Connecticut farmers Jacques and Alphonsine Makowsky bred the standard Cornish chicken with a White Plymouth Rock hen and a Malayan fighting cock in the 1950s. The resulting bird matures quickly, developing particularly large breasts and fatty skin that naturally bastes the meat, keeping it moist as it cooks. The small meat-to-bone ratio makes one game hen the perfect serving size for most people when presented with 2 to 3 side dishes. With a multiple course meal or a lot of side dishes, you might need only half a hen per person.
Rock Cornish game hens look like miniature chickens, and taste just about the same—not surprising since contrary to their grandiose name, they are actually just chickens. A Cornish game hen must weigh between 1 and 2 pounds, with the standard at about 1 1/4 pounds. Cornish hens have to be slaughtered before five weeks of age and they can be either male or female birds.
Cooking Times for Cornish Game Hens
Cornish game hens are as versatile as regular whole chickens; adapt your favorite whole chicken recipe for this game hen with little fuss. Because of their small size, the game hens cook through more quickly than a standard chicken. This actually makes it easier to achieve crispy skin and properly cooked meat simultaneously—more of a feat with a larger bird.
In general, roast game hens in a 450 F oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a thermometer inserted into the thickest breast meat registers 155 F. After you pull the chicken from the oven, tent it with foil and let it rest undisturbed for at least 10 minutes to let the temperature come up another 5 to 10 degrees.
You might use a 350 F oven but extend the cooking time to 1 hour and 15 minutes. To achieve an extra crispy skin, apply a glaze: start the hens in a 450 F oven for about 25 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350 F for another 25 minutes, adding the glaze, if using, with about 15 minutes left.
Cooking Methods and Recipes
There are many ways you can cook this flavorful bird, but here are the most common cooking methods:
- Roasting: The preferred preparation for Cornish hens, roasting allows you to use the giblets as you would use with standard poultry giblets in gravies and thick sauces. If you use stuffing, plan on 1 cup per game hen. Keep the birds moist by adding butter between the skin and meat and covering the drumstick ends with tin foil to avoid burning. Place in a 450 F oven for 25 minutes or in a 350 F oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Plate in a rectangular pan with vegetables around. Serve with mashed potatoes casserole, spinach salad, and roasted butternut squash.
- Braising: Although time-consuming, braising will further tenderize the meat and give you a succulent and moist chicken. Brown hens in a pan with olive oil, remove from heat and deglaze the pan with chicken broth. Add mirepoix, salt, and pepper. Put hens back in the pan and let simmer with the lid on and enough liquid to cover half of the height of the birds. Transfer pot to a 300 F oven, timing one hour per pound of chicken. Serve with coconut Jasmine rice, roasted vegetables, and a salad with avocado-lime dressing.
- Sauteeing: Because the hens are small, sauteeing is a good option if you're pressed for time. Butterfly the hens so they cook evenly on the pan. Add olive oil to a hot pan and place hens for 10 minutes skin down first until brown. Add salt and pepper, flip, and cook other side adding melted butter to the pan and basting the tops with the help of a spoon. Once birds are cooked, check salt and pepper, decorate with fresh chopped parsley, and serve with apple glazed carrots, orange rice, and onion gravy.
- Slow-cooking: This is a great alternative if you can't be on the stove taking care of the hens. Simply coat 4 to 5 birds with your favorite dry rub, place in crockpot with abundant olive oil skin down, and enough chicken or vegetable broth so the birds are halfway submerged. Check the liquid level during 5 hours of cooking at low heat or 3 hours at high heat.
- Grilling: Marinade your butterflied hens overnight and place them on a very hot grill, skin down. Do not move them for 8 minutes and then turn birds to cook the other side. Serve with tallarines verdes (Peruvian green noodles) and Caprese salad.