These smoked cornish hens are fun-sized at about a pound each and are a great choice for dinner guests or even a family dinner since everyone gets their own little personal chicken.
I started thinking about brining these in beer after considering them as a small version of the beer can chicken. The problem with setting them on a can of beer is that, while it helps them stand upright, it does not effectively add any beer flavor to the meat.
By brining them in beer, you are not only adding flavor directly into the meat, you are going to end up with a much more juicy chicken than you would otherwise.
As if that wasn't good enough, I mixed my barbecue sauce with equal parts of beer to continue the theme throughout and it was delicious!
Note: If you don't want to use beer, you can use root beer or Dr Pepper and it will also taste great and end up extremely delicious.
Add everything except the ice to a large pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat stirring occasionally. Once it just starts to boil, remove from heat and cover for about 10 minutes.
Add about 1.5 quarts of ice to hot brine and stir to cool it down. Place brine in fridge or freezer to cool it down to 40°F (4°C) or less before using it.
After adding the ice, you can also use more ice in a zip top bag to cool it down further. When the ice in the bag is melted, pour out the water and replace with more ice. Repeat a few times until brine is cold enough. This is to cool it down without diluting the brine any further.
Once the brine is ready and the birds are thawed, place the hens in a large zip top bag or another brining container. Anything plastic, glass or stainless steel with a lid will work.
I used a separate plastic container but I could have also just dropped the birds down in the brine since my pot was stainless steel.
Pour the cold brine over the chickens until they are submerged then put them in the fridge to keep them cold while they brine.
You will notice that I always place the bag down in a larger bowl in case of accidental leakage.
About 4 hours is plenty of brine time and I do not recommend brining them longer than this. If you need to brine them ahead of time, do it for the recommended amount of time then rinse them off well and hold them in the fridge until you are ready to continue with the process.
Once the hens are finished brining, rinse them well under cold water. They are now ready for seasoning.
Preparing and Seasoning the Meat
Note: I like to tie up the legs with cooking twine for a better presentation. This can be done before, after or at any time during the seasoning process.
Place the cornish hens on a Bradley rack or a cookie sheet to make it easy to carry them out to the smoker. They are now ready for smoking.
Getting the Smoker Ready
I like to cook chicken low and slow to give it more time with the smoke but bumping up the temperature a little will help to get a better bite-thru on the skin. Somewhere around 250°F (121°C) works for me but chicken can handle much higher temperatures if you want to bump it up even higher.
Setup the smoker of your choice to cook at around 250°F (121°C) if possible and make sure you have enough smoking wood to last about 2 hours.
Once the temperature is holding steady, you are ready to start cooking.
Smoking the Cornish Hens
Place the cornish hens directly on the smoker grate breast side up.
Let them smoke for about 2 hours or until they reach 165°F (74°C) in the thickest part of the thigh or breast.
About 30 minutes before the chicken is done cooking, apply some beer barbecue sauce (recipe below) using a basting brush or mop.
Stir to combine well and simmer over very low heat until ready to use.
Note: Be sure to use an instant read Thermapen (reads in 2-3 seconds) or a digital probe meat thermometer such as the Smoke to ensure that you cook the chickens perfectly and that they are safely done.
Use the water pan if your smoker has one and keep the lid closed as much as possible to maintain good and consistent heat.
If you are using an electric, charcoal or gas smoker, I recommend keeping the smoke going for the entire time.
When the meat reaches 165°F (74°C), remove them from the smoker right away and serve right away.
Smoke, Wood, Fire: The Advanced Guide to Smoking Meat – Unlike the first book, this book does not focus on recipes but rather uses every square inch of every page teaching you how to smoke meat. What my first book touched on, this second book takes it into much greater detail with lots of pictures.
It also includes a complete, step-by-step tutorial for making your own smoked “streaky” bacon using a 100 year old brine recipe.