These Citrus and Herb Roasted Cornish Hens are my go-to Cornish hen recipe for the holiday season. These game hens are seasoned with herbs and orange zest and served with a rich pan sauce. Perfect for an elegant dinner at home or a unique alternative for Thanksgiving dinner.
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Citrus and Herb Cornish Hens are a go-to recipe for a special occasion. A dinner date at home, a small holiday gathering, or just a regular weeknight meal when you feel like cooking up something a little bit fancier (but still spending very little time on it.)
These perfectly portioned chickens are roasted until juicy and tender with perfectly crispy skin, then served with a buttery, flavorful pan sauce.
This recipe makes a great alternative to cooking a whole turkey or even a turkey breast recipe when hosting a small Thanksgiving. And if you are looking for an even simpler recipe try this trout almondine recipe with capers.
What is a Cornish Hen?
A cornish hen is a small chicken that is a cross of two common chicken breeds, the Cornish and the White Plymouth Rock. They are typically smaller than a regular chicken coming in at 2 pounds or less. Also called game hens, rock hens, or Rock Cornish Game hens, they are not wild game birds. Which is a common misunderstanding.
Because these chickens are younger than the average grocery store chicken, their small size makes them perfect for serving one or two people.
What is the best way to cook cornish hens?
Cornish hens are typically cooked whole, split, or spatchcocked. Baking or oven-roasting the hen is most popular but grilling a split hen would be a great alternative.
Where do you buy Cornish Hens?
I found the hens for this recipe in the frozen section at my local grocery store. They were $5 per hen or $2.50 per serving. Making them an absolute steal and less expensive than turkey this year.
📖Why This Recipe Works
This cornish hens recipe works because it’s just so darn simple! You need a few basic (but delicious) ingredients, a couple of cornish game hens, and 10 minutes to prepare. And it looks like a meal you spent the whole evening working on!
No carving a whole chicken or turkey here. While roasting a whole game hen may look lovely on a platter it is a bit impractical.
At two pounds, cornish hens can be a little large for one person. By splitting them in half we are making them easier to serve and eat.
Plus, your guests will have more room to enjoy lots of their favorite side dishes.
This recipe is gluten-free as written.
Cornish Game Hens - I use two cornish hens to yield four servings. You can also break down a small chicken.
Fresh Herbs - Fresh parsley and rosemary are the primary herbs used in this recipe. You can also use thyme.
Unsalted Butter - You’ll use butter for the rub and for the pan sauce. For dairy-free use vegan butter, not olive oil.
Garlic - I recommend freshly minced garlic over garlic powder for the best flavor.
Oranges - You need to use a fresh orange because this recipe requires both zest and juice.
Shallot - Minced shallot adds the best flavor to the pan sauce. You can use a mild onion or even a leek as a substitute.
Chicken Stock - Use chicken stock or broth. Vegetable broth is a fine alternative.
See the recipe card for exact quantities.
⏲️How to Roast Cornish Game Hens
This roasted cornish hen recipe looks fancy, but really takes just 10 minutes to prep!
I highly recommend brining your hen using our chicken brine recipe. This will ensure a juicy bird even if you accidentally overcook it. It is like buying poultry insurance!
Step 1 - Prep the Hens
This recipe requires you to split the whole hen into two pieces. For this, you will use a sharp knife or kitchen shears to cut each hen in half lengthwise.
Start by placing your hen breast side down on a cutting board or baking sheet. Use your kitchen shears to cut along each side of the spine. Remove the backbone (you can save it to make chicken stock!).
Flip the bird over so the breast side is up. Place your knife lengthwise down the breastbone and press down. This will split the bid in two. Trim off any excess skin.
Pat each hen dry with paper towels. The drier the skin the crispier it will get.
Step 2 - Season the Meat
In a small bowl, combine butter, orange zest, minced herbs, garlic, salt, and pepper. It helps to have the butter softened.
Place the bird skin side down and season the meat with salt and black pepper, then flip it over and loosen the skin. Gently push the butter mixture under the skin, then lay the hens in a shallow roasting pan. No need to put the birds on a rack.
Step 3 - Roast
Roast the hens until they reach an internal temperature of 165ºF, then move them to a serving platter and tent them with foil. When baked at 375 F degrees the hens will take 45 to 50 minutes to cook through.
Step 4 - Pan Sauce
Skim the fat from the drippings in the roasting pan, then add in the shallots. Cook until soft, then stir in broth and orange juice.
Simmer for a few minutes reducing the sauce by about half. Whisk in cold butter, then serve over the roasted hens with sprigs of fresh rosemary and parsley, and orange slices.
🥗What to Serve with Cornish Hens
Roasted cornish hens pair beautifully with a number of delicious side dishes!
👩🏻🍳 Expert Tips
- Pat the hens dry. Gently patting the chicken dry before cooking allows for crispier skin. If there’s too much moisture it will steam and be soft.
- Roast skin side up. Again, we want the skin to get that delicious crispy texture!
- Save the backbone. It can be used to make chicken stock!
- Cook spatchcocked instead. Spatchcocked (aka butterflied) is a great way to serve a whole bird per person but cooks more quickly and evenly than a roaster.
- To spatchcock the hen, cut out the backbone by cutting along both sides of the spine. Spread the legs apart and flip it over so the skin side is up, then press down firmly until the breast bone cracks.
Leftover cornish hens will last in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 1 month. To reheat, thaw overnight in the fridge if frozen, then warm in the oven until heated through.
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💬Frequently Asked Questions
Mainly, their size! Cornish hens are just very small chickens that are bred specifically for meat. Their small size makes them quick to cook and perfect for serving 1 to 2 people.
It’s not often you can eat an entire chicken in one sitting. With cornish hens, you can!
Season! Salt in particular helps create a tender and juicy texture. The other herbs and seasonings add so much delicious flavor. No gamey taste here!
Cornish hens should be cooked uncovered. Keeping the roasting pan uncovered allows the skin of the hens to crisp up nicely. If you cover it up, the skin will just be soft.
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📖 Printable Recipe Card
Citrus and Herb Cornish Hens
- Preheat the oven to 375 F degrees. With kitchen shears or a sharp knife, cut each hen in half lengthwise and remove the spine. Then cut down the breast to split in two pieces. Pat each hen dry with a paper towel.2 Cornish game hens
- In a small bowl mix together 1 tablespoon of butter, orange zest, minced herbs, garlic, salt, and pepper. Lightly season the meat side of the hens with salt and pepper. Flip over and loosen the skin with your fingertips. Gently push the butter mixture under the skin. Lay the hens skin side up in the roasting pan.2 tablespoons fresh parsley, 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, 1 orange, ¼ teaspoon kosher salt, ⅛ teaspoon pepper, 1 clove garlic
- Roast the hens until they reach 165 F degrees, about 50 minutes.
- Move the cooked hens to a serving platter and tent with foil. Skim and discard fat from drippings in the pan. Add shallot and cook over medium-high heat until soft. Stir in broth and orange juice. Simmer for 5 minutes. Whisk in 1 tablespoon of cold butter. Serve over hens and garnish with more herbs and citrus zest.1 orange, ¼ cup shallot, ½ cup chicken stock, 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- The backbone can be saved to make stock.
- You can also cook the Cornish game hen spatchcocked (also called butterflied)and serve one per person. To spatchcock the hen, cut out the backbone by cutting along both sides of the spine using kitchen shears or a sharp knife. Spread the hen's legs apart and flip it over so it is skin side up. Press down firmly until the breast bone cracks.