The American Rock Hen, otherwise known as “Game Hen” or “Cornish Hen,” is an exotic domestic bird, originally crossbred in the far northeast farmlands of Connecticut during the mid-1950’s. These fine feathered fowl are often mistaken as “wild game” or young chickens, but are a distinct farm-raised breed and unique for three reasons – 1. The breast meat is incrementally greater in volume as compared to similar-sized broiler chickens, 2. In 5 weeks these birds will attain adult weight (between 2-3 pounds) and fully prepared for harvest nearly 2 weeks sooner than their broiler chicken counterparts, and 3. their sweet, succulent meat demands a premium in price per pound.
Less than 30 years ago, these birds were considered an American delicacy, served only upon special occasion, but today can be found in farmer’s markets from coast to coast. These birds are not only phenomenal in flavor due to their grass and grain diet, but a perfect single-serving substitution for turkey, chicken, pheasant or duck.
Prepared and served whole, the smoked Cornish Hen recipe below provides the step-by-step guide and best practices to brining, seasoning, smoking and basting Cornish Rock Hen to tender, juicy, mouthwatering perfection
Herb-encrusted and Smoked Cornish Hens with Southern Cornbread Stuffing
- 16 cups water
- 2 12 oz cans of beer or non-alcoholic beer
- 2 cup kosher salt
- 1 1/2 cups brown sugar
- Fresh sprigs of rosemary sage and thyme, plus additional for stuffing and garnish
- 6 1-2 pound whole Cornish hens thawed, trimmed and giblets removed
- 1 stick of cold butter sliced into 12 equal parts
- Olive oil plus additional for basting
- 1 cup Italian seasoning
- 3 tablespoon garlic powder
- Kosher salt and fresh ground black peppercorn to taste
- Zest of 3 small lemons lemons then quartered
- Cornbread stuffing fully prepared
- 4 cups apple wood or your favorite alternate hardwood
- In a large pot bring water, salt and sugar to a boil. Once rolling boil achieved, remove from burner, toss in a few handfuls of herbs, and allow the water to cool entirely (to room temperature). Pour in 2 cans of beer, immerse hens, cover and refrigerate for 8-24 hours.
- Remove hens from brine, rinse under cold water and pat dry with paper towel. Discard brine. Place hens back in the refrigerator for 1 hour, uncovered, to further dry and tighten the skin. 45 minutes prior to smoking, remove birds from refrigerator to begin returning to room temperature. Gently slide a finger between the breast meat and adjoining skin, then slide a slab of cold butter under the loosened skin – 2 slabs of butter per hen, 1 over each breast. Drizzle the hens with olive oil inside and out, then massage a liberal degree of Italian seasoning, garlic powder, salt, peppercorn, and 1/6 of the lemon zest into all portions of each bird. Stuff posterior of the bird with prepared cornbread stuffing. Insert a quartered lemon and small handful of fresh herb sprigs into the upper end of the hen’s cavity.
- Preheat the smoker 20-30 minutes before your cook by loading smoker with wood chips, filling the water pan and dialing the temperature to 275F.
- Place the hens evenly across the smoker racks – balancing the bird upon it’s backbone. Slowly roast for 2 hours, lightly basting every 30 minutes with olive oil, or until the internal temperature of the dark thigh meat reaches 162F and juices run clear.
- Carefully remove hens from the smoker and transfer to a cutting board. Tent with tin foil and rest for 10 minutes before discarding the lemon and herbs. Carve, season additionally to taste, and serve.