Cornish Game Hens are little chickens and can be prepared pretty much the same way. I like to spatchcock, aka “butterfly,” the mini yardbirds and grill them with a touch of smoke. In my experience the technique I prefer to use is bone side down until the edges of the meat start to brown and then flip over for a few minutes to brown the skin – move to indirect heat and finish to an internal temp of about 175°F degrees and remove to rest. While resting the juices are re-absorbed into the meat and the carry-over heat generally takes the temperature up to about 180°F. This is a perfect temperature because the juices run clear and the joints can be easily pulled apart. The sign of a cooked chicken, er game hen, er mini yardbird! (Tip: click on the photos to enlarge to full-size!)
Step 1: Marinate it!
I’m not a big fan of too many spices and flavors that overwhelm the natural flavor of the meat and the wonderful flavors created when that meat is grilled, smoked or roasted outdoors. BUT chicken, er game hens, have an extremely mild flavor and a little help is usually necessary. I’m a minimalist so I use garlic, herbs and salt. The medium by which all of these are carried to as much of the meat as possible is olive oil, just a run-of-the-mill bulk variety purchased at the warehouse store that is lavorful but nothing special. I’ve found that if I place the meat in a plastic bag and then add the marinade ingredients = less spillage and maximum coverage. I generally place the bag in a tray in the fridge or cooler as insurance against leakage!
Step 2: Spatchcock it!
This word cracks me up because it’s so strange to say and get’s some startled reactions when heard for the first time. On a yardbird it means to remove the backbone and butterfly the chicken – you can remove the breast bone from the inside once the backbone is removed and the bird opened up – but you can also just place the bird bones down on the cutting board and press the palm of your hand to the top and snap the cartilage as easily…just sayin’. I use a sharp knife when spatchcocking a turkey (yes you can!) and my trusty kitchen shears for cutting out the backbone of a chicken or these game hens.
Step 3: Grill it!
On a Medium-Hot grate (that’s about 350°F) place the game hens bones side down over direct heat, skin side up, hood closed and “where it hits it sits” until the sides of the bird begin to show browning. I contend the bones heat up and cook the meat, as the heat rises into the meat carrying moisture it is trapped from evaporation by the skin…which is also rendering fat back to the meat…and browning a bit from the hot air in the cooker. Turn it over and brown the skin side, but only for a minute or two. A common error we all make when cooking chicken on the grill is starting out with grates that are too hot. The chicken skin will scorch and that is not a tasty flavor. By starting this cook with the bones exposed to the heat, the bird kinda cooks from the “inside out” – thus no red bloody meat next to the bones when you cut into it!
Step 4: Roast it!
After browning on both sides, turn it back to the bone-side down and move the bird to a side of the grill without direct heat (you can place it in a foil pan if desired) and finish roasting until an internal temperature of 165°-170°F is achieved in the breast meat. I use an instant read thermometer for this. You can also wiggle the leg quarters just a bit to see how loose they are becoming.
Step 5. Rest it
The heat of cooking causes the muscle fibers of meat to twist up – think of wringing out a washcloth – and all the juices come out. Resting the meat after cooking allows the muscle fibers to relax and re-absorb most of those juices. That’s why the juices run out all over the cutting board when you cut into a piece of meat immediately after taking it off the grill. Rest it for a while, at least 5 minutes or more on a larger cut of meat, to allow the juices to absorb back into the tissues.
Step 6: Carve, Serve & Enjoy it!
Carving a spatchcocked bird is pretty easy because it’s laying flat and can be handled like a steak or roast. Remove the leg quarters and wings by moving the joint backwards until it either pops out or exposes the knuckle, and use a sharp kitchen knife to cut that joint cleaning. Then separate the leg from the thigh. Breast meat should be removed as one large piece and cut ‘across the grain’ to get the most tender pieces on the plate. I know those old Norman Rockwell paintings always show the pipe smoke man slicing off pieces from the breast of the turkey (same structure as yardbird) but that technique, while pretty, slices the meat with the grain of the muscle and results in a chewy long muscle fiber, rather than a short fiber. [NOTE: a beef steak is slices of the muscle fiber and shows the fat marbling and muscle fiber ends.]
This technique of preparing and cooking can be applied to chicken, turkey and even game birds. I hope you consider it and practice cooking this way. I promise you will make some delicious meals. ~ Welcome to the Cookout! Barry CB Martin