Smoked Cornish Hens

smoked cornish hens

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Helpful Information
  • Prep Time: 10 minutes
  • Brine Time: 1.5 hours
  • Cook Time: 1.5 – 2 hours
  • Smoker Temp: 230-260°F
  • Meat Finish Temp: 165°F
  • Recommended Wood: Pecan
What You'll Need
  • Cornish (game) hens (1 per person + a few extra for the bigger appetites)
  • Brine (recipe below)
  • Mayonnaise
  • Jeff's original rub 
Step 1: Make Brine

Make a typical brine and, of course, you can add anything you like to it so feel free to “color outside of the lines” here.

My basic brine recommendation for 2 birds and 1/2 gallon of brine is the following:

  • 1/2 gallon of cold water
  • 1/2 cup of coarse kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar

Fill a gallon pitcher with cold water. Add the salt and stir until it is dissolved.

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Add the brown sugar and once again stir until the sugar is dissolved into the water.


If you want to add herbs you will probably want to heat a pint of the water from the pitcher, add the herbs, let them simmer for a few minutes to extract the flavor then, let the water cool completely before adding it back into the brine solution.

Place the brine in the fridge to cool before adding the chickens.

Step 2: Brine the Birds

If the birds are frozen as they usually are, take them out of the freezer and put them in the fridge a couple of days before you plan to cook them.

Remove them from the plastic wrap and give them a good rinse under cold water

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I used a 1-gallon pitcher but only made 1/2 gallon of brine so I simply dropped them down into the brining container.


If you have more of the cornish hens, you will need to make more brine and use a larger container for the brining. A food grade bucket, container or even large zip top bags will work.

Place the birds in the container and pour enough brine over them to cover.

Place the container in the fridge for the entire time they are brining.

Step 3: Rinse and Dry

When the little chickens are finished brining (about 1.5 – 2 hours is usually plenty of time), remove them from the brine solution and rinse them really well under cold water.


Pat them dry with a paper towel..



In order to help the skin to end up more crispy, consider drying the skin before adding the rub.

To dry the skin, place the hens into the fridge on a couple of folded paper towels for about 2 hours. Dryer skin will end up with more “bite thru” and won't have that chewy texture that is typical for smoked chicken.

Step 4: Add Seasoning

Mayonnaise is basically oil and egg and it is an excellent base for applying rub on poultry. Apply the mayo generously to the outside of the chicken.

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Sprinkle Jeff's original rub onto the chicken top, bottom, sides and anywhere else you can get it. If you are using my own rub recipe, you can be very generous with it due to the low salt.

Remember that this is a finger food and lots of my rub is a good thing.. while you are eating the chicken the delicious rub transfers from your fingers to the pieces of meat to your lips and the world is a happy place!


As always, I use a pan/rack to carry the cornish hens out to the smoker. The whole rack is laid on the smoker grate and this makes it easy to carry them back into the house once the meat is done cooking.

Step 5: Smoke

Unless you are using a pellet smoker, set up your smoker for cooking with indirect heat at about 260°F if possible. The slightly higher temperature will get them done faster, helps to crisp the skin and still gives them about 90 minutes of smoke time.

If you are using a pellet smoker, cook them on the smoke setting or as low as possible for about 1 hour then crank them up to 275 to finish. You should still be looking at about 2 hours total.

If your smoker will not go above 225°F, that's not a problem, just plan on about 2 hours of cook time.

Place the cornish hens on the smoker grate breast side down. Keep the smoke going with pecan or your favorite smoking wood for at least an hour.

It is vital to monitor and check the temperature of the chicken. Every outdoor cook or chef should have a good digital meat thermometer. There are lots of good ones on the market and the one I use right now is the Smoke by ThermoWorks and/or the Thermapen for a quick and final check of all meat once it's done.

The hens are done when they reach 165°F in the thickest part of the breast and thigh.

Step 6: Serve

Serve the chickens by placing one on each plate with sides. Be sure to make a few extra for those who are extra hungry.


4.4 from 33 votes

Smoked Cornish Hens

Smoked cornish hens are not only perfectly sized so that each person gets their own “little chicken” but they are easy to smoke in just a few hours and they are amazingly delicious, tender and juicy when you follow my simple instructions.
Prep Time15 minutes
Cook Time2 hours
Total Time2 hours 15 minutes
Servings: 4 -6


  • Cornish (game) hens (1 per person + a few extra for the bigger appetites)
  • Brine (recipe below)
  • Mayonnaise
  • Jeff's original rub


Step 1: Make the Brine

  • Add 1 cup of salt to 1 gallon of cold water
  • Stir until the salt is dissolved
  • Add 1 cup of brown sugar and stir until sugar is dissolved.

Step 2:Brine the Birds

  • Rinse cornish hens under cold water
  • Place birds in food safe container such as a bowl or zip top bag
  • Pour brine over birds to cover
  • Place brining container with cornish hens into fridge for 1.5 hours
  • When brining time is elapsed, rinse birds under cold water
  • Pat dry with paper towel

Step 3: Season the Hens

  • Apply mayonnaise liberally to cornish hens
  • Sprinkle rub on top, bottom and sides of chickens

Step 4: Smoke 'Em

  • Set up smoker for cooking at 230 to 260°F. If you can maintain the higher temperature, the hens will only take about 1.5 hours. At the lower end, they will take about 2 hours.
  • Once smoker is ready, place birds on smoker grate breast side down
  • Continue cooking until they reach 165°F as read by a digital meat thermometer.

Step 5: Serve

  • Remove the chickens from the grate when they are done and place one cornish hen on each person's plate with sides.

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Recipe Rating


    1. Tracey, this is a matter of preference. I subscribe to the idea that gravity causes the juices to drain down into the breast meat where it’s most needed.

  1. One thing I’ve learned when I brine anything is to put the brine and meat in a plastic bag and then put the bag, brine and meat into a small or medium styrofoam container or cooler in the refrigerator. The container helps keep the water over the meat and contains any spills.

  2. I’m wanting to try Cornish hen halves next weekend. I’ll be using a PitBoss smoker/grill. I’m sure the temperature setting should remain the same as the recipe calls for but what about the time?

  3. 5 stars
    Typo in article says 20 hours. My wife chuckled and ask me if I was making carbon.

    This is an outstanding recipe. These hens are perfect after following the recipe to the letter. Excellent, just Excellent.

  4. 20 hours at 275 for a Cornish hen? Did I read that wrong? I’m taking that as a misprint. Please correct me if I’m wrong…

  5. 5 stars
    Thank you Jeff. I did use your brine and it made a big difference in the hens. They where awesome!!!! A helpful hint for folks. If the skin don’t get crisp, I put them in the oven under the broiler till they browned.
    Good luck all and enjoy Jeff’s Recipe.

  6. 5 stars
    Simple – CHECK – Very simple =)
    Tasty – CHECK =)

    This was my first time ever doing a brine or using a smoker. I loved how it turned out!

  7. I like the overnight idea and may try that. I’m making them this weekend along with some beer can chicken, salmon and smoked cream cheese. The only thing concerns me is the mayo. Just hard to imagine, I’m thinking I’ll try olive oil and/or coconut oil instead.

  8. I just bought a Bradley based on Jeff’s references and was checking out these recipes. I would respectfully suggest that the brine solution should contain a 2 to 1 ratio of sugar to salt. I learned this ratio from my brother-in-law years ago who was an adherent of the Foxfire books. I have tried 1 to 1 and it is a noticeable difference. Jerry is sitting up,in Heaven sipping a Bud..smiling.

  9. 5 stars
    By far, the best smoked game hen I have had – moist and tender. Only change was to brine overnight with 1/3 C salt, sage and thyme. Jeff’s Rub is a required ingredient. Any other rub and it would be lacking. Nothing left but bones and satisfied smiles after this meal.

  10. 4 stars
    I often spatchcock my Chickens and game hens. Then after an hour or two of smoking (before they reach 165) I remove them to the grill. A bit BBQ sauce and some nice flame really crisps the skin and finishes the cooking process quickly. That’s great when you need to have your bird done at a particular time.
    If the whether is inclement or you don’t spatchcock – just finish them in a 325 oven in a covered roasting pan.
    This method works for turkeys too – smoke for 4 hours and finish in the oven, usually in about half an hour. Birds come out on time, cooked, juicy and flavorful.