Learn how to cook the perfect bird with our smoked Cornish hen recipe. An underrated cut of meat, but one of the best smoker recipes!
Most people might smoke Cornish hens as part of their Christmas or Thanksgiving BBQ meal, but I like to smoke these year-round.
These hens are prepared with a good brine to help lock in a robust flavor, before being smoked for hours low and slow to help it reach that delicious tender and juicy flavor we always aim for. Just like with smoked pheasant, we treat this bird a lot like chicken when smoking, and also with our meat preparation.
What is a Cornish hen?
You’d be forgiven for confusing Cornish hens with chicken, but there is a distinct difference between the two. Cornish hens are defined as chickens younger than five weeks old. This makes their weight around the 1-2 pounds region.
This small size makes them quicker to cook than regular adult chickens, as well as more tender once they’re smoked.
How long to smoke Cornish hens for?
Ultimately the length of time that you smoke your hen for will be determined by its internal temperature.
The temperature you want to aim for is 165°F (75°C). It’s important to get this temperature right so if you don’t have a digital meat probe then I strongly recommend you get one. Something like the Maverick ET-733 is great for reading accurately, and can be used remotely so that you’re able to monitor the progress of your meat continuously.
Thanks to their small size, Cornish hens take far less time to cook than chickens or turkeys.
If you smoke at 225°F for 45 minutes per pound of meat, then you should have no problem cooking to this target internal temperature. In most cases this will take 90-120 minutes.
What’s the best wood for smoking Cornish hens?
A lot of the best woods for hens will be the same as for smoking chicken. You can go one of two ways. You can either go for something slightly fruity to give your bird a note of sweetness to it, or you can use something more mild and deeper in flavor.
If you go sweet then I recommend apple wood. It has a sweet flair that’s more subtle and mellow than other fruit woods (e.g. cherry, maple, pecan). This makes it a crowd pleaser, and should match well with your BBQ rub.
Recommended Apple wood: Weber Wood Apple Chips
Anything by Weber is always worth trying, and these apple wood chunks don’t disappoint.
If you don’t want a fruit wood, then try a touch of hickory. Hickory isn’t as profound in taste as mesquite, but still has a robust flavor that can give your poultry a great nuance in flavor. Just be careful and only use a little, as it can be easy to use too much and overpower your meat with an overwhelmingly bitter taste.
Recommended Hickory: Weber Hickory Wood Chunks
These wood chips from Weber pack in a lot of flavor, and are great if mixed with a little apple wood to help dilute their impact a bit.
How to clean Cornish hens
Allow the hens to thaw, either in the refrigerator overnight or at room temperature during the day. Ensure that it is completely thawed out, with the gizzards removed, before cooking so that it can smoke thoroughly.
Place the hens in a large bowl, and place the bowl in your kitchen sink. Cover the hens with basic table salt. This acts as an abrasive, which will help us clean the bird. It won’t flavor the bird because we’ll rinse it off afterward. Pour apple cider vinegar over the hens.
Rub the hens with your hands, working the vinegar and salt into the meat of the bird. If you discover any lumps of fat, pull them away. Continue to rub all over the bird, pulling away any fat or leftover feathers that you come across.
Pour cold tap water over to rinse away the leftover fat, apple cider vinegar, and salt. Ensure you rinse the inside of the birds as well.
How to prepare Cornish hens for smoking
As you’d expect, the way to prepare this bird isn’t too dissimilar to chicken. It’s also fairly easy to get right.
I always start things off with a good old fashioned brine for my birds. I know some people skip this step, but I urge you to follow through with it.
It’s the best way to ensure that we end up with a juicy and tender cut of meat, and since we’re going to be smoking for up to about 12 hours, it’s important that we lock in as much moisture as possible.
If you have bought your hens frozen, then make sure to transfer them to the refrigerator one or two days before you intend to use them. You should never brine or cook directly from frozen.
If you need to defrost them quickly, then I have an emergency guide to defrosting chicken quickly here.
How to brine Cornish hens
Like with a lot of poultry, you have a lot of room here to experiment, but for the purposes of this recipe I’ve just laid out a fairly standard brine that’s similar to my chicken wing brine.
I’ve seen plenty of more colorful brine recipes with ingredients like whiskey or apple juice, so don’t be afraid to experiment here!
Basic brine ingredients
- ½ gallon cold water
- ½ cup kosher/coarse salt
- ½ cup brown sugar
That’s it. All you need to do is combine the ingredients in a gallon pitcher, and stir in the salt and sugar until both have dissolved.
You might have noticed that the brine makes half a gallon, while the pitcher accommodates a full gallon. Well that’s because we need room for our hens.
If you are cooking more than a couple of hens then you’ll want a larger container, or to create double the brine and split the mixture between two one-gallon containers.
Rinse the hens under cold water before transferring to the gallon container. Drop them in slowly so you don’t create a splash. Pour any remaining brine over them, and aim to cover the birds as much as possible.
Transfer containers to your refrigerator and leave to brine. I tend to leave these overnight. Some people only do it for a couple of hours, some for 18 hours. I sit somewhere in the middle. For me this is enough time to let the brine do its thing and enrich the flesh with flavor, without overpowering it.
Once they’re done, remove the birds from the brine solution and wash under cold water. Pat down with paper towel to dry them off.
Pro tip: If you want the skin on your hens to have more crisp, then you will need to dry the skin even more. To do this, place the birds in your refrigerator and place folded paper towels along the skin. Leave for a couple of hours. This should allow the towels to absorb more moisture from underneath the skin, and create crispy skin as it smokes.
How to season Cornish hens
We’re almost ready to go. One final step I like to go through is applying a little bit of BBQ to the surface of the birds.
Again, applying a rub isn’t something that all people do but I find that doing so adds a little bit of brie and flavor, and can help develop a little bit of crisp to the skin.
I have a homemade rub that I love using for chicken. It’s a combination of:
Homemade BBQ rub ingredients
- 2 tbsp paprika
- 1 tbsp thyme
- 2 tbsp chili powder
- 2 tbsp cayenne pepper
- 1 tbsp garlic powder
- 1 tbsp onion powder
- 1 tbsp kosher/table salt
- 2 tbsp black pepper
If you’re uneasy about having spices like cayenne or paprika in there, then there are some great store bought options out there too. Check them out here.
How to smoke Cornish hen
Now we’re finally ready to get going! Start up your smoker, and set it to a cooking temperature of 225°F (107°C). This is a standard temperature that we aim for with most meat smoking, and Cornish hens are no different.
If you’re using a grill to do this then make sure that you set up your grill for 2-zone cooking and indirect grilling by placing your coals to one side and setting your hens to the other.
Once your grill surface temperature has reached 225°F then we’re ready to go.
Cook until the internal temperature of your birds has reached 165°F (74°C). I recommend taking the measurement in both the breast and thigh portions of each bird to get the most accurate read.