Thai Coconut Chicken

This image courtesy of Joseph DeLeo

I’m certainly not alone in declaring coconut milk one of my favorite ingredients for barbecue. Throughout Southeast Asia, this “cream” of the tropics is used for marinades, bastes, and barbecue sauces. I love its tropical fragrance and the way its high fat content keeps foods moist during grilling. Here coconut milk comes into play in three stages: as a steaming agent in the beer can, as a baste for the chicken, and to enrich the peanut barbecue sauce. And since Thais don’t go in much for smoked foods, I’ve made the wood chips optional.

NotesLemongrass is an Asian herb with long, slender fibrous stalks. The flavor is perfumed, lemony, and herbacious but not the least bit tart. In a pinch, you can substitute ½-by-2-inch strips of lemon zest.

To trim lemongrass, cut off the root end and green leafy tops, leaving a core section that’s 3 to 5 inches long. Strip off the outer leaves. The core should be pale green or cream colored.

Most of the coconut milk you’ll find comes in cans that are about 14 ounces, which are a little too big to fit in a chicken. But you can certainly transfer the coconut milk to an empty beer can. You’ll find coconut milk at Asian and Latino markets, gourmet shops, and at an increasing number of supermarkets (look for it in the ethnic foods section). You must use unsweetened coconut milk, not the sugary coconut cream used for making piña coladas. Two good Thai brands are Chaokoh and A Taste of Thai.

Smoker Box Tips:

To smoke on a charcoal grill, simply toss the wood chips or chunks on the piles of glowing embers before you put the food on the grate.

To smoke on a gas grill, if your grill has a smoker box (a long, slender drawer or box into which you can put wood chips for smoking), fill it with wood chips and light the burner under or next to it on high until you see smoke. If your gas grill lacks a smoker box, you can position wood chunks (not chips) under the grill grate directly over one of the burners or pilot lights and preheat on high until you see smoke. Once you see smoke, turn the grill down to the temperature at which you plan to cook.

If you want to use wood chips in a gas grill that doesn’t have a smoker box, you’ll need to make a smoker pouch. Wrap the soaked chips in heavy-duty aluminum foil to make a pillow-shaped pouch. Poke a few holes in the top of the pouch with a pencil or knife tip, and place the pouch under the grate over one of the burners. The traditional drawback to gas grills is that many don’t get hot enough for smoking. To overcome this, preheat the grill to high until you see smoke—lots of it—then turn the burner knobs to reduce the heat to the desired temperature and put on the food.

Instructions for Determining if Chicken is Cooked Fully:

What if my chicken browns too fast?

Lower the heat and/or loosely tent the bird with aluminum foil to prevent it from burning.

How do I know when the chicken is cooked?

There are three basic tests for doneness. The most accurate is to use an instant-read meat thermometer. Steady the chicken with one hand using clean, well-insulated rubber gloves or a pair of tongs. Insert the metal probe of the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, but away from the bone. The temperature should be about 180°F. Alternatively, insert a slender metal skewer in the thigh and leave it there for 10 seconds. It should come out very hot to the touch and the juices that run from the hole should be clear. Another test is to wiggle one of the legs, again steadying the chicken with your other hand. The leg should move loosely and freely in the joint.

Serves2 to 4

Preparation Time1 hr

Preparation Time - Text1 hour for marinating the chicken

Cooking Methodbarbecuing, grilling


Total Timeunder 4 hours

Make Ahead RecipeYes

Kid FriendlyYes

One Pot MealYes

OccasionCasual Dinner Party, Family Get-together

Recipe Coursemain course

Dietary Considerationegg-free, lactose-free


Five Ingredients or LessYes


Taste and Texturejuicy, meaty, nutty, savory, smoky, spiced, tangy, umami


  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon coarse salt (kosher or sea)
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh lemongrass, or 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 can coconut milk (about 13½ ounces)
  • 1 stalk lemongrass, trimmed (see Note), or 2 strips lemon zest (each 2 by ½ inches)
  • 1 chicken (3½ to 4 pounds)
  • Coconut Peanut Sauce
  • 2 cups wood chips or chunks (optional; preferably oak or apple), soaked for 1 hour in water to cover, then drained
  • 1 clean empty 12-ounce beer or soda can with 2 additional holes made in its top or a vertical chicken roaster


  1. Make the rub paste: Put the coriander, salt, pepper, garlic, cilantro, minced lemon-grass, and ginger in a blender and purée, adding enough oil to make a paste.

  2. Shake the can of coconut milk well. Place ¼ cup coconut milk and 1 tablespoon of the rub paste in a small bowl and set aside. You’ll use this mixture for basting the chicken. Using a funnel, pour ¾ cup coconut milk into a clean empty beer can or vertical chicken roaster. Add the lemongrass stalk and set aside.

  3. Remove the packet of giblets from the body cavity of the chicken and set aside for another use. Remove and discard the fat just inside the body and neck cavities. Rinse the chicken, inside and out, under cold running water and then drain and blot dry, inside and out, with paper towels. Smear the remaining rub paste over the chicken inside and out. Place the chicken in a resealable plastic bag or covered bowl and let marinate in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

  4. If cooking on a can: Hold the bird upright, with the opening of the body cavity at the bottom, and lower it onto the coconut milk-filled beer can so the can fits into the cavity. Pull the chicken legs forward to form a sort of tripod, so the chicken stands upright. The rear leg of the tripod is the can.

  5. If cooking on a roaster: Position the chicken on top, following the manufacturer’s instructions.

  6. Tuck the tips of the wings behind the chicken’s back.

  7. Set up the grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium. If using a charcoal grill, place a large drip pan in the center. If using a gas grill, place all the wood chips or chunks, if using, in the smoker box or in a smoker pouch (see Notes) and preheat on high until you see smoke, then reduce the heat to medium.

  8. When ready to cook, if using a charcoal grill, toss all of the wood chips or chunks, if using, on the coals. Stand the chicken up in the center of the hot grate, over the drip pan and away from the heat. Cover the grill and cook the chicken until the skin is a dark golden brown and very crisp and the meat is cooked through (about 180°F on an instant-read meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of a thigh, but not touching the bone), 1¼ to 1½ hours (see Notes for tests for doneness). Start basting the chicken with the coconut milk mixture after 45 minutes and baste it every 15 minutes, taking care not to knock the bird over. Do not baste the chicken immediately before you remove it from the grill. If using a charcoal grill, you’ll need to add 12 fresh coals per side after 1 hour. If the chicken skin starts to brown too much, loosely tent the bird with aluminum foil.

  9. If cooking on a can: Using tongs, hold the bird by the can and carefully transfer it in an upright position to a platter.

  10. If cooking on a roaster: Use oven mitts or pot holders to remove the bird from the grill while it’s still on the vertical roaster.

  11. Present the bird to your guests. Let the chicken rest for 5 minutes, then carefully lift it off the support. Take care not to spill the hot coconut milk or otherwise burn yourself. Halve, quarter, or carve the chicken and serve with Coconut-Peanut Sauce.


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