retains moisture and prevents the chicken from picking up odors from other foods.