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.

Helpful Information
  • Prep Time: 15 minutes
  • Brining Time: 4 hours
  • Cook Time: 1.5 to 2 hours
  • Smoker Temp: 225-240°F
  • Meat Finish Temp: 165°F
  • 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.


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.


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

Note: As many people have discovered, my sweet and spicy original rub (purchase recipes here) is also a homerun on any poultry including these butterflied cornish hens.


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 (purchase recipes here) to the entire outer surface of the hen.


The birds are now ready for the smoker.

I like to place them on a Bradley rack, Weber grill pan or cooling rack to make it easy to transport them to and from the smoker.

The Smoking Process

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;-)


Finish and Serve

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.

Please note that my rubs and barbecue sauce are now available in 2 formats-- you can purchase the formulas and make them yourself OR you can buy them already made, in a bottle, ready to use.
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Printable Recipe

Butterflied Cornish Hens "Baby Chickens"

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 mins
Cook Time2 hrs
Course: Entree
Cuisine: Hot Smoking
Servings: 6
Author: Jeff Phillips



  • 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 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 in the thickest part of the breast and thigh, they are finished.
  • Remove from the heat and serve immediately.


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