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Cooking with Fire

Cooking With Fire: Cornish Game Hens

Justin Cary

The Cornish game hen peaked in popularity back in the 1980s, when it was a guaranteed dish on the menu of every white-cloth restaurant in America.

But the little bird fell out of favor by the 1990s, and it became more and more difficult to find, even in the poultry aisle of local supermarkets.

If you’ve never had a Cornish game hen, one trait it is famous for is its large breasts and small size, allowing for inventive plating options that chefs loved. But it wasn’t always this way.

Take a step back, in this poultry evolution, and you have the Cornish chicken — a precursor of the Cornish game hen. It is a larger bird that is also known for its large muscular breasts and small legs. While this meant that the bird had a lot of white meat for serving, unfortunately the breed grew very slowly so it wasn’t an economically viable product for butcher shops.

That was until 1950 when Jacques and Alphonsine Murkowski cross bred the large Cornish chicken with a small, fast-growing breed known as the White Plymouth Rock chicken. This cross-breeding created a new, fast-growing bird that would weigh anywhere from one and a half to two pounds when ready to cook, but had ample white meat for serving.

This new breed, named the Cornish game hen, was promoted by the Tyson Company and became popular all over the U.S.

So if you’re looking for something a little different to serve at the holiday table this year, may I suggest you cook Cornish game hen for your guests — because it’s time they made a comeback.

On this episode of Cooking with Fire, Josh Cary and Chef Tom Jackson prepare grilled Cornish game hen with cranberry gastrique. Enjoy!

Grilled Cornish Game Hen with Cranberry Gastrique


  • 2 cornish game hens

 For the rub:

  • 2 tbsp Noble Saltworks Hickory Smoked Salt
  • 2 tbsp coarse ground black pepper
  • 2 tsp lemon zest

 For the Cranberry Gastrique:

  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 1 cup cranberries
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup cranberry juice


  1. Preheat your grill to 425ºF, set up with both direct and indirect cooking zones.
  2. Prepare the cornish game hens spatchcock style. Using kitchen shears or a sharp chef’s knife, cut along both sides of the backbone to remove it. 
  3. Combine the ingredients for the rub. Mix well. Season all surfaces of the hens liberally.
  4. Place the birds on the indirect side of the grill, skin side up. Cook until the internal temperature reaches 155ºF-160ºF, with the lid closed, about 45 minutes. Then flip the birds over and grill over direct heat with the lid of the grill open, just until the skin is browned and crispy (a few minutes).
  5. While the hens are cooking, make the gastrique. Combine the maple syrup, cranberries and thyme in a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook the cranberries until the are broken down. Help them along by crushing them with a wood spoon while they cook. Reduce the heat, as necessary to prevent scorching. When the cranberries are broken down and the mixture thickens, add the vinegars and cranberry juice. Stir well and cook until reduced and syrupy. The sauce is fully cooked when a wooden spoon pulled across the surface shows the sauce slowly filling in behind it.
  6. Transfer the gastrique to a food processor and process until smooth.
  7. Using a sharp chef’s knife, divide the birds in half by slicing straight down the breast bones. Serve each half of the Grilled Cornish Game Hen with a drizzle of the Cranberry Gastrique.