Published September 1, 1997.
Brine these little birds to deepen their flavor, then roast them at relatively high heat and brush them with a glaze to ensure good color.
Because these birds are good dinner-party fare, we wanted to cook enough for at least six people. But cooking six Cornish hens at once is not easy. Crowding them into a roasting pan had the effect of steaming them; we wanted the browning and caramelization that come with roasting. As with all poultry, if roasted breast-side up, the breast will overcook before the legs and thighs get done. Being small, these birds cook quickly, and while this is good for the purpose of getting dinner on the table, it leaves a very small window of opportunity for the birds to brown. Stuffing the birds is a bit of a problem as well. Because the cavity is the last spot to heat up, getting the stuffing to reach a safe internal temperature of 160 degrees means overcooking the meat.
We wanted to stuff and roast at least six grocery store-quality Cornish hens in a way that made them look good and taste great. Overcooking would not be permitted, and neither would a smoky kitchen.
To prevent steaming, we lifted the birds up and out of the roasting pan and onto a wire rack. We also spaced the birds as far apart as possible; crowding food while it's roasting inhibits browning. The ideal roasting temperature, as it turned out, was 400 degrees, with a quick crank up to 450 degrees at the end of cooking to promote browning. Adding water to the pan once the fat started to render inhibited smoking, and it automatically deglazed the pan, thereby eliminating the step of deglazing over two burners once the birds were done. Preventing the breast from overcooking and drying out meant starting the bird breast-side down and then turning it once during cooking to brown the breast. Unfortunately, "brown" was still a bit of misnomer, so we opted to glaze the birds with balsamic vinegar; this gave them a pleasant, spotty brown barbecued look. As more insurance against dry meat, we brined the hens before cooking them. Brining also has the effect of giving roasted poultry more flavor, something that can be lacking in the mass-produced hens available at most supermarkets. Heating the stuffing before placing it inside the birds let it come up to the proper temperature more quickly during cooking, thereby keeping the breast meat from overcooking.list of recipes