Grilled Cornish Game Hens

Please welcome Hank Shaw as he shares his favorite way of preparing cornish game hens, grilled! Absolutely delicious. ~Elise

Cornish game hens. Almost everyone has seen them at some point, either sitting next to the chicken at the meat counter or hiding in the freezer section like little poultry-shaped hand grenades. They kinda-sorta look like chickens, but are they? Despite their name, Cornish hens are not a game bird — although they are, more or less, the size of a partridge. No, they are merely young birds (about five weeks old) from a small breed of chicken. Disappointed that they aren’t actually something exotic? I was, too, until I began eating them, many years ago.

Think of Cornish hens as single-serving chickens, which is precisely the reason the breed was created back in the 1950s. And since they are so young and tender, Cornish hens are perfect for the grill. They cook pretty quick as it is, but the birds will cook even faster if you spatchcock them. Yes, I know. Spatchcocking sounds like some medieval torture, but it’s really just a simple way to flatten a bird well enough so that it gets great contact with the grill so it cooks faster.

Once you’ve spatchcocked your hens (this method, by the way, works with any bird), you can grill them as-is, or grill them al mattone, which is Italian for “with a brick.” And yes, that is exactly what you do. Wrap bricks in foil and lay them on the hens and you will get even better contact with the heat, the birds will cook more evenly — and you’ll be eating them faster.

I don’t like to mess with birds grilled this way. Sure, you can marinate them in something, but I prefer my hens flavored by nothing more than fire, salt, pepper and maybe a squeeze of lemon.

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Grilled Cornish Game Hens Recipe

  • Prep time: 40 minutes
  • Cook time: 25 minutes
  • Yield: Serves 4-6.

It's handy to have a spray bottle with some water in it while you are grilling to douse any flare-ups on the grill.

Ingredients

  • 4 game hens
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and black pepper
  • Lemon wedges (optional)

Special equipment needed: Bricks, one per hen, wrapped in foil (optional)

Method

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1 To grill the hens evenly, you will want to flatten the birds in a method called spatchcocking. To do this, start by trimming off any excess fat and the wingtips from the game hens. Turn the birds over and use kitchen shears to cut out their backbones. Use your hands to flatten the birds. You can stop here, but I like to cut out the ribs and the saber bone — essentially the hen's shoulder blade — to make the hens easier to eat.

2 Pat the hens dry with paper towels, then coat them with the olive oil. Salt well and set aside for 15-30 minutes; the hens will cook better if they are at room temperature.

3 While the hens are coming to room temperature, get your grill hot. Make sure the grates are clean. Just before you put the birds on the grill, soak a paper towel in some oil and use tongs to wipe down the grill grates. Place the hens down on the grill breast side up (open side down). Watch them: Chances are they will want to arc upward, which you don't want. You want the hens to have good, solid contact with the grill. If they arc, place a foil-wrapped brick on the hen. Grill this way for 10 minutes with the grill cover open. If you don't have bricks handy, either find some other similar weight (I've used foil-wrapped river rocks), or just squash the birds down on the grill with tongs or a spatula.

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4 After 10 minutes, flip the birds and place the bricks on them again, if using. Grill for 5 minutes, or until the skin on the birds is nice and browned. Turn the birds back over and cook to your liking breast side up — you shouldn't need the bricks anymore. Depending on the heat of your grill, you may not need much more time, but on cool-ish grills this final step can take as much as another 10-15 minutes depending on how done you like your hens.

5 Move the hens off the grill and grind some black pepper over them. Let the birds rest for 5-10 minutes before serving. Serve with lemon wedges on the side.

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Links:

Drunken Game Hens, from Poor Girl Eats Well

Smoked Soy-Honey-Rum Cornish Hens, from She Simmers

Game Hens with Caprese Salad, from Guilty Kitchen

Grilled Cornish Game Hen on Simply Recipes

16 Comments

  1. Jolene (www.everydayfoodie.ca)

    I want to try cornish hens!! I think I had them as a kid, but I can’t remember what they tasted like.

  2. Wendell Smith

    I haven’t cooked any Cornish Hens in years, maybe as many as 25+. Think I’ll give them a try soon. That, Wild Rice mix and something else and we should have a tasty meal..

  3. Paul

    When I use this method I like to lay the hens on some fresh herbs, like tarragon or rosemary, when they’re grilling.

  4. Daphne

    For whatever reasons these were rather frequently served at the dining hall of Woodward Court at the University of Chicago when I was a student. As the Woodward Court (which I believe has since been torn down) was directly across the street from the Rockefeller Chapel (which looks way more like a cathedral than a chapel), the Rock Cornish Game hens were affectionately known as “Rockefeller Pigeons”.

  5. Keith

    We raise these birds and they are so tender and juicy! I want to try cooking them with the spatchcock method — it looks delicious!

  6. Stacy

    What temperature should be used for the grill?

  7. Donna

    Will a butcher spatchcock for me? The thought of doing it myself makes me want to die.

    • Hank Shaw

      They will most likely be willing to cut the backbones out, but they won’t remove the ribs and saber bone, unless they are really nice people…

  8. Tim Griffin

    I prep my birds same way! Cut backbone out, salt, black pepper, butter flavor PAM! Or similar. But I use Apple wood chips for smokey flavor! Weber charcoal kettle grill, Indirect heat! “Coals on the sides”! Pan of water in the middle! Put on grill over the pan of water, breast side down, add soaked Apple wood chips to coals, wait 30 mins! Flip it over, add more wood chips! 30 mins later! Best chicken I’ve ever ate! And Beautiful I might add! I would take a pic! But don’t own a camera!

  9. David

    I’ve never tried cutting them before grilling. Perhaps I’ll try that the next time I grill the little birds. I leave them whole, basted with butter and add a little salt and pepper. I use the indirect cooking method on a gas grill. I preheat on high for 10 minutes with all burners on then turn off the center burner and reduce the the heat to medium. Place the hens over burner that is off, close the lid, for about 1 hour 15 minutes. I keep the temperature at 350° according to the thermometer on the grill cover. It will show hotter at first but the temp goes down in a few minutes.

  10. mome

    can you take the skin off before grilling?

    • Elise

      Not a good idea. The skin protects the game hen from drying out on the grill, in addition to providing flavor. I recommend removing the skin after the game hen has cooked, not before, if you do not want to eat the skin.

  11. Susann

    Great receipe! Added a little basil, thyme and rosemary. my husband grilled them following your direcions. Perfect!!!! i was going topin it on pinterest, but read the note at the bottom saying not to use your pictures. so i’ deleted it. Thanks for sharing!

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