Around my house we love smoked cornish hens. Everyone gets their own little chicken and they are just the perfect size.

In this edition of the smoking meat newsletter I will show you how I prepare and cook them in the smoker.

What to Purchase

Around here, the cornish hens are almost always frozen and are sized at right around a pound. I found some that are all natural, minimally processed by Tyson in a sort of gold and red colored package.

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Thawing them Out

If you have time to wait then you can buy them a few days early and they’ll thaw out in a day or so in the fridge. If you do what I did and buy them the night before you need them, then you can quick thaw them in a couple of hours by placing them unwrapped in a large bowl or container. Fill the bowl with cold water and let them sit for about 30 minutes. Replace the water with fresh cold water every 30 minutes until they are thawed. This should not take more than 2 hours considering they are so small.

Brining the Hens

I highly recommend brining these for best flavor and juiciness and it’s super easy. Simply mix 1 gallon of fresh cold water with 1 cup of kosher salt until the salt is dissolved in the water.

Unwrap the hens, rinse them lightly under cold tap water and place them in a plastic, non-reactive container large enough to hold the number of hens that you purchased. You can also use multiple containers if you like and if that makes it easier for you.

Birds in plasitic container

Once the hens are unwrapped and rinsed and sitting pretty in the brining container, sprinkle about 2 TBS of my rub recipe over the top of each one (adds a lot of great flavor)

A little rub on each bird

Then pour enough brine mixture over the hens to cover them. Most of the ingredients in the rub will dissolve into the liquid and will help to add a lot of great flavor to the hens.

Pour brine mixture over birds

Place a lid or cover on the container and put them in the fridge to stay cold while they brine.

I usually brine these for about 4 hours but I recommend stirring them around a little every hour or so to make sure you are getting full coverage. I even go so far as to flip them over every hour to make sure that I am getting even brining.

Finished brining

Preparing the Hens for Smoking

Once the hens are done brining, you will want to rinse them real well under cold water to make sure there is no residual salt on the outside of the birds. After rinsing, pat them dry with a paper towel and place them into a large ziploc bag.

Birds into ziploc bag

Pour about 1/4 cup of olive oil (any cooking oil will work) and about 1 cup of my rub recipe over the birds. Close the bag and roll the bag end over end to combine the oil and rub onto the meat.

This method will do a great job of getting the rub mixture under the skin as well and you will notice a huge difference when you eat them.

Once you are sure they are well coated, remove the birds from the bag and set them aside.. they are now ready for the smoker.

Birds ready for smoking

Getting the Smoker Ready

While the hens are sitting on the counter, warming up from their time in the fridge, go out and get the smoker ready. Note: if this is going to take more than about 20-30 minutes, place the birds back in the fridge until you are closer to being ready for them or alternatively you can get the smoker ready before the birds are finished brining.

In this kind of weather, I like to use my propane smoker as I can get excellent smoke flavor and it’s a little more hands off i.e. I can stay in the house a little more and be outside a little less and still end up with food that could win a competition in my opinion.

One thing you will notice is that in hot weather, it takes a lot less flame to get the smoker up to 225-240 degrees. I get the water pan full of water and set it into place, I then fill the smoke box with dry wood chunks but I set it aside. I like to put the smoke box in about 3 minutes before adding the meat so that I have time to get the meat into the smoker without getting a lot of smoke in my eyes. This works for me.. you may have to work out what works best for you and your smoker.

When the smoker is purring along at my target temperature of about 240 degrees for cornish hens, I go ahead and place the smoke box into the smoker and go get the meat for smoking.

Smoking the Hens

Place the cornish hens on the grate perpendicular to the bars of the grate. This ensures that the wings and legs do not fall between the bars and below the grate and make your bird look deformed when it is done smoking. Allow about 1 inch of space between the birds to make sure that the smoke can flow easily around them.

Brined, rubbed birds on smoker grate

Close the door of the smoker and watch for a few minutes to make sure the smoker is going to maintain your target temperature.

I used a 50/50 mix of pecan and orange and the smoke smelled wonderful!

When I fill the smoke box of my Great Outdoors Smoky Mountain smoker, it will smoke for about 90 minutes. I expect them to take about 2 hours or so to reach 165 degrees.

According to plan, at about the 2 hour mark the digital probe meat thermometer that I had placed in the thickest part of the thigh of one of the birds read 166 degrees which is a couple of degrees higher than what I like but since I had brined them, I knew that would not be a problem at all.

Cornish hens finished smoking

Serve the Cornish Hens

Get the cornish hens onto plates and serve immediately for best results. You will not need any sauce for these however, if your family and friends are like mine, there are those who feel that they must have sauce with all barbecue so be sure to have some warm and ready standing by.

Plated cornish hen with sides


– If your cornish hens are larger than the ones I purchased, they could very well take a little longer than 2 hours. I recommend the smaller ones if you can find them.

– The pecan and orange wood combination was simply amazing however, I know that orange wood is not readily available for most so in the absence of orange, try cherry, pear, apricot, plum or some other fruit wood to give you that nice fruity essence that goes so well with the pecan and the chicken.

– I highly recommend using my rub recipe on these exactly as I did to duplicate the color, texture and amazing flavor of the hens. Your friends and family will not be able to believe how good these are and you are under no obligation to tell them how easy it was;-)

Abi’s Sauteed Beets and Parsnips with Leeks

Sauteed Beets and Parsnips with Leeks

While I was preparing the cornish hens , my lovely wife was in the kitchen busy coming up with perfect side recipes for this cornish hen dinner and I think she hit the ball out of the park using fresh beets, parsnips and leeks with a little salt and pepper for seasoning. It was beautiful, tasted great with the cornish hens and most of all, it was very simple.

Sauteed Beets

  • 3 fresh beets, trimmed, peeled and thinly sliced
  • olive oil
  • kosher salt and coarse pepper

Heat a cast iron skillet or heavy bottomed pot over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes. Add 3 Tbs. of olive oil and beets. Saute for 7-8 minutes, turning often to prevent scorching. Cover and turn heat to low. Cook until just tender, about 15 minutes, turning occasionally. Drizzle with a bit more olive oil and season with kosher salt & coarse pepper.

Sauteed Beets Beet hands

Parsnips with Leeks

  • 5 parsnips, trimmed, peeled and thinly sliced diagonally
  • 3 leeks, thinly sliced, white ends only
  • olive oil
  • kosher salt
  • coarse pepper

In a medium bowl, soak sliced leeks in cold water to get rid of grit; scoop the leeks off the top, leaving the grit in the bottom of the bowl. Drain on paper towels.

Heat a cast iron skillet or heavy bottomed pot over medium-low heat. When the pan is hot, add 3 Tbs. of olive oil and leeks. Saute for 2-3 minutes. Add parsnips and toss with leeks. Continue to cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Cover and cook for 10 more minutes or until parsnips are tender. Season with kosher salt and coarse pepper.

Sauteed Parsnips with Leeks

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6 Comments on this article. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Brandon Hawkins April 1, 2014 at 11:21 am - Reply

    Can I stuff the Cornish Hens with cooked rice?

    • Jeff Phillips April 3, 2014 at 12:36 am - Reply

      I do not recommend stuffing anything inside of any bird while it smokes. The temps in the smoker are fairly low and this can cause a safety issue if the inside of the stuffing does not reach a safe temperature within a safe time limit.

      It is recommended that you make the rice or stuffing separately, then stuff it into the cavity of the bird once the bird is done cooking.

  2. eric mayle November 14, 2013 at 5:45 pm - Reply

    i just got a smoker a couple months ago so i am new to this, but i been using your recipes and every week i smoke something different . thanks for all the great recipes and ideas KEEP THEM COMING!

  3. donald Butterbaugh August 16, 2013 at 2:46 pm - Reply


    I am pretty new to smoking just started about four months ago, but I read your articles religiously, I have never had a bad meal yet. I'm cooking cornish Game hens now using your reciepe. Thank you for taking the time to help NEWBIES like myself. I could kick myself for waiting this long to use a smoker. Your step by step instructions is great


    • Jeff Phillips August 19, 2013 at 11:33 am - Reply

      Don, Thank you for the kind words.. you are quite welcome!

  4. Smallmouth19 May 29, 2013 at 2:40 pm - Reply

    Want to try to smoke a couple of cornish game hens wrapped in bacon, have any advise on prep and cook time.

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