Cornish game hens are small enough for a single serving, and salt-roasting infuses them with flavor and keeps them incredibly moist. They cook so quickly, it’ll be easy to fit them into your New Year’s Eve party planning. Keep reading for the temperature tips you’ll need so you can dazzle your guests with this simple and memorable main course.
What is Cornish Game Hen?
It isn’t game fowl at all, just a very young chicken that was bred to develop large breasts at an early age. Cornish game hens are young (5 weeks or less) and cannot be more than 2 lbs. Because of their young age, the meat is very tender (similar to the texture of veal as compared to mature beef). Originally bred in 1949, these little birds gained popularity in the 1950s and were considered exotic in the 1970s.
Rock Cornish game hen or Cornish game hen: an immature chicken younger than five weeks old (previously five to six weeks), of either sex, with a ready-to-cook carcass weight of two pounds or less. —Poultry Classifications, USDA
Why is meat cooked in a salt crust so darn tasty? We’ve tried this cooking method with different cuts of beef, pork, and poultry and every time the meat has been incredibly flavorful and moist (check out our post, Grilled Tenderloin in a Salt Crust). The secret is in the salt’s thermal properties.
Heat Conduction, Retention, and Insulation
The salt crust creates a mini kiln around the meat—an oven within an oven.
Salt is a very good conductor or thermal energy and heats up quickly. Not only does salt transfer heat well, but the heat is also retained well. It acts as a layer of heat insulation around the bird as it cooks
Salt-roasting is part roasting, part steaming. While the meat is roasting in the oven, the salt crust keeps the liquid from evaporating, creating a steaming effect inside. The intense steaming effect infuses the meat with flavor from the herbs in the salt crust.
Quick Cooking Method
Food cooked in a salt crust will be finished in about 1/3 the time it normally would. These Cornish game hens only take about 30 minutes to cook. With their simple preparation and short cook time, salt-roasted cornish game hens are a low-stress addition to any menu.
Q: Won’t the meat be too salty?
The meat surprisingly doesn’t absorb as much salt as you might think. Roasting immediately after enclosing in the salt crust will cause the protein in the meat to cook quickly before it has a chance to absorb an excessive amount of salt.
You can rinse the birds of excess salt after cooking, then pat them dry before torching and serving. If you like a salty flavor on your meat, just brush the salt off instead of rinsing it.
For the best and safest results, be sure your little hens are completely thawed before roasting. Refrigerator thawing is the most highly recommended method. If you don’t have enough time for a refrigerator thaw, you can speed-thaw the little birds in cold water.
Allow 1-2 days for a refrigerator thaw, and about 6 hours for a cold water thaw. See our post How to Properly Thaw Your Turkey for detailed information on how to thaw poultry. Verify that your birds are completely thawed by spot checking temperature in multiple areas with an instant-read digital thermometer like a ThermoPop®. Thaw until the lowest temperature found in the meat is above 32°F (0°C).
The single most important thing you can do to prevent your poultry from being too dry is to cook it to its pull temperature and not a degree higher. Cooking to the proper temperature is what determines the final result, not a recommended cooking time. That’s where temperature tracking and verification come in.
Temperature Tracking: A DOT® cooking alarm thermometer is perfect for tracking temperature in this simple project. Since Cornish game hens are so small, you need a probe small enough for the job. A Pro-Series® Waterproof Needle Probe is ideal. It’s thin and short enough to securely stay in place.
Temperature Verification: As with roasting any other type of meat, verifying the pull temperature is important. We used a ThermoPop instant-read digital thermometer for spot-checking.
Salt-Roasted Cornish Game Hen Recipe
- 4 Cornish game hens
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- Sprigs of fresh herbs for each hen
- Vegetable oil (enough to lightly oil each hen)
- 3 lbs. kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 2 cloves)
- 3 tablespoons minced fresh herbs (oregano, thyme, and rosemary work well)
- Sheet pans
- Parchment paper
- DOT alarm thermometer
- Torch (optional)
- Preheat oven to 400°F (204°C).
Make Salt Crust
- Toss together kosher salt, black pepper, garlic, and herbs. Add enough water to create a consistency like wet sand and set aside.
- Remove giblets and pat completely dry.
- Stuff the cavity of each hen with chopped onions and a couple of sprigs of fresh herbs.
- Truss the legs together securely with kitchen twine.
- Coat each bird lightly with vegetable oil.
- Make a bed with the salt mixture on a parchment lined sheet pan for each hen.
- Place a Pro-Series Waterproof Needle Probe into the thermal center of the breast of one of the birds per sheet pan.
- The thermal center is in the deepest part of the breast away from any bones. For more information on probe placement, refer to our post, Proper Probe Placement in Turkeys. The principles are the same, just on a smaller scale.
Enclose Hens in Salt Crust
- Place each bird on top and pack the salt crust mixture around each to completely enclose them.
Set High Alarm Temperature
- Set DOT’s high alarm to 157°F (69°C).
- This project has a pull temperature of 157°F (69°C) for a final resting temperature of 165°F (74°C).
- Place salt-crusted hens into the oven and roast until your DOT’s high alarm sounds.
Verify Internal Temperature
- Spot-check the bird in multiple areas with a ThermoPop to verify the lowest temperature found is 157°F (69°C). Once verified, remove the hens from the oven.
- The salt crust enclosure retains the bird’s heat extremely well and can cause very significant carryover cooking. We recommend breaking the salt crust shell as soon as the birds are removed from the oven.
- Then let them rest, uncovered, for about 10 minutes for the meat to reach its final resting temperature of 165°F (74°C).
Finish and Serve
- Brush or rinse off the salt. If you rinse the hens pat them dry.
- Torch lightly to brown the skin. Serve each bird whole on individual plates.
Once you try the delicious results with this recipe, you may be hooked on salt-roasting! Don’t forget to mind your temperatures, and 2017 will be well on its way to being the tastiest year yet.
Pro-Series Needle Probe
Hi-Temp Silicone Spatula