Dandy Little Hens 4.000

Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post; tableware from Crate and Barrel

May 21, 2014

Cornish hens often look more appetizing than they taste. But the authors of this recipe have made the small birds burst with flavor.

The authors refer to this as "barbecuing on the smoker"; the hens can be cooked in a charcoal or gas grill, but be sure the rig can maintain a steady low temperature (200 to 220 degrees). The hens are going to cook slowly, over the course of 2 1/4 to 2 1/2 hours, so prep the charcoal accordingly.

Make Ahead: The hens need to marinate in the refrigerator for 4 to 12 hours.


When you scale a recipe, keep in mind that cooking times and temperatures, pan sizes and seasonings may be affected, so adjust accordingly. Also, amounts listed in the directions will not reflect the changes made to ingredient amounts.

Tested size: 4 servings

  • For the marinade and hens
  • 1 1/2 cups tequila
  • 1 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 cup triple sec or other orange liqueur
  • 1/4 cup minced onion
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • Pinch ground cayenne pepper or ground chile de arbol
  • 4 Cornish hens (1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds each)
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 lime, cut into 4 wedges
  • 1 small orange, seeded and sliced
  • For the mop
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon triple sec or other orange liqueur


For the marinade and hens: Whisk together the tequila, lime juice, liqueur, onion, oil, Worcestershire sauce and pinch of cayenne or chile de arbol in a liquid measuring cup.

Place the hens in a large zip-top plastic bag, then pour the marinade over them. Seal, pressing out as much air as possible. Massage through the bag so the hens are well coated. Place the bag in a mixing bowl; refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 12 hours, turning the hens a few times.

Prepare a smoker or grill for indirect heat: If using a gas grill, preheat to low (220 to 250 degrees) with the lid closed. If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them on one side of the cooking area. For a low fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for about 10 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Brush the grill grate.

Lift the hens out of the marinade; pour the marinade into a small saucepan. Season the birds all over with salt and pepper. Stuff the cavity of each bird with a lime wedge and orange slices. Let the hens sit at room temperature for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the mop: Bring the marinade in the saucepan to a boil over high heat. Cook for about 4 minutes, then stir in the butter and orange liqueur. Reduce the heat to low to keep the mixture warm.

Arrange the hens in the smoker or on the indirect-heat side of the grill, breast side down. (If you'd like them to finish with a deep, dark brown color, start the hens over direct heat for 5 to 10 minutes, then move them to the indirect-heat side of the grill.) Close the lid and cook for 2 1/2 hours, turning them over halfway through the cooking. Use the mop to baste the birds every 30 minutes or so. The birds are done when the internal temperature, taken away from the bone, registers 180 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Their legs should feel loose at the joints.

Transfer the hens to a cutting board to rest for 5 to 10 minutes. Discard the skin and fruit in the cavities, if desired, before serving.

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Recipe Source

Adapted from "Smoke & Spice: Cooking With Smoke, the Real Way to Barbecue," by Cheryl and Bill Jamison (Revised Edition; Harvard Common Press, 2014).

Tested by Andrew Sikkenga.

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