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These gorgeous cornish hens, soaked in a fall scented brine, slathered in savory herbs and butter then stuffed with apples and garlic, are full of flavor and beautiful additions to your holiday table.
This post is in partnership with The Spice Hunter. Check out The Spice Hunter at https://www.spicehunter.com/ and follow them on their social media:
My mama would make Cornish hens for the holidays every year. Tiny, adorable little birds that smelled of sage and rosemary...that sometimes came out perfectly, sometimes not (but you better not tell her I said that!). As a recipe developer, I realized why it was never consistent when I started testing another finicky, lean holiday bird: the turkey.
Once I found my go-to, foolproof way to make turkey juicy and flavorful every time, I knew I could do it with the holiday bird of my childhood. And you know what? I was right! This technique of brining, drying out, stuffing with aromatics, and brushing with herb-infused clarified butter made the best Cornish hens I have ever eaten.
Find all The Spice Hunter ingredients used here:
What are Cornish Hens?
Cornish hens are tender, young birds that must weigh under two pounds, most are just above one pound. Cornish hens used to be called Cornish game hens but they are not game (or wild) birds; they're in fact a cross breed between the American Cornish chicken and the American White Plymouth Rock chicken.
Another thing, they're not all hens either. Male chickens are also harvested for their meat at a young age. Cornish hens have a large proportion of breast meat compared to its size and the meat is tender and as flavorful as a broiler or roaster chicken.
Why We Brine Them
If you've followed me for a while, you know I'm a huge proponent of brining poultry. The reason we brine these Cornish hens is that they are lean and mostly made of white meat. In other words, they can dry out easily if they're not given extra juiciness from a brine.
Because these are our holiday entrees, a brine with holiday flavors is perfect. I used The Spice Hunter Original Turkey Brine, which is full of herbs, chunks of dried cranberries and apples, different spices, and it even has a bag to brine your birds in and a time table on the back of the bag for different types of birds, including Cornish hens.
I brined the chickens for about 4 hours in their turkey brine, then rinsed them off under cool water. The next step: an overnight chill in the fridge.
The trick to the crispiest skin
Want to know the secret to absolutely gorgeous, consistently mind-blowingly crispy skin on your Cornish hens? Dry them out! Place them on a wire rack on top of a baking sheet and pat them dry, then place those babies uncovered in the fridge overnight.
This chill will give the skin plenty of time to lose its moisture from within, rather than just patting the surface dry and moisture resurfacing a few minutes later. If you don't have overnight to dry them out, give them at least an hour to chill out.
The Secret to Golden Brown Skin and Real Flavor
While recipe testing, I'll let you in on a secret: I ended up with a seriously pale hen. The meat was cooked through, succulent and juicy, but the skin was not crispy and had absolutely no color! Considering each tiny birdy is your guests' own little plate centerpiece, this was not what I wanted to serve anyone for dinner.
So what was the problem? Besides not drying out the skin, I also basted the bird in regular ole butter with herbs. Delicious? Yes. Problematic? Also, yes.
Caramelization causes sweet foods to turn brown, but savory foods become golden brown because of something called the maillard reaction. The Maillard Reaction doesn't just change the color of the food, but also the flavor.
It's a chemical, non-pyrolytic reaction (meaning it does not involve the thermal decomposition of the materials in the food) between the amino acids and reducing natural sugar molecules in the food, in this case, the Cornish hens. The molecules become poorly formed, which causes the skin to brown and those delicious flavors and smells to develop.
Gotta love science.
Anyway, all that was to say that the butter had too much water in it! You see, when water gets into the mix the Maillard reaction doesn't have enough dry heat to work; instead, the skin steams. But we want that delicious butter flavor and we want a great vehicle for all of our delicious herbs.
The best thing to do is make clarified butter, which is when the water is evaporated from the butter and the solids are skimmed out. Is it difficult? Not at all; simply simmer a stick of unsalted butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat, let the water evaporate, and then skim the foam off the top. Takes about 8-10 minutes.
I love doing this with the herbs infusing flavor into the butter while it clarifies, it really makes a huge difference in the herbaceous flavor of your Cornish hen.
I also had room temperature butter that I mixed with The Spice Hunter Dalmatian Rubbed Sage, Rosemary, Thyme, Poultry Seasoning, and Oregano. These are all dried herbs.
Poultry Seasoning has a mix of other herbs like marjoram and savory that aren't often found in your local store but are amazing on chicken and turkey. And it's just not the holiday season without a bird covered in herb butter. This mix was put under the skin generously, and I do mean generously. I used 1 stick per two birds, which kept the chicken breast meat basted and flavorful.
How to Roast Cornish Hen
We've talked brining for up to 4 hours, we've dried out the skin, and we've stuffed herb butter under the skin and made an herb-infused clarified butter. What's next?
Because the brine had apples in it, I stuffed the hens with a quarter of an apple and half a head of garlic. The cavities are so small that was all that fit, but the apple brought a sweet flavor to balance the savoriness of all the herbs and the head of garlic.
I also seasoned the cavity with salt, pepper, and poultry seasoning from The Spice Hunter. Remember to season every part of the bird, we want flavor from every aspect of the dish, the inner cavity is no exception.
Truss the legs with butcher's twine, pat the skin with a paper towel to make sure any moisture isn't hiding on the skin, then brush it generously with the clarified butter. Get every nook and cranny and make sure to leave some for basting halfway through cooking.
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees F and make sure you have had the birds out of the fridge for at least 30 minutes before roasting. Cold meat will make it roast unevenly, so taking the chill off and letting the bird warm up a bit on your counter before hitting the hot oven will make sure it's cooked all the way through without having to dry out the more surface meat or burning the skin.
Roast the birds on a wire rack in a baking dish, this lets the heat and air circulate, making the skin crispy all around. After 25 minutes, turn the temperature down to 375 degrees F.
Pro Tip: When the 25-minute mark ends, baste the Cornish hens with more clarified butter then turn the pan around 180 degrees. I do this when I know I have one side that is hotter than the other side of the oven, which is pretty common!
Roast the hens for about 60 minutes total, then let them rest on your countertop for about 10 minutes so the juices can redistribute throughout the meat. If you cut it right after pulling the chickens out of the oven, the juices will flood right out onto your cutting surface and your meat will be drier than Georgia heat in August. Or Texas heat in July. With a broken air conditioner.
What to Serve
I love serving the Cornish hens whole for holidays like Christmas, Easter, or Thanksgiving...basically the holidays where we are chowing down heavily. One whole bird is more than enough to fill anyone's belly. And who doesn't love being served their own personal mini bird?!
But for a special weekend dinner or birthday, half a Cornish hen is a great serving (with the option for more!).
You can serve Cornish Hens with anything you'd serve a chicken or turkey. These are a few of my favorite sides.
- Creamy Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes
- Slow-Cooked Authentic Southern Green Beans
- Sister Schubert's Parker House Yeast Rolls Copycat
- Strawberry Spinach Salad (this one is my favorite for an Easter side!)
- Lemon Garlic Sautéed Asparagus
Love Holiday Dishes? Check out:
- Coconut Shrimp and Dipping Sauce
- Classic Roast Thanksgiving Turkey
- Cast Iron Skillet Cornbread
- Garlic Butter Mushrooms
- Sweet Potato Casserole with Brown Sugar Topping
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- 4 Cornish Hens, thawed if frozen
- The Spice Hunter Original Turkey Brine
- 2 tsp The Spice Hunter Poultry Seasoning
- 1 medium apple, quartered
- 2 garlic heads, cut horizontally
- 2 sticks (16 tbsp) unsalted butter
- 2 tsp each of:
- The Spice Hunter Rosemary
- The Spice Hunter Thyme
- The Spice Hunter Oregano
- 1 tsp The Spice Hunter Dalmatian Rubbed Sage
- 1 tbsp The Spice Hunter Poultry Seasoning
Herb Butter Mix for Under Skin
- 2 sticks (16 tbsp) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 tsp each of:
- The Spice Hunter Thyme
- The Spice Hunter Oregano
- The Spice Hunter Dalmatian Rubbed Sage
- The Spice Hunter Poultry Seasoning
- Create brine by following directions on the bag and letting the mixture cool before adding in your Cornish hens. The Spice Hunter has a bag that comes with the brine but brining in large bowls is an option. Brine for no more than 4 hours.
- While the hens are brining, create the clarified butter by melting the two sticks (16 tbsp) of unsalted butter over medium-low heat with all the herbs in a medium-sized saucepan. It will begin steaming (releasing the water) and foam will come to the top after about 4 minutes.
- Skim the solids off of the top and continue to let the butter cook until the butter is no longer bubbling and steaming. Pour the butter and herbs into a heat-safe container and leave at room temperature.
- For the butter mix that will be going under the skin of your Cornish hens, use a fork to mix the butter and herbs in a medium-sized bowl and keep them at room temperature until needed.
- Take the hens out of the brine and rinse them well under cool water, then pat them as dry as possible. Place them on a wire rack on a baking sheet and season the cavities with ½ tsp kosher salt, freshly cracked black pepper and ½ tsp poultry seasoning per bird. Let the hens rest uncovered in your fridge for at least 1 hour to overnight to dry out the skin.
- After you have chilled the hens to dry out the skin, take them out of the fridge to come to room temperature for at least 30 minutes and up to one hour. Yes, this is completely safe.
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
- Stuff the birds with one apple quarter and half a head of garlic.
- Gently lift the skin from the breast meat using your fingers to create pockets where you can gently press the room temperature herb butter over the breast meat under the skin.
- Truss the legs with butcher’s twine and tuck the wings so they do not burn. Place the birds on a wire rack in a baking dish or leave on the wire rack on the baking sheet.
- With a pastry brush, generously brush half of the clarified butter over the birds, not missing any parts exposed before placing in the oven for 25 minutes.
- After 25 minutes, brush the other half of the clarified butter onto the cornish hens, turn the pan 180 degrees in the oven for even cooking, and lower the temperature to 375 degrees F. Roast for another 35 minutes, or until the breast meat is 160 degrees F by a meat thermometer.
- Let rest for at least 10 minutes before serving
Creating Butter Mixes
Chilling in Fridge
Roasting Cornish Hens
Nutrition Information:Yield: 10 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 351Total Fat: 24gSaturated Fat: 8gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 14gCholesterol: 159mgSodium: 116mgCarbohydrates: 5gFiber: 1gSugar: 2gProtein: 27g
All nutrition facts are estimations. Please see a physician for any health-related inquiries.
Eden Westbrook is the recipe developer, writer, and photographer behind Sweet Tea and Thyme. A classically trained chef, Eden has inspired home cooks into the kitchen with cultural comfort foods, easy family-friendly eats and sweets, and glorious spreads for date night and entertaining since 2015.