Smoked Cornish Hens | Petite Birds, Big Flavors!

July 12, 2023
Written by Kristy J. Norton

Smoked Cornish hens take poultry dishes to a whole new level. These small 1-2-pound chickens are perfect for individual servings. And when marinated in a medley of savory spices, their natural flavors are taken to new heights. To smoke Cornish hens, you slowly cook them over smoky coals or in a smoker until it reaches the safe internal temperature. The Cornish hens, in this process, absorb the sweet essence of the wood, creating an extraordinary symphony of taste.

Since I learned about their low cholesterol levels in cooking school, I've become obsessed with smoked Cornish hens. They're my go-to choice for chicken recipes when I don't have a big crowd to feed. And now, they've become a staple at my poultry cookouts. Today, I'll show you how I do justice to them on my pellet grill.

smoked cornish hens

Smoked Cornish Hen Recipe 

Check out how I make my smoked Cornish game hens. I'm using two Cornish game hens here, which should serve two to four persons at the table. Feel free to adjust your own smoked Cornish game hens recipe according to your serving size.

Ingredients

  • 2 Cornish game hens
  • Olive oil
  • Traeger Original Rub
  • Traeger Spicy Rub
  • Mustard Hot Sauce (or regular mustard)
  • Hawaiian barbecue sauce
Fresh Raw Chicken with Herbs

Procedure 

Step 1: Prepare the Cornish Hens

To make smoked Cornish game hens, I like to start by patting the Cornish hens dry with paper towel. Then, it's spatchcocking time. This is a common procedure for my smoked chicken. That means cutting through the middle and pressing them down to flatten them out. If you're feeling fancy, you can remove the backbone too.

Step 2: Season the First Hen

Now it's time to add some flavor to the first Cornish hen. Take half cup of Da Kine Hawaiian Hot Sauce (or regular mustard) and brush it over the bird. This will act as a binder to hold the seasoning in place. Then, generously sprinkle one tablespoon of Traeger Original Rub and one tablespoon of Traeger Spicy Rub on both sides of the entire Cornish hen. Make sure to really work that dry rub into the meat for maximum flavor.

Step 3: Season the Second Hen

We are moving on to the second hen! Instead of hot sauce, grab a bottle of olive oil and use it as a binder by brushing it all over the bird. Then, season the second Cornish game hen with one tablespoon of the Traeger Original Rub and one tablespoon of the Spicy Rub on both sides. Make sure that the dry rub gets evenly distributed for a tasty result.

Step 4: Marinate the Hens

Now that your hens are seasoned, it's time to let them marinate. You may also otherwise use a brine solution and make them soak up all those delicious flavors. Pop each Cornish hen into a ziplock bag with the marinade or brine solution. Now seal it up, and throw them in the fridge overnight. This gives the seasonings a chance to work their magic. 

Step 5: Preheat the Grill

It's go time! Fire up your Traeger grill and preheat it to 225 degrees Fahrenheit. We want that smoker to be nice and toasty for our hens. For me, Hickory wood pellets go well with this recipe. But you know what they say about taste? It varies from person to person. So, be free to use any of your favorite wood pellets. 

Step 6: Apply Dry Rub

Take the hens out of their ziplock bags and give them a good coating of the remaining rub from the previous day. Make sure to cover every nook and cranny with that tasty seasoning.

Whole Raw Chicken Rubbed with Spices

Step 7: Smoke the Hens

Now comes the fun part-time to smoke those hens! Place Cornish hens on the preheated grill and let them smoke at 225 degrees Fahrenheit for 2 hours. If your grill has a super-smoke setting like the Traeger Ironwood Grill, lucky you! Use it and smoke for one hour. Otherwise, keep on smoking for the entire 2 hours.

Step 8: Apply Barbecue Sauce

Once the smoking time is up, it's time to add some saucy goodness. Grab that Mustard Hot Sauce seasoned Cornish hen and brush on some delicious Hawaiian Barbecue Sauce. As for the other hen, keep it dry rub only; no sauce needed.

Step 9: Increase Temperature

Time to turn up the heat! Increase the grill temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. We're getting the smoked Cornish hens closer to crispy perfection now.

Step 10: Keep Cookin'!

As the hens sizzle away, keep an eye on the internal temperature. Once it reaches around 145 degrees Fahrenheit of internal temperature, start basting the Cornish hen with the barbecue sauce. Let it cook until the internal temperature reaches the USDA-recommended 165 degrees Fahrenheit on a meat thermometer. This is when you can be sure that your poultry is cooked through for safe and delicious eating.

Step 11: Rest and Serve the Smoked Chicken

Take those delicious cooked hens off the pellet smoker and rest for a few minutes. This allows the juices to redistribute, resulting in tender and succulent meat. Now it's time to carve and serve each smoked Cornish hen! 

Now, that's how to smoke Cornish game hens. Enjoy every juicy bite, and if you want a visual guide for smoked Cornish game hens, check out this awesome video:

Do You Cook Cornish Hens With The Breast Side Up or Down?

When smoking Cornish hens, I recommend you cook them with the breast side up. Why, you ask? Well, when you cook Cornish hens breast side up, the heat penetrates the meat evenly. This helps to keep the breast meat moist and tender. Plus, it gives the hens a beautiful presentation when you're ready to serve them.

Now, some folks argue that cooking them breast side down allows the juices to flow into the breast meat, making it even more succulent. While this can be true, it may also result in the skin on the breast side not getting as crispy. Ultimately, the choice is yours, and you can experiment with both methods to see which one you prefer.

If you go with the breast side up, you can continually baste the hens during cooking to ensure they stay moist and flavorful. And if you're looking for extra crispy skin, you can finish them off with a quick blast of high heat or even give them a few minutes under the broiler.

What Really Are Cornish Hens?

When you first heard of "Cornish hens," you probably had this image of some rare breed of chicken that only roamed the hills of Cornwall in England. Huh? Turns out it's not quite like that.

So, what are Cornish hens? Well, they're just dark red and black young chickens, usually about five to six weeks old. These English heritage breeds of broiler chickens are known for their large proportion of lean white meat. Also known as Indian game, they're a smaller version of regular chickens, which makes them perfect for individual servings. 

But don't let the name fool you. They can be either males or females. This means many Cornish hens aren't actually hens!

However, what's unique about these chickens is that they have a texture that is more tender and leaner than regular chickens. 

How About Cornish Game Hens? 

First, these are not actually game birds, despite the name. Instead, they are a small variety of chicken; a crossbreed between Cornish chickens and another type of bird called white rock chicken. This is why they're also called rock Cornish game hens. This cross-breeding would then give the chicken that tender and tasty meat.

The name "Cornish" actually comes from the region in England called Cornwall. The story goes like this: 

Back in the 1950s, a poultry farmer in Connecticut named Jacques Makowsky decided to crossbreed a Cornish chicken with a White Plymouth Rock chicken. The result was a hybrid chicken that grew rapidly and had a lot of meat on its bones. These hybrid chickens were then marketed as "Cornish game hens" to make them sound fancy and sophisticated. And the name stuck!

Cornish game hens are often considered a delicacy and are commonly served individually as a single serving. Due to their small size, they cook quickly and are famous for special occasions or elegant dinners.

Roasted Cornish Game Hen Freshly Taken Out From the Oven

What is Special About Cornish Hens?

Now, you might wonder why someone would choose to cook a Cornish game hen instead of a regular broiler chicken. Well, there are a few reasons.

  • Size: One of the most noticeable things about Cornish game hens is their petite size. These little birds typically weigh around 1 to 2 pounds, which makes them perfect for individual servings. It's like having a mini chicken all to yourself!
  • Tender and Juicy Meat: Despite their small size, Cornish game hens have incredibly juicy, tender, and lean meat. They have no chewy texture that is typical of smoked chicken. Their crossbreeding gives them a succulent texture and a rich, flavorful taste.
  • Versatility: Cornish game hens are incredibly versatile when it comes to cooking. You can roast them, grill them, or even stuff them with your favorite fillings. They lend themselves well to various flavors and cooking techniques, allowing you to get creative in the kitchen.
  • Elegant Presentation: Imagine hosting a gathering, and as your guests sit down at the table, they're greeted with their own perfectly portioned bird on their plate. Cornish game hens bring that wow factor to any meal, making each person feel special and adding a sense of individuality to the occasion. It's all about that impressive presentation that leaves everyone saying, "Wow, I got a whole chicken!"
  • Quick Cooking: Due to their small size, Cornish game hens cook up relatively quickly compared to larger poultry. You don't have to wait hours for them to be done. Remember I said they're tender and juicy? This makes them a convenient option when you're short on time but still want a delicious and satisfying meal.
  • Impressive Flavors: Cornish game hens have a natural flavor that is both delicate and distinctive. Their meat absorbs marinades and seasonings exceptionally well, allowing you to enhance their taste with various herbs, spices, and sauces.

Conclusion 

Smoked Cornish hens are more than just a meal – they're an experience that adds a touch of sophistication to any dining occasion. With their individual portion sizes, they help me create an elegant presentation that surely impresses my guests. But it's not just about looks – smoked Cornish hens deliver on taste too. Their tender, juicy meat and rich flavor are a delight to the smell and taste senses. Whether you stuff these small chickens with your favorite ingredients or season them to perfection, Cornish game hens offer a culinary adventure that will satisfy even the most discerning palate.

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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