I used to think Cornish hen were a rare and exotic wild bird, but it turns out they’re just a younger version of the standard broiler chicken. Nothing fancy there except their meat is so much more tender and succulent than chicken!
I’ve never been into grilling until this summer. But I recently learned how to butterfly poultry, which is a simple way to cut the bird so that it lays flat on the grill. This allows the meat to cook more quickly and more evenly throughout. It can be done with chicken or Cornish hen. This method of grilling yields tender juicy flesh, sweet crispy skin, and an irresistible smokey flavor. There’s no advance prep, no brining, just a few simple cuts, a generous sprinkling of dry rub, and nice slow grill.
I’m choosy about poultry. I only eat it when I can get it straight from the farmer’s hands who produced it so I can ask them my many questions about how it was raised. I’m probably every bit as annoying as the couple in that infamous Portlandia chicken episode. But with the very sad state of chicken farming in this country, there are a lot of questions worthy of asking. Luckily, each Saturday at our farmer’s market I have the option of buying gorgeous organically grown birds from growers who take great care of their animals and the environment. Best of all, they also produce Cornish hens and ever since I tried them, I’ve been hooked! For about $10, I get a beautiful 2-pound pasture-raised Cornish hen that is surprisingly meaty and easily feeds two of us, with just enough leftovers for a sandwich the next day and a nice broth as well.
Whether you use chicken or Cornish hen, it’s all about the butterflying, which is also called spatchcocking. Basically you cut out the spine of the bird which allows you to lay the bird flat. This video clearly shows how to do it. The other trick is to grill the bird skin side up and flip it skin side down for the last few minutes, you can read why in this informative article which goes into all the nitty gritty detail of how to perfectly grill a whole bird.
I grill my Cornish hen over wood coals on a kettle-style Weber grill but you can use a gas or charcoal grill instead. I like the flavor that you get from real wood coals and I like foraging for nice pieces of wood for a good fire (plus it’s an excuse for s’mores for dessert!)
Of course, it’s probably good to keep in mind that grilling is not all that healthy but it depends how you do it. Don’t rush it. A long slow roast produces fewer carcinogenic compounds and also yields more tender meat. So be patient and have your meat thermometer on hand to remove the meat the moment it reaches temperature.
Grilled Butterflied Cornish Hen or Chicken
- 1 whole chicken or 2 Cornish hens (size of your choice)
- For the Simple Dry BBQ Rub:
- 1 1/2 Tbsp brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 2 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (more if you like more spicy)
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- To ensure quick, even cooking and tender meat, butterfly your chicken or Cornish hen. Do this by placing the bird breast side down and using sturdy kitchen scissors to cut all the way along each side of the spine (about an inch on each side), cutting through the ribs and removing the spine completely. This video shows how to do it. Once you’ve removed the backbone, flip the Cornish hen and use the palm of your hand to press down firmly on the breast to lay the Cornish hen flat. (Make the most of your Cornish hen by keeping the backbone for making stock to which you can also add the cooked bones at the end of your meal).
- Mix the dry rub together by placing all the ingredients in a small lidded jar and shaking well. With the skin side of the Cornish hen facing up (use a paper towel to pat the Cornish hen dry first if it’s excessively wet), generously and evenly distribute the dry rub over every part of the chicken, on the skin side only.
- Preheat the grill to medium-low. If you’re using a wood-fired weber grill like I do, prepare a nice fire made from perfectly dry wood. Let it die down to a 1-inch bed of hot embers, moving the embers to one side so that there is a cooler zone and a hotter zone. Place the Cornish hen skin side up on the cooler zone of the grill and leave it alone until it reaches an internal temperature of 130F. Carefully flip the bird over to crisp the skin on the hotter part of the grill. Be sure to monitor how fast the skin is cooking so it doesn’t burn. Do not flip the Cornish hen back again once it is on its skin side. If you need to, move it over to the cooler side of the grill or turn the heat down. The skin should quickly crisp in about 5 to 10 minutes and the meat should reach internal temperature of 165F when you insert a meat thermometer into the deepest part of the breast meat. Remove it as soon as temperature is reached and let the cornish hen rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
Yield: 4 servings
Aube Giroux is a food writer and filmmaker who shares her love of cooking on her farm-to-table blog, Kitchen Vignettes.
Aube is a passionate organic gardener and home cook who likes to share the stories of how food gets to our dinner plates. Her work has been shown on television and at international film festivals. Her web series has been nominated for multiple James Beard Awards for Best Video Webcast (On Location). In 2012, she was the recipient of Saveur Magazine’s Best Food Blog award in the video category.