Often found on elegant dinner menus, these petite birds spark curiosity and intrigue. What’s so special about them? Why are they more expensive than your average bird?
Are they simply small chickens, or is there more to this pint-sized poultry?
Wonder no more. Here’s everything you need to know about Cornish hens.
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Cornish Hen vs. Chicken
Nowadays, Cornish hens are, in fact, just little chickens.
But that wasn’t always the case—more on that in a minute—and frankly, that comparison undersells them.
Cornish hens also cook through much faster than larger chickens and are easier to serve because their wee size means that each diner gets their own bird—no carving, and no squabbling over who gets the white or dark meat. With a Cornish hen, every diner gets both.
When it comes to Cornish hen price, they are usually more expensive than conventional whole chickens. Depending on where you shop, a whole chicken might cost about $1.70 per pound while a Cornish hen can cost at least a dollar more per pound.
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What Are Cornish Hens?
Interestingly, the definition has evolved over the years.
When they were initially bred in the mid-20th century, Cornish hens (also known as Cornish game hens or Rock Cornish game hens) were a cross between two purebred chicken breeds: the Cornish and the White Plymouth Rock.
Neither breed is a game bird, nor are they small; a mature Cornish female, for example, typically grows to at least 7 or 8 pounds. Cornish hens were small because they were harvested young, at 5 to 6 weeks.
Then about 20 years ago, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture dropped the breed specifications from the definition of Cornish hens because it found they were no longer consistently reflected in the commercial poultry market. (However, plenty of private poultry farmers still raise these and other purebred breeds.)
“Today it is doubtful that any purebred Cornish or Rock lines exist in commercial chicken production,” the FSIS wrote in the Federal Register.
The current official definition of a Cornish hen is as follows: A “Rock Cornish game hen” or “Cornish game hen” is a young, immature chicken (less than 5 weeks of age), of either sex, with a ready-to-cook carcass weight of not more than 2 pounds.
In other words: Yes, they’re just little chickens (and not necessarily hens, which are female). But they still have unique qualities that make them a little more special than bigger birds.
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What Makes Cornish Hens so Special?
A lot of the best qualities of a great roast chicken are accentuated in Cornish hens. Their flavor is often described as rich and moist with a hint of sweetness.
Because they’re harvested so young, Cornish hens’ meat is exceptionally tender. Their high skin-to-meat ratio makes them remarkably succulent too.
Cornish hens are as versatile as conventional chickens, but cook faster and feel more special.
How to Cook Cornish Game Hens
TIPS FOR ROASTING CORNISH HENS
- Rub and air-dry them. To achieve crispy skin in the short period of time they spend in the oven, we give the hens a rub with an oil, baking powder, and salt mixture and then air-dry them overnight.
- Poke holes in the skin. The holes allow the fat to drain away while cooking.
- Cook them on a hot baking sheet. This jump-starts the browning process.
- Flip and broil. At the end of cooking, flip the hens and set them under the broiler to finish and crisp.
TIPS FOR GRILLING CORNISH HENS
- Butterfly and flatten. This helps the hens cook more quickly and evenly on the grill.
- Use a half-grill fire. By having adjustable temperature zones, the delicate meat of the hens can be cooked but not overcooked.
- Start warm. Start cooking the hens skin side up over the cooler side of the grill so the fat can slowly render from the skin while the meat cooks.
- Finish hot. For the last 3 to 5 minutes, move the hens to the hotter side of the grill to crisp the skin.