Cornish hens may be small in size, but they're big on flavor when prepared properly. Small enough to serve each hen as an individual portion, Cornish hens are essentially petite chickens, and can be prepared in much the same way, albeit with shorter cooking times. The hens are ideal when roasted quickly to perfection in the oven, or butterflied and tossed onto a hot grill, ensuring a smoky, grilled flavor in every bite.
Things You'll Need
Additional seasonings, optional
Preheat the oven to between 425 and 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Take refrigerated Cornish hens out of the refrigerator about an hour before you plan to cook them so they can come to room temperature.
Pat dry the Cornish hens to remove excess moisture, then rub lightly with olive oil. Season the skin, as well as the inside cavity, generously with salt and pepper. You can also season the bird with any additional spices you prefer.
Loosen the skin on the breast carefully to push a few herb sprigs and a few pats of butter underneath the skin to give the hens more flavor. Stuff lemon wedges and more herb sprigs inside the cavity as well.
Place the Cornish hens, breast side up, on a large, rimmed baking sheet, or in a large skillet. Put the hens in the oven to cook for about 25 to 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 F.
Cook the Cornish hens at the reduced temperature until a meat thermometer inserted in the breast reads 165 F, the required temperature for safe poultry consumption, according to FoodSafety.gov. The hens should be golden brown on the outside and the juices running clear. A 1- to 2-pound hen should take roughly another 20 minutes to finish in the oven.
Place Cornish hens, breast side down, on a cutting board. Cut along both sides of the backbone on each hen, using kitchen shears, to remove it. Flip the birds over and press down firmly on the breasts of each hen to flatten it out, so that hens look like an open book, with legs and wings splayed out on both sides.
Remove excess moisture from the Cornish hens with a paper towel. Rub both sides of the butterflied hens with olive oil, then season to your liking with salt and pepper, as well as any additional spices and aromatics you prefer.
Brush your grill grates with oil and add fresh coals to a grill. Light the grill and bring the coals to a medium-high heat. If you are using a gas grill, turn the burners on high to preheat and close the lid. After about 15 minutes, reduce the heat to a medium-high temperature, about 400 F.
Add the Cornish hens to the grill, open side down. Use a brick wrapped in foil, or other similar object, to keep the hens flat on the grill for even cooking. Cook the hens for about 5 to 10 minutes, then flip them over and cook on the other side for the same amount of time, with the lid closed. Brush the hens with barbecue sauce or another basting sauce before flipping, if you like.
Use a meat thermometer inserted into the breasts to ensure the birds have reached at least 165 F. If not, continue cooking -- flipping as needed, or reducing the flames to avoid burning the skins -- until the proper internal temperature is reached. Serve hot.
Use a sharp chef's knife to remove the backbone if you don't have kitchen shears. Save the backbones to use to make a stock.
Optional seasonings and flavorings you can use on your Cornish hen include smashed garlic, chili powder, onion powder, cayenne pepper, cumin, lemon juice, ginger and soy sauce.
Be very careful when slipping herbs and butter underneath the skin, as Cornish hens have thinner skins than full-size chickens, and the skin can tear easily.