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 that beer 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 and it was so good, I was eating it by the spoonful before it ever glazed the chickens.
- Prep Time: 25 minutes
- Brine time: 4 hours
- Cook Time: 2 hours
- Smoker Temp: 250°F
- Meat Finish Temp: 165°F
- Recommended Wood: Apple
- 4 cornish hens (or one per person)*
- Beer brine (recipe below)
- Spicy brown mustard
- Jeff's Rub (purchase recipes here)
- Jeff's Barbecue Sauce (purchase recipes here)
- Beer barbecue sauce (recipe below)
*The cornish hens I usually find locally are sold frozen and weigh in at about a pound or a little more each. Bigger birds are fine but it will naturally increase the cooking time.
**I used a Bock style beer for it's flavor but anything you have on hand will work as long as you like it. You will taste it in the meat.
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These birds will thaw in about a day in the fridge but if you need them in a hurry, just put them down in cold water for 2-3 hours, changing the water every 30 minutes.
While the birds are thawing is a great time to make the beer brine:
Beer Brine (½ gallon)
- 36 oz of beer – (12 oz bottles x3 or equivalent)
- ½ cup kosher salt
- 1.5 quarts (or 6 cups) of ice cubes
- 1 yellow onion, chopped
- 6 garlic cloves, whole
- ¼ cup of Jeff's rub (purchase recipe here)
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 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 or glass with a lid will work.
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.
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.
Cornish hens that have been brined do not require a high salt seasoning. This is why my rub recipe works so well and if you don't have it, I highly recommend you order it right away.
Apply a layer of spicy brown mustard to the outside of the chickens to create a sticky surface which the rub will adhere to and not fall off.
Next, apply a generous coat of my rub to all parts of the chicken.
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.
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 more crispiness to the skin. Somewhere around 250°F works for me.
Setup the smoker of your choice to cook at around 250°F 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.
Here's some information that I have written on various smokers.
- Bradley 4-Rack Digital Smoker – An electric smoker that is fully automated and keeps the temperature where you set it. It also keeps the smoke flowing via an automated mechanism that moves a new wood puck into the smoker every 20 minutes. See this smoker and read reviews on Amazon.com
- Weber Smokey Mountain 22.5 Smoker – the king of charcoal water smokers. Add charcoal, water and wood and you're good to go for several hours. 3 dampers on the fire bowl allow you to dial in the air perfectly for maintaining perfect smoking temperatures. See this smoker and read reviews on Amazon.com
- Big Green Egg – Ceramic cooker that uses charcoal. Add lump charcoal, light it and add some wood.. set the top and bottom vent and you're good to go for hours on end due to the thick walls that hold heat incredibly well.
- Great Outdoors Smoky Mountain Propane Smoker – A propane smoker that works exceptionally well. I have had mine for more than 8 years and it still works great. See this smoker and read reviews on Amazon.com
- More smokers on the way..
Note: In colder weather, it is advisable to preheat the smoker at least an hour or more before you are wanting to use it. Keep the door closed as much as possible and even skip basting if necessary to maintain proper smoking temperatures.
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 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.
Beer Barbecue Sauce
- ½ cup Jeff's barbecue sauce
- ½ cup of the same beer you used in the brine
Stir to combine well
Be sure to 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, remove them from the smoker right away and serve right away.
I served these with bacon wrapped corn on the cob and some of the warm beer barbecue sauce on the side.
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Beer Brined Smoked Cornish Hens
- yellow onion, chopped
- garlic cloves x 6
- beer (3 bottles or 36 oz)
- (½ cup) kosher salt
- (6 cups or 1.5 qts) of ice cubes
Brine Making Instructions
- Put all ingredients except ice in a large pot and bring to a boil stirring occasionally.
- Cover and let sit for about 10 minutes
- Add ice cubes and stir to cool down. Finish cooling in fridge if necessary.
Brining the Cornish Hens
- Place the chickens in a zip top bag or other brining container
- Pour cold brine over birds to cover.
- Place brining container/bag in the fridge for 4 hours
- After 4 hours, rinse cornish hens under cold water
Seasoning the Outside
- Apply some spicy brown mustard to the outside of the hens
- Sprinkle Jeff's rub generously onto hens
Smoking the Birds
- Place meat breast side up directly on smoker grate
- Smoke cook at 250°F for about 2 hrs or until they reach 165°F in the thickest part of the breast or thigh
- Brush on beer barbecue sauce (recipe below) about 30 minutes before chickens are done cooking
- Serve immediately giving each person their own cornish hen.
Beer Barbecue Sauce Ingredients
- (½ cup) Jeff's Barbecue Sauce
- (½ cup) Beer
Beer Barbecue Sauce Instructions
- Stir to combine well