The Cornish Game Hen Is Neither Cornish Nor a Hen

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 

Cornish Game Hens
These Cornish game hens sound exotic but are really small chickens. boblin/Getty Images

You may have seen them in fine-dining restaurants — cute, little hens served up one per plate. These tiny members of the poultry family are called Cornish game hens. But the name is a bit of a misnomer, because they're neither Cornish nor game birds. They're just little chickens.

While no one can say with certainty how Cornish game hens came into being, credit for creating the new breed is given to Alphonsine "Therese" Makowsky. Makowsky and her husband were living in Connecticut in 1949 when a fire killed the African guinea hens they were raising and selling. Afterward, Makowsky decided to try cross-breeding various chicken and game birds, and ended up creating the Cornish game hen, a combination of Cornish and White Plymouth Rock chickens. The new breed quickly became a hit.

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For the most part, Cornish game hens are just like any other chicken. But there are some differences. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which sets poultry classifications, Cornish game hens (aka Rock Cornish game hens) are chickens less than 5 weeks old with a ready-to-cook carcass weight of 2 pounds (1 kilogram) or less. The chickens may be of either sex.

Since the birds are younger and smaller than the regular chickens most of us buy — which typically weigh about 4 or 5 pounds (1.8 or 2.2 kilograms) and are about 8 weeks old — Cornish game hens are extra tender. That allows their meat to better absorb flavors from spices and marinades.

Cornish game hens also have thinner skin than regular chickens. This means their skin is easier to tear, so when preparing them you need to handle with care. Any stuffing must be kept to a minimum, too, or the skin could burst while in the oven.

Restaurateurs often enjoy working with Cornish game hens because, due to their pint size, they can serve an entire hen to one diner, creating a unique, visually appealing entree. The only downside to Cornish game hens is that they're pricier than regular chickens, whether you're purchasing them in a grocery store or at a restaurant.

In the mid-1960s, Tyson Foods began selling Cornish game hens. Today, the poultry titan is the leading U.S. producer, selling about two-thirds of all of the Cornish game hens produced in the U.S. And people around the globe enjoy them, too.

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Originally Published: Dec 23, 2019

Cornish Game Hen FAQ

Why are Cornish hens so expensive?
Part of the price is due to its decades-old reputation as an exotic new bird (though it really isn't). It's been marketed as a fancy alternative to chicken and so manufacturer's can get away with charging such a steep price.
What temperature should Cornish hens be cooked at?
You can cook them at a variety of temperatures, but 50 to 60 minutes at 425 degrees F in the oven should be perfect. To make sure you don't overcook the bird, use an instant-read meat thermometer to check the doneness every five minutes starting at around the 45 minute mark.
What is the difference between a chicken and a Cornish hen?
Cornish game hens are actually just tiny chickens. They're either sex, under five weeks old, and have a final carcass weight of two pounds (one kilogram) or less. Because they're younger than most chicken we buy at the grocery store, the meat is extra tender
How do you know when a Cornish hen is done?
You really need a meat thermometer to be able to tell when it's done (they're inexpensive, don't worry). The Cornish hen is done when the thermometer reads 165 degrees Fahrenheit at the thickest part of the meat. It can be helpful to test the temperature of a few different parts of the bird to make sure it's completely cooked.
What goes well with Cornish hens?
Since Cornish hens are pricey, take the opportunity to put together an elevated meal. Roasted or mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus, cooked vegetables and risotto are all excellent choices to go with your little hen.

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