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This is one of those easy dinners that looks extravagant, but really it’s a super simple recipe. I’ve included a cumin-lime vinaigrette marinade, but if you’re running short on time, you can use store-bought marinade, too.
What is a Cornish hen?
According to the North American Meat Institute, Cornish hens are actually chickens.
Unlike the 4-7-pound whole chicken you’re familiar with in the butcher aisle of your grocery store, cornish hens are a special, smaller breed. They are processed at a younger age and usually weigh between 1-2 pounds.
While you may see them labeled as Cornish game hens, they’re not actually game birds like quail, pheasant or squab. They are farmed like chickens, but bred for a smaller final product.
Most often, Cornish hens can be found in the freezer section at your market. They’re usually come in packs of two and only take 1-2 days to thaw in the refrigerator.
Like all chickens, they contain two legs and thighs, which are dark meat, and two breasts and wings, which are white meat.
Why would you grill Cornish hens instead of larger chicken?
Because of their petite size, Cornish hens make for a unique, individual-sized presentation.
They also cook more quickly and have a slightly sweeter and more tender flavor and texture. Their small size also allows them to absorb marinade more quickly.
- Cornish Hens: Look for these in the freezer section of your local grocery store. They usually come in 2 packs.
- Olive Oil: This serves as the base of the vinaigrette.
- White Wine Vinegar: When making the cumin vinaigrette for this recipe, I use white wine vinegar. See the notes below for other options.
- Sugar: Every vinaigrette needs something sweet to balance the acid. This recipe uses granulated white sugar.
- Garlic: Fresh cloves are best, but garlic powder or granulated garlic can also be used.
- Kosher Salt: I prefer to grill with kosher salt. If you only have table salt, use half as much.
- Worcestershire Sauce: This helps brown the hen skin as it’s cooking.
- Cumin: Ground cumin is an earthy spice often used in Latin cooking.
- Limes: The juice of two limes adds sweetness and acid.
Substitutions: This recipe is extremely versatile. You can swap out the white wine vinegar with apple cider vinegar or red wine vinegar and the lime juice for lemon juice or orange juice. You can also change the cumin and use lemon pepper or fresh or dried herbs.
How to cook Cornish hens on the grill
This recipe can be cooked on a gas grill, charcoal grill, pellet grill or Ninja grill. You will need to heat your grill to 375-400F degrees with an indirect heat zone.
Gas Grill: Turn 1-2 burners to medium heat and leave one burner off. You will cook the food over the section that’s turned off. While the lid is closed, adjust the other burners until the grill’s temperature probe registers at 375-400F degrees. Then, you can add the hens.
Charcoal Grill: Heat your coals and push them to one side of the grill. Add the lid and adjust the vents until the grill’s temperature probe registers to 375-400F degrees. The food will be added to the side of the grill without coals. If you’re using a ceramic cooker or drum smoker, you can place the coals in the bottom and use the deflector plate to block the direct heat.
Pellet Grill: Pellet grills are automatically setup to cook with an indirect heat zone, so you’ll just need to set the temperature to 375F degrees. Pecan and hickory pellets taste great with Cornish hens.
Ninja Woodfire Grill: If using a Ninja Woodfire Grill, it’s better to use the smoker function instead of the grill function. The grill setting cooks with direct heat from the bottom. The smoker function uses indirect heat. So set the function to smoker and the temperature to 375F. You can add pellets, if you want to add woodfire flavor.
- STEP ONE: In a small bowl, mix the vinaigrette and set 1/4 cup aside. The majority will be used for marinating the Cornish hens, while the amount you set aside will be used for basting the birds as they’re cooking.
- STEP TWO: Remove the thawed Cornish hens from their packaging and pat dry with a paper towel. Place hens in a zip-top bag. Add 3/4 cup of the vinaigrette to the bag. Seal it, removing as much air as possible, and massage the birds so they absorb the marinade. Refrigerate for 4-8 hours.
- STEP THREE: Remove the hens from the marinade and place the whole bird on a preheated grill over indirect heat. Cook them for about 30 minutes, rotating (not flipping) occasionally.
Rotating them a quarter turn every 10 minutes will help them brown evenly.
- STEP FOUR: After about 30 minutes, start basting them with the 1/4-cup of vinaigrette that you set aside. Continue grilling the hens for about 15 minutes, or until they’re golden brown and the internal temperature reaches 165F degrees.
PRO TIP: When checking the internal temperature of poultry, place your instant-read thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh without touching the bone.
How to serve grilled Cornish hens
Once the hens are golden brown, remove them from the grill and place them on a platter. Garnish with fresh herbs for a pretty presentation. Serve them whole or cut them in half and serve with a couple side dishes like Grilled Carrots or Grilled Acorn Squash Rings.
Just like a rotisserie or Grilled Whole Chicken, you can pull any remaining meat from the bones and store it in the refrigerator for up to five days. You can also freeze the meat in an airtight container for up to six months.
If you save the meat in small baggies, it makes for a great quick protein snack. You can also use the leftovers in grilled quiche, tacos or on a sandwich or wrap.
GCG Pro Pitmaster Tips
- Make the cumin vinaigrette marinade and set 1/4 cup aside for basting
- Marinate the hens for at least four hours
- Grill over indirect heat so the hens don’t burn
- Baste with vinaigrette at the end to help crisp up the skin and add color
Frequently Asked Questions
If you cook over indirect heat at 375-400F degrees, it will take about 45 minutes for Cornish hens to reach an internal temperature of 165F degrees. Use a meat thermometer to check for doneness.
Absolutely. You can cook these on any grill. Just set the temperature of your grill to 375F degrees, using pecan or hickory pellets.
It depends on what else you’re serving. If you have a couple of sides, like Savory Rainbow Sweet Potatoes Au Gratin or Grilled Wild Rice Kale Salad, plan on splitting one Cornish hen between 2 people. If you’re only serving a light side salad, each person may want to eat one.
Cornish hens are little chickens. They are a specific breed of chicken that is processed at a younger age, so they are smaller. Other than that, the calories, fat and protein values are the same. The only advantage of eating the Cornish hens from a nutritional standpoint is that because they are little birds, they have less skin, which is where most of the fat value comes from on a chicken.
Just like any bird, you can spatchcock a Cornish hen to speed up the grilling process. To do this, use a set of kitchen shears to cut out and remove the backbone. You will need to cut along the sides of the backbone to remove it. Then, place the cut side down and press down with the heel of your hand to flatten the bird. Place it on the grill skin side up. It will take less time, so keep an eye on it.
What to serve with Grilled Cornish Hens
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Grilled Cornish Hens
- 2 Cornish hens, thawed
Cumin Lime Vinaigrette
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
- 4 tsp sugar
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 2 limes
- Make Vinaigrette: In a small bowl, combine the oil, vinegar, sugar, garlic, salt, Worcestershire sauce, cumin and juice of 2 limes.
- Marinate: Remove the hens from the packaging. Place in a zip-top bag. Add 3/4 cup of the vinaigrette. Seal the bag, removing as much air as possible. Massage the vinaigrette into the hens. Marinate in the refrigerator for 4-8 hours, flipping at least once.
- Grill: Heat grill to 375-400F degrees with an indirect heat zone (see above). Remove the hens from the marinade. Place on the grill over indirect heat and grill for 30 minutes, rotating (not flipping) occasionally.
- Baste: After 30 minutes, baste with the marinade that you set aside and continue cooking for about 15 minutes, or until the internal temperature registers at 165F degrees.
- Rest: Remove from the grill and rest for 10-15 minutes before serving.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.