Famous Cornell Chicken

I’ve been wanting to write a post about the Famous Cornell Chicken sauce for quite some time… but then I haven’t made any sauce or grilled any chicken in quite some time. However, since my wife leads the local Cornell Cooperative Extension and they recently had their annual Famous Cornell Chicken BBQ fundraiser (for which I volunteered 8 hours just to get my free chicken dinner) — I decided that it was high time I whipped up some sauce, got some chicken quarters, and grilled up some moist, juicy, super flavorful Famous Cornell Chicken at home!

For the uninitiated, Cornell University, an Ivy League university located in Ithaca, NY has one of the premier food science programs in the nation. The Cornell Food Venture Center and the Northeast Center for Food Entrepreneurship (NECFE) provide support and resources for hundreds of established and start up food processors in New York and neighboring states. (When I worked as a product developer for a local food processor I attended the Better Process Control School at Cornell to become certified in acidified and low acid food manufacturing.)

As far as the sauce goes, it was formulated 68 years ago by Dr. Robert C. Baker, Professor Emeritus and food scientist at Cornell University. Among his other innovations, Dr. Baker is credited with creating the chicken hot dog, turkey ham, and even the chicken nugget! But around here in upstate New York, Dr. Baker is most widely known for his now Famous Cornell Chicken. Dr. Baker’s original goal was to help local poultry farmers sell young chickens (known as broilers) as a source of meat since in the 50’s most people preferred to eat beef and pork while chickens were raised mainly as egg layers. 1950 Dr. Baker wrote a booklet for Cornell Cooperative Extension which in exacting detail taught people how to barbecue chicken, pork and beef using a charcoal “fireplace” to slow barbecue the chicken halves that were basted frequently with his barbecue sauce. From its introduction in 1950 to today thousands of Fire Stations, community organizations, churches, schools, and charities hold regular chicken barbecues as fund raisers based on Dr. Baker’s original plans and recipes.

The sauce itself is kind of unconventional. It isn’t tomato based like so many sauces today, and it contains raw egg which many people fear is an unsafe food practice. But because the sauce is kept under refrigeration and has so much vinegar (acid) and salt it prevents the possibility of salmonella from forming — remember this recipe was created by a famous food scientist. Another oddity is that the sauce was initially (and subsequently) used as a basting sauce only. That means that the sauce was applied frequently to the chicken during the entire cooking process. Many people, including myself, have used the sauce as a marinade before cooking, as well as a baste while cooking. My thinking is that I tend to cook the chicken quicker using my gas grill and it doesn’t have time to absorb all the flavor it would being slow barbecued and basted for more than an hour as originally intended. You should marinate for at least 4 hours up to overnight.

Also, when I make the sauce I keep 2 cups on the side and use the rest to marinate my chicken pieces. Then I can baste the chicken with fresh sauce when grilling and serve some as a dipping sauce when serving. The sauce is typically used to cook split broilers (1/2 chickens) but I prefer to cook quarters for ease in handling and portion size. Choose which ever cut of chicken works best for your family halves, quarters, breasts, thighs, drumsticks, etc. I used leg quarter because we are “dark meat” people, they’re economical, and the meat doesn’t dry out as much as breasts so it’s pretty forgiving if it gets overcooked a bit. That being said you never want to under cook your chicken — so be sure to use a instant-read or digital food thermometer to ensure the chicken has reached the safe temperature of 165 F or above.

Okay, now that you know the story and the method… time to start grilling!

Famous Cornell Chicken

Prep time:  10 minutes
Marinate time:  4 to overnight

Cook time:  45 to 60 minutes
Makes:  Enough sauce/marinade for 2 whole chickens

2 cups Apple Cider Vinegar
1 cup Vegetable Oil
1 Whole Egg
3 TBSP Salt (you can reduce salt to 1 TBSP if needed)
1/2 tsp Fine Ground Black Pepper
1 TBSP Poultry Seasoning (I only use Bell’s)
4-6 lbs. Broiler Chicken halves or quarters


1. In a blender container, combine the cider vinegar, oil, egg, salt, pepper, and poultry seasoning. Blend until emulsified. Measure out 2 cups sauce for basting and set aside.
2. Decide what cut of chicken you’ll be using. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels. Pierce the chicken pieces all over with a fork — this helps with the marinating.
3. Place the chicken in 1 or 2 large resealable plastic bag(s), pour in the remaining Cornell sauce, squeeze out excess air from bag and seal. Turn the bag(s) over a couple of times to distribute sauce evenly, then place in a shallow dish (to catch any possible leaks) and refrigerate for at least 4 hours up to overnight. If possible turn the bags over every couple of hours while marinating.
4. When ready to grill chicken, preheat your outdoor gas grill to medium heat and lightly oil the grates. Remove chicken from marinade and pat dry with paper towels (discard used marinade).
5. Place chicken on the grill skin side down — using a brush, baste the chicken with reserved sauce. Cook for about 7 minutes until skin has started to brown. Turn chicken over, baste again with sauce, and cook for another 7 minutes.
6. Turn the burners down to low and continue to cook chicken with the grill lid down, turning every 7-10 minutes and basting with sauce on every turn, for about 45 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer reads at least 165 F at the thickest part of the meat near the bone. (NOTE: Since every grill is different you need to watch the cooking process and deal with any flare ups to avoid burning the chicken.)
7. When chicken reaches the safe temperature, remove from grill to a platter, cover loosely with foil and allow to rest for 15 minutes before serving.
8. Serve with your favorite sides (we did ranch beans and coleslaw). Enjoy!

There you have it, Famous Cornell Chicken. I know the cooking process takes time but it should yield moist and juicy chicken with a crispy skin and an unmistakable flavor that only comes from this easy-to-make sauce and the low-and-slow grilling process. So in the last few days of “Indian Summer” I urge you to try this Upstate New York favorite.

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”