These Citrus Marinated Cornish Game Hens are perfect for a special occasion. Cornish game hens are marinated with orange juice and spices, then roasted to a crisp and lovely glaze. The resulting flavor is decadently spiced with a hint of citrus flavor. This is an aromatic and impressive entree, and it’s surprisingly simple to make.
What is a Cornish game hen?
A Cornish game hen is a small, young Cornish breed chicken. Each bird must weight under two pounds to be considered a proper Cornish game hen. They are typically more tender than larger chickens, and cost more. Because of this, they are considered a kind of delicacy.
Comedian and pianist Victor Borge, affectionately known as “The Great Dane” or “The Clown Prince of Denmark,” may have played a role in bringing Cornish game hens into greater popularity. A Spokesman Review article published on April 18, 1959 claims that his farm in Southbury, Connecticut was one of the largest American producers of Cornish hens. Borge made appearances at supermarkets on behalf of his hens, which gave them something of a celebrity status. The article also includes his favorite recipe:
“Put the hen in a Dutch oven and do him in brown butter for 12 minutes. If you have a piano in the kitchen play the ‘Minuet Waltz’ 12 times. Add a little water. Put the lid on and let simmer. When you have finished playing half ‘The Dance of the Hours,’ dragging it slightly, you’re ready to eat like an epicure.”
I grew up eating Cornish game hens. My grandma made them for my mom as a child, and she passed the tradition on to me. The hens we grew up eating were pretty simple, sprinkled with garlic salt and parsley, then roasted in a hot oven. My mom served them with steamed artichokes and salty chicken-flavored rice; it was my absolute favorite meal growing up. I still make them that way, in fact, and my family loves them.
How to Cook Cornish Game Hens
Roasting is the best way to cook a Cornish game hen. When well roasted, the skin becomes crisp and the interior juicy. But do you know how long to cook a Cornish game hen? Although these chickens are small, they don’t cook very fast. It’s always best to use a meat thermometer to make sure your hens have reached a food safe temperature. When fully cooked, they should measure 170 degrees in the thickest parts of the breast and thigh. Also, make sure the juice runs clear. This will help ensure your hens are fully cooked. Of course, a great marinade recipe helps too… just like this one!
The Best Way to Make Cornish Game Hens
I like to marinate my game hens to infuse them with more flavor. But what makes a good Cornish game hen marinade? Try this citrus spice marinade, and you’ll be hooked. I marinate the hens in orange juice, brown sugar, and a mix of delicious spices (a riff on my Spice Broiled Salmon recipe). After marinating, I stuff the hens with orange slices and roast them in a hot oven until almost done. I reduce the citrus marinade on the stovetop to a thick sauce. Surprisingly, the sauce takes on a Middle Eastern barbecue-like flavor, really different and delicious. I brush the thickened sauce onto the top of the hens, then finish roasting them until the skin is dark brown and bubbly.
Yum! These are not the game hens I ate growing up. I’ll always have a soft spot for garlic salt and chicken-flavored rice, but this is my new favorite Cornish game hen recipe. I have a feeling you’ll love it, too!
What to Serve with Cornish Game Hens
When it comes to serving cornish game hens, a side dish is key. I love serving these marinated game hens with saffron rice and a citrus salad. Olive oil mashed potatoes, oven roasted root vegetables, and spicy roasted sweet potatoes are all great options, too.
Note: Since originally posting this recipe, I have clarified the cooking instructions with weight measurements and more specific steps to ensure a delicious result every time. Please use the recommended Cornish game hen weight for best results.
Marinated Cornish Game Hens
- 4 Cornish game hens 22 ounces each
- 3 cups cool water
- 1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
- 1 medium orange
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons ground coriander (freshly ground coriander spice is best)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 1 teaspoon ginger
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
- In a medium mixing bowl combine water, orange juice, sugar, salt and spices. Whisk to combine thoroughly.
- Rinse hens and trim off any excess fat or skin (do not remove all of the skin, only extra hanging pieces). Place the hens in gallon sized resealable storage bags (2 to a bag) and divide the brine evenly between the two. The spices may settle in the liquid, so give it a swirl as you're pouring it in.
- Squeeze all the air out of the bags and place in a baking dish to prevent any liquid from leaking. Marinate in the refrigerator overnight.
- When you are ready to cook the hens, preheat your oven to 400 degrees F.Place the hens in a roasting pan and reserve the marinade. Tuck an orange quarter inside of each hen, then truss with twine (simply wrap the drumstick ends together and secure with twine).
- Brush each hen with 1/2 tbsp of olive oil.
- Season with salt and pepper. I use about 1/4 tsp of each per hen. Roast the hens for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F. Continue cooking for 25 minutes longer, turning the roasting pan halfway through cooking to ensure even heat distribution.
- While the hens are cooking, strain the remaining marinade into a medium saucepan and bring to a rolling boil over high heat.
- Reduce heat to a bubbling simmer and cook the marinade, letting the liquid slowly reduce until the the mixture is the consistency of a barbecue sauce. It should be simmered for at least 10 minutes, and will likely take 15 minutes or more to thicken into a glaze. Most of the liquid will be cooked out during this process.
- Once the hens have been cooking for 45 minutes (20 minutes at 400 degrees, then 25 minutes at 350 degrees), remove them from the oven and brush them with a generous amount of the reduced sauce.
- Return to the oven for an additional 10-20 minutes, or until the hens reach an internal temperature of 170 degrees F in the thigh and breast. Some hens may take longer than 20 minutes to come to temperature. Use the thermometer as your guide, and only remove them when they've reached 170 degrees F. If you have leftover sauce, you can glaze the hens once more halfway through this final stage of cooking for a very nice, sticky coating. Serve hot.