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Butterflied Smoked Cornish Hens

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Smoked Cornish hens are usually served whole however, an alternate (and very smart) 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.

By the way.. here's a few other smoked Cornish hen recipes in case you want to explore your options:

Helpful Information

  • Prep Time: 15 minutes
  • Brining Time: 4 hours
  • Cook Time: 1.5 to 2 hours
  • Smoker Temp: 240°F (116°C)
  • Meat Finish Temp: 165°F (74°C)
  • Recommended Wood: Pecan/Maple

What You’ll Need

Brine (optional)

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.

Cut Out the Backbone

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.

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Use kitchen shears to cut along both sides of the backbone.

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Remove the backbones and press the hen open.

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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 feel a slight give.

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The bird will then open up very easily.


Brush olive oil onto the inside of the hen then sprinkle a generous amount of Jeff's Texas style rub  onto the meat on the inside of the bird.

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Flip the bird over so that the skin side is facing up.

Repeat the process of brushing olive oil onto the skin and then generously applying Jeff's Texas style rub to the entire outer surface of the hen.

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The birds are now ready for the smoker.

I like to place them on a rack to make it easy to transport them to and from the smoker.

Here's the racks I use most of the time:

The Smoking Process

Setup your smoker for cooking at about 240°F (116°C) 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 for about 1 hour and are about 2/3 done.

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It's a great idea to monitor the temperature either by using a leave-in thermometer 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), and is splash-proof.

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.

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I recommend serving these immediately while they are still good and hot.

4 from 3 votes

Butterflied Smoked Cornish Hens

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.
Prep Time15 minutes
Cook Time2 hours
Total Time2 hours 15 minutes
Servings: 6



  • Make a brine by adding 1 cup of kosher salt to 1 gallon of water. Mix until the salt has dissolved and the water returns to clear.
  • Place the cornish hens in a large bowl or container and pour the brine over them to cover. Put the container into the fridge for 4 hours.
  • Once the brining process is complete, rinse the birds to remove any residual salt.
  • Use kitchen shears to cut along both sides of the backbone.
  • Press the carcass open to make them lay flat.
  • Brush olive oil onto the inside of the hen then sprinkle a generous amount of Jeff's Texas style rub onto the meat.
  • Flip the bird over and repeat this process of oil and rub on the skin side of the bird.
  • Prepare the smoker for cooking at about 240°F (116°C) with indirect heat
  • Apply smoke for at least 1 hour using a mixture of pecan and maple or your own favorite smoking wood.
  • Use a digital thermometer to monitor the temperature of the hens while they cook.
  • When they reach 165°F (74°C) in the thickest part of the breast and thigh, they are finished.
  • Remove from the heat and serve immediately.

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4 from 3 votes (2 ratings without comment)

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Recipe Rating


  1. This is a tried and true favorite! Maybe pure laziness, but I just split the hens in half and each person gets as many halves as they want. I also use Jeff’s original rub. OTHERWISE, the brining and smoking, all the same and it never fails. Easy!

  2. Sounds good. The only question I have is can you make the brine with boiling water to have the salt dissolve quicker and then wait till it cools put it in the refrigerator and then do your brining the next day?

    1. You certainly can use the boiling method. This is why I use kosher flaked salt such as Morton’s, it will dissolve with about 1 minute of stirring which gets the job done quick with no fuss.

  3. Jeff…Help!!!

    I literally have 10 Cornish Hens soaking in your how to brine Cornish Hen recipe. After following the recipe then reading the other two recipes I’m not sure how long to brine the birds or the cook temp and time. To make matters worst I went and searched the internet….Lol now I’m really confused! FYI I plan on spatchcock cutting them. Not sure how fast you normally respond, But these babies with be on the grates in about hour.

    1. Hopefully, Jeff will reply in time, but in my opinion, even spatchcocked, the internal temp of the breast and thigh should be 165. The instruction summary above has that. Also, it says to brine for 4 hours. Plus or minus a bit won’t be a bit deal. Just put them on, check the temp and take them off at 165.

  4. Jeff, I wondered whether you have ever brushed your food with mayonnaise before applying the rub for either grilling or smoking.
    There is a prominent chef in Los Angeles who does this to everything he grills or smokes. Aside from flavor it prevents any food from sticking to your grill better then oil or butter.

  5. Hi Jeff,

    First let me say thankyou for the time and effort you’ve put into your work. I’ve got a few of your books & get your newsletter. I too have been the ‘household’ cook for the last 20+ years. I’ve only been experimenting with various smoking techniques for the last 7 or so & I’ve found that yours is the one I prefer the most! Excellent seasonings & very good explanations & as you’ve said before – pictures explain themselves! Of course I’ve slightly modified a few recipes for our own tastes & now have found I do a couple variations and have plenty for left overs! Which by the way somehow disappear within a day or two…..not so picky then lol!
    Wanted to give you an idea for your newsletter as I’ve been getting them for a while now thank you. I don’t recall you ever having a topic on proper cleaning of your smoker/grill etc. I’ve found going thru 3 smokers in < 7 years, there's a happy medium between 'seasoned' or 'funky' smoked foods. If great care is not taken to get all the cooked on drippings in the crevices/smoker shield/bottom of pan, etc.. – that funk will go into the food! I've found out the hard way as I'm sure you've had as well. I've found the best way with steel wool to scrub the bad spots while trying to preserve the seasoned portions but I think it's as critical as anything else. Just an idea – maybe sounds alittle stupid but it's usually the little things that matter the most and that are also the most overlooked.
    Thanks Again for everything and I look forward in trying out more of your recipes.