A Staple of Upstate BBQs, ‘Cornell Chicken’ is a Grilling Tradition

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With summer in full swing, we offer an homage to the beloved recipe by Robert Baker ’43—plus a tofu version for vegetarians!

By Joe Wilensky

Just outside Ithaca, the smoke and steam of a community barbecue wafts through the air on a late June weekend, as rows of chicken halves sizzle on a vast, coal-fired grill. After an hour of meticulous basting and turning, the crisply prepared halves—a.k.a. “broilers”—are tucked into takeout boxes, accompanied by a dollop of baked beans and a scoop of buttery salt potatoes.

The barbecue is a fundraiser for the Savage Club of Ithaca, a musical group with longstanding Big Red ties. And like so many such events during an Upstate New York summer, it features a local delicacy that has fans nationwide: the famous Cornell Chicken, devised by the late Robert Baker ’43.

A recipe meant for scaling up—way up: A Cornell Chicken barbecue for hundreds in 1952
Feeding hundreds of chicken lovers in 1952.

A professor of food and poultry science on the Hill for three decades, Baker—who passed away in 2006 at the age of 84—created and popularized the sauce and cooking method, which involves regular turning and basting.

Along with family members, he ran one of the most legendary eateries at the annual New York State Fair—Baker’s Chicken Coop—serving untold thousands of broilers to generations of hungry crowds.

(Among the many dignitaries that stopped by over the years: President Bill Clinton, along with wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea.)

With family members, Baker ran one of the most legendary eateries at the annual New York State Fair: Baker’s Chicken Coop.

Baker, who held a master’s from Penn State and a doctorate from Purdue, designed a bevy of products in his food lab in the basement of CALS’ Bruckner Hall—from “turkey ham” to a sliceable roll of hard-boiled eggs.

But he was particularly devoted to chicken, as well as to supporting the livelihoods of New York State poultry farmers.

In the mid-1900s, though, that particular poultry badly needed a glow-up: after being deprived of other meats due to wartime rationing, Americans had tired of chicken and the few preparation methods for it then in popular use.

The (Cornell) Chicken Dance

Baker—who’d go on to be enshrined in the American Poultry Hall of Fame—developed chicken hot dogs and an early version of the chicken nugget. In a 1984 story about his role in transforming the industry, the New York Times called him “something of a chicken Edison.”

But it was the sauce recipe that would become his greatest legacy—as evinced by his nickname, “Barbecue Bob.”

It’s an elegant-but-potent combination of just a few ingredients: apple cider vinegar, oil, poultry seasoning, pepper, and egg, which acts as an emulsifier and helps the sauce adhere to the bird.

“A lot of people had been using tomato-based sauces, and they’d burn and present quite an ugly-looking chicken,” explains Bob Gravani, PhD ’75, an emeritus professor of food science and one of Baker’s former students.

“Bob said, ‘We need something that’ll stick to the chicken and also make it a crisp, golden brown.’ And the sauce did just that—but it also made a very tasty chicken.”

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Cover of Robert Baker’s “Barbecued Chicken and Other Meats” Cooperative Extension bulletin

Baker made his recipe freely available; for years, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s most popular bulletin was Barbecued Chicken and Other Meats, first published in 1950. The only official adjustment he ever made was to reduce the salt, as Americans became more conscious of sodium intake.

The recipe has been lauded in the national press over the decades, including in Saveur (“one of the juiciest, most complex barbecued chickens we’ve ever tasted”) and the Washington Post (“the grilled chicken recipe so brilliant it’s got an Ivy League name”).

Atlas Obscura even devoted a story to the dish, under the headline “Why All of Upstate New York Grew Up Eating the Same Barbecue Chicken.”

Numerous incarnations of the recipe appear online, on sites like Food Network, Serious Eats, and Cook’s Country. And of course, individual chefs have their own tweaks.

“In my opinion,” says David Bandler ’55, MPS ’71, an emeritus professor of food science, “the original recipe is improved by substituting fresh crushed garlic for half the salt.”

Read on for three versions of Baker’s recipe: original, vegetarian, and vegan!

Cornell Chicken BBQ Sauce

Travis Sandsted, grandson of “Barbecue Bob” Baker, applies the famous barbecue sauce
Basting the birds. (Joe Wilensky / Cornell University)

Yield: Enough for about ten halves.

Note: Per Baker’s original preparation, the sauce is not a marinade; it’s a basting material that should be brushed on the broiler halves every few minutes during cooking. Leftover sauce can be stored in the refrigerator for several weeks.


1 egg
1 c. vegetable oil
2 c. apple cider vinegar
3 tbsp. salt (or less, to taste)
1 tbsp. poultry seasoning
½ tsp. pepper


Beat egg, then add oil and beat again. Add other ingredients and stir.

Place broiler halves over coals after flame is gone. Turn every five to ten minutes, depending on heat. Chicken should be basted with sauce at each turning—lightly at first, then heavily near end of cooking.

Cook about one hour. Test by pulling wing away from body: if meat splits easily and no red is visible in the joint, chicken is done.

‘Cornell Tofu’

To allow non-meat-eaters to enjoy Baker’s classic recipe, Cornellians has developed and tested vegetarian and vegan options!

For one 14-ounce block of extra-firm tofu, halve the sauce recipe above, reducing salt to 1–2 tsp. but still using one egg.

(Vegans can replace egg with an alternative emulsifier; we used ¼ tsp. xanthan gum dissolved in ¼ c. water, which made the sauce thinner and the resulting dish more piquant—reminiscent of salt-and-vinegar potato chips.)

Tofu on the grill, basted with the Cornell Chicken recipe
The bottom row was made with the original recipe, the rest with the vegan option; they look the same, but the no-egg version was much more vinegary. (Cornell University)

Press tofu for about an hour to remove excess water, then cut block into 10 slices and marinate for several hours or overnight. Remove tofu and reserve sauce.

Using an oiled grill pan over medium heat, grill tofu steaks for several minutes on each side, basting with sauce at each turn; repeat so each side is grilled twice.

Top: Cornell Chicken on the grill (Joe Wilensky / Cornell University). All historical images courtesy of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

Published June 28, 2023

Do you have fond memories of Cornell Chicken? Do you make it at home?


  1. Karen Jewett-Bennett, Class of 1979

    Smells like summer in Tompkins County.

  2. Karen Madsen, Class of 1973

    This has been a staple in my husband’s upstate family for years, but they all called it “Aunt Ann’s chicken.” Delicious.

  3. Lee Kass, Class of 1975

    I worked in Baker’s department from 1979-1981. The people in the department were most kind and generous. We had a reception in our backyard following our marriage in 1981 and the department BBQed about 100 chickens for our guests. Our photo album from that event is cherished. LBK,Cornell Ph.D. 1975

  4. Bill Dalrymple, Class of 1976

    When you smelled the smoke wafting over the trees, you knew the Fireman’s Carnival in Clifton Springs was almost ready to feed the whole town.

    • Mary Deitrich Capra, Class of 1964

      Mary Deitrich Capra class of 1964

      Over the years my husband, Edward Capra, class of 1961, and I prepared “Cornell Chicken” hundreds of times. Since his passing in 2007, I continue to serve it, as do my children, one a Cornellian himself. It is the greatest, especially when grilled slowly!!

  5. Judith Barth, Class of 1969

    Coming from just outside of Syracuse, my Mom worked for several years at Baker’s Chicken Coop at the State Fair. This recipe is the only barbeque chicken my family has ever had. It’s been passed down to my sons and grandsons. We all love it!
    Judith Barth, Class of ’69

  6. Tom Windmuller, Class of 1977

    I first learned how to barbecue chicken at fundraisers for the Ithaca High School Marching Band in the 1960s and 1970s (2100 halves every summer and always a sellout). My family has used the recipe ever since, but over the past 25-30 years we also marinade the chicken in the sauce for several hours, thereby increasing the flavor of the sauce.

    • Brian Miller, Class of 1979

      As I recall, we marinated the chickens in a newly-bought aluminum garbage can! The drum corps worked the chicken pit, which left us pretty grimy by the end of the event.

  7. Richard Weldgen, Jr. (Dick), Class of 1967

    I was on the Board of the Cornell Club of Rochester and was responsible for an event. I brought in a speaker from Cornell and served the Cornell chicken for dinner. Kirk Personius was the Extension Agent for Monroe County and had access to the grills. Kirk and a few of my employees did the cooking. The event was one of the best. I use the Cornell recipe at home whenever we have chicken.

    • Ginny Heffer Link

      I remember Cornell recipe chicken barbecues at the Gannett Farm in Rochester, maybe 1950s? Also other barbecues for fire department fundraisers, ay MC Fairgrounds I think. I also remember Kirk Personius as extension agent to the my father’s and uncles’farm in Irondequoit, William Heffer Sons.
      My husband and I in Oregon still use Cornell chicken recipe at home.

  8. Jane Haynes, Class of 1978

    My Dad, Bill Winslow was a county agricultural agent in Cortland County and presided over a chicken barbecue at the local 4-H camp every year, using the Cornell sauce. My Mom, Esther and her friend Jinny Griswold wold mix up big batches of the sauce in milk cans for the pit workers to use to baste the chicken. The recipe was also used by the Preble Fire Department for their annual chicken barbecue. Yum! Our family has used the recipe ever since, in a much smaller batch. I often use the sauce to prepare chicken for oven roasting, as well. It’s good on pork, too, and is a family favorite.
    Incidentally, as a county agent, my Dad relied on Cornell experts to keep him abreast of the latest developments to pass on to the farmers he served. His agriculture degree was from Rutgers but he always wished he had gone to Cornell, as he felt the education was more practical and far superior. He was always praising Cornell. He is the reason I transferred there and I am so glad I did!

  9. John Whitney, Class of 1982

    My personal tweak of the recipe for more than 4 decades has been adding an additional egg or two (depending on the size of the eggs) and mixing the ingredients all at once in a blender. This saves a bit of time and increases the thickness of the sauce. It stays more fully emulsified and sticks even better to whatever is being grilled. The sauce turns creamy white but cooks down much like the original after marinating or basting; all with the same great flavor, although the grill rack may need a bit more cleanup.

  10. William Reed

    My Dad, Ira Reed Jr , managed the Cornell Turkey and Chicken farms for most of his working life. He worked with Doctor Baker. At the state fairs for many years. My comment to my friends and family, I got an undergraduate degree in ag economics and an MBA at the business school at Cornell but I have a phd in barbecuing chicken

    • Lee Kass, Class of 1975

      Hi, Your Dad Ira was a wonderful guy. I remember his good work helping us find just the right chickens to work with for our lab’s research projects. He and his staff were always so helpful and respectful to everyone in the Department of Poultry Science, where I worked from 1979-1981. (LBK Cornell Ph.D. 1975)

    • Doug Bianchi, Class of 1977

      How could you not, Bill? And the best fresh turkey we’ve ever had came from the Turkey Farm back when was still in charge.

      • Doug Bianchi, Class of 1977

        …when you Dad was still in charge.

  11. Janet Fallon, Class of 1976

    My husband’s grandfather, Frank Fallon, was a Cayuga County poultryman and GLF sales manager. He was a near neighbor & friend of Dr Baker. He did Cornell chicken BBQ for many hundreds of members over the years. This tradition was continued by his son, grandson, and now his great grandsons (we have a few CALS alumni in the family too). Our next Fallon family BBQ is a small one, just 40 halves, on July 22 (still in Cayuga County). I had a great photo to add but this dialogue box wouldn’t allow it.

  12. Janet Fallon, Class of 1976

    My daughter, CALS Food Science ‘02, took a job at Arizona State ~2008 with Dr Roy Curtiss Jr, CALS 1950s. Roy claims that he, not Dr Baker, created the Cornell recipe. He said he even won a Blue Ribbon for his recipe at the NY State fair. He hired Sarah for her academic excellence & Cornell BBQ creds!

  13. Shelley Winkler, Class of 1976

    This sounds wonderful and somehow I’ve missed it! How about making it for our 50th (how did that happen?) reunion in 2026? — the pandemic cancelled our 45th. If you make it for an earlier reunion let us know about that, too! Anywhere to get it in Ithaca before then?

    • Lisa J Glickstein, Class of 1987

      You can get Cornell Chicken year-round at Phil’s Chicken House in Endicott, NY. You can also find it being cooked outside of Wegman’s in Ithaca many weekends (fundraisers I think?) and at lots of church and social group supper fundraisers in the local area.

    • Ann Sirrine Rider, Class of 1964

      You can be pretty sure that any local fire department’s Chicken BBQ will be with Cornell sauce….

  14. Joanne Wietgrefe

    News flash: now Wegmans has the sauce bottled for those who are time-pressed(or lazy). The large fire pits racked with hundreds of halves are a staple in western N.Y. in the summer. I also marinate the chicken overnight in the fridge for a more intense flavor.

  15. Nancy Jenkins Krablin, Class of 1969

    I also grew up on Cornell BBQ as the chicken marinade of choice, a summer staple whether from the Jenkins grill or one of the many Grange fund raisers my father supported”! Our Danish friend calls it “Honey’s Chicken”, as we called our father Honey and Finn associates grilled chicken with many family gatherings in the yard in Catskill. I took the dry ingredients, bought oil and vinegar in the airport in Hamburg and we grilled chicken at our Bed + kitchen at the Annual Kite Gathering on Fano where he joined us for several days in June!

  16. Jerome McQuie, Class of 1979

    Until I read this article, it had not occurred to me how special Cornell chicken is. I have not had it anything close to it anywhere else in the country and most attempts at BBQ chicken in these parts seem to end up “crispy”, “blackened”, or simply charred. Having spent all of my undergraduate summers in Ithaca, it is in my memory as one of the “smells and tastes of summer”. Living 2000 miles away, I miss it.

  17. Adam Davis, Class of 2016

    I scanned the CCE Information Bulletin 862 and put it online, by far the most downloaded bulletin of all that I added to Cornell’s digital repository. I didn’t realize it wasn’t meant to be a marinade, I marinate and baste mine with Dr. Baker’s delicious recipe.

  18. dale mcd

    Our family uses this sauce but par-boils the chicken pieces and them marinates for a few hours before grilling Very delicious.

  19. Patrick T. Ryan, Class of 1984

    It is a Ryan family tradition to use the Cornell recipe for basting chicken at family barbecues. We cook over a hot bed of seasoned hard maple coals and flip & baste every 10 minutes for 1-3/4 hours. Occasional sprays from a garden hose keep the flare-ups from burning the chicken. Like most folks we have reduced the salt, but have increased the pepper. Hopefully the tradition will be passed down for many more generations!

  20. Ellen Phillips Warsaw, Class of 1988

    I grew up with grandparents who were Ithaca/Newfield grown and Cornellians as well. Every summer, our family gathered and there was Cornell Chicken. I called it Bea’s Chicken, after my grandmother. When I was a Cornell student myself, I switched to the usual name!

  21. Cuyle Rockwell, Class of 1979

    My first chicken memory dates back to the early 60s. I was just a young boy, standing with my mouth agape as my grandfather and his brothers tended hundreds of halves sizzling away at the Methodist Church in Madison. The men were all of dairy stock, short with rolled up sleeves that exposed dark muscled forearms, weathered by hours baling hay and chopping silage. An efficient machine, they worked from one end to the other, flipping racks and basting the birds, then heading back to the beginning to repeat. Sixty years later the tradition continues. Cornell chicken is our staple at every large family gathering -graduations, reunions, even our eldest daughter’s wedding. The process, from setting up the pits to pulling golden brown birds from the racks, is more social than work. My brothers and I laugh, recount tales for the next generation, and critique as we taste test each batch (an essential element of quality control). Friends and neighbors rave over the salty, tangy, smoky flavors that blend seamlessly in each bite. We never tire of their shocked looks when they discover this is no secret family recipe, but rather the very public fruits of a Cornell professor’s labor. Go Big Red!

  22. sewhappy

    I grow up in the area. I always looked forward to summer so we could have Cornell Chicken. I wish I could find a copy of his cookbook.

  23. Mary Grainger, Class of 1979

    The Class of 79 Facebook Group had a big conversation about this story when it first appeared in July. Some had never heard of Cornell Chicken or Bob Baker, and others had positive memories and/or their own traditions centered on it! My personal first experience was during Orientation as a CALS freshman, and I’m making some for my family this week. My brother CALS ’87 wanted to make sure we had some during his daughter’s ’22 graduation weekend, too. PS It was also an honor to get to know Professor Baker well. His legacy goes well beyond the famous bbq!

  24. Lois Fish Irwin, Class of 1974

    The Baker chicken recipe was the key ingredient in the Ithaca High School marching band annual fundraiser, the pits were a permanent fixture at Stewart Park. Since then I’ve proudly prepared “Cornell Chicken” in every state (4) and country (3) where I’ve lived. Go Big Red and Little Red too!!

  25. Dick Beal, Class of 1961

    We built a fireplace in the yard just to cook barbequed chicken .

  26. Doug Bianchi, Class of 1977

    How could you not, Bill? And the best fresh turkey we’ve ever had came from the Turkey Farm back when your Dad was still in charge.

  27. Marilyn Brower Huntley, Class of 1964

    I’ve had this recipe, typed on a 3×5 file card, in my recipe box since I married my Cornell classmate, Allen Huntley, in 1965. It’s the only way I’ll ever make barbecued chicken.

  28. Martin Neenan, Class of 1972

    are you a relative of Bob Dalrymple – class of 72 – my classmate and fraternity brother Mu chapter of Sigma Pi? I am a resident of East Bloomfield – just down the road.

  29. William J Martin, Class of 1975

    William Martin Class of 75 I grew up on Cornell Chicken and had the pleasure to learn from Floyd Mortor (4-H Educator and extension head for St. Lawrence Co.) I was in my early teens in the 60’s when I assisted and learned how to BBQ chicken at Camp Overlook and 4-H Chicken BBQ’s. I have modified the racks to be double sided stainless steel (thank you to NH young farmers) which I spray with oil to avoid sticking. The pivot is in the middle so I can single handedly cook 150 halves. I also use a new denapped paint roller to apply the sauce (thank you Rotary Sunshine Camp)

  30. Edward Pasternak, Class of 1982

    While living in Japan and Korea, Cornell Chicken was a taste of home. Poultry seasoning wasn’t readily available in Asia, so numerous bottles were stuffed into our suitcases on every trip back to the States. When the wonderful smell of our backyard barbeque wafted through the steamy summer air in Tokyo and Seoul, neighbors would stop by to see what was cooking. The pinnacle of our Cornell Chicken diplomacy in Asia was serving this savory treat to the president of a “major Japanese auto manufacturer”, to his thumbs up approval.

  31. Gerald Rehkugler, Class of 1957

    Bob was certainly a creative genius. Beyond Bob Baker’s barbecue sauce he was a staunch supporter of the poultry industry. I was honored to be a co-investigator on some of his projects as a faculty member of CALS Agricultural Engineering Department. I well remember sampling some of his experimental creations as a good lunch break! Coincidentally we both grew up in Wayne County, New York. Miss you Bob!

  32. Peggy Schwartz Chipkin, Class of 1963

    LOVED reading all this! I have never had Cornell chicken but plasn to make it this summer. Thank you!

  33. Kathryn (DeNeef) Ketchum, Class of 1967

    I used it at home for years, and hope to get back to home barbecuing soon.
    Hard to find a barbecue event here in Vermont that uses it, but I keep hoping.

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