Smoked cornish hens are wonderful just as they are and you won't find a more delicious way to serve chicken.
These are usually served whole however, an alternate way to prepare them is to cut out the backbone and open them up before cooking them. This allows them to cook faster and more evenly.
It's really easy to do and I'll show you how in this recipe.
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Once of the best things you can do to any poultry is to let it soak in a saltwater solution for several hours before cooking it.
The salt moves into the meat fibers and causes them to unwind slightly. Over the course of time, salty water gets trapped within the meat fibers increasing both the flavor and the moisture level.
Moisture loss is inevitable during almost any cooking process however, meat that has been brined will turn out more juicy and flavorful due to the water that was trapped.
Create a brine mixture by mixing 1 cup of kosher salt into 1 gallon of cold water.
Mix the solution well until the water becomes clear.
Place the cornish hens into a bowl or container and pour the brine over them to cover.
Place the brining hens in the fridge for about 4 hours while the magic happens.
When the brining process is complete, rinse the cornish hens to remove any residual salt.
This is the part that allows the birds to open up like a book and lay flat on the smoker grate.
Lay the bird(s) breast side down on a cutting board or work surface.
Use kitchen shears to cut along both sides of the backbone.
Remove the backbones and press the hen open.
To make it easier, you can press a sharp knife into the cartilage that runs along the inside of the breast bone. I usually lay the knife along the center of the keel bone and press down firmly with my hand until I hear a slight give.
The bird will then open up very easily.
Flip the bird over so that the skin side is facing up.
The birds are now ready for the smoker.
Setup your smoker for cooking at about 240°F using indirect heat.
If your smoker has a water pan, it's a great idea to fill it up.
We are going to be cooking these for about 1.5 hours so I recommend having enough smoking wood to last at least 1 hour but adding smoke for the entire time is fine too.
I used a mix of pecan and maple. You can use whatever smoking wood you have available making sure you have plenty of airflow into and out of the smoke and especially if you are using a stronger flavored wood such as mesquite or hickory.
Once your smoker is preheated and ready to cook, place the hens on the smoker grate.
In the image below, the hens have been cooking in the Traeger for about 1 hour and are about 2/3 done.
It's a great idea to monitor the temperature either by using a leave-in thermometer such as the Maverick ET-733 or by checking the meat periodically with a quality digital pocket thermometer such as the ThermoPop which reads in 3-4 seconds (that's fast), is splash-proof and is being offered now for only $29. One of my favorite toys.. er, tools;-)
When the thickest part of the meat in the breast and thigh reads 165°F, they are finished perfectly and can be removed from the heat right away.
I recommend serving these immediately while they are still good and hot.
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In this recipes for smoked cornish hens, we cut out the backbone and open them up before cooking them. This allows them to cook faster and more evenly.