The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

The Food Lab Turbo: Easy Grilled Cornish Hens and Zucchini with Lemon-Oregano Marinade, Tzatziki, and Greek Salad

It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Last year I went into some pretty extensive detail about how to grill chickens for optimum crisp skin, grilled flavor, and tender, juicy, evenly cooked meat. The key? Butterflying (aka spatchcocking). It's a simple technique that lets you to cook your chicken flat, allowing rendering fat to drip out and providing the best path toward crispy skin.

And there's an added advantage to cooking a spatchcocked chicken: adjusting its position on the grill allows you to ensure that the delicate, prone-to-drying breasts end up finishing at the same time as the fattier legs. Your chicken will be juicier than you ever thought it could be.

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Want to make things even easier? Do what I do during the summer: grill Cornish hens instead of chickens. Cornish hens are chickens that are under one month of age and weigh about a pound, so they're the perfect size to feed one person. Young age means that their muscles have not yet had a chance to develop much tough connective tissue, so they're also extremely tender and juicy, with a very mild, delicate flavor.

Because of their small size, there's no need to cook them over indirect heat before moving them to the hot side to crisp, as you would with a chicken. Instead, just build a moderate fire (one-half to three-quarters of a chimney will do) and cook the birds skin-side-up first, getting their backs a bit charred and the skin lightly rendered; then flip them over and let them cook through, pulling them off the grill as the breasts reach 145 to 150° F as measured on that instant read thermometer you carry with you at all times.

If all goes well (and there's no reason it shouldn't), the legs should be at around 165 to 170º F by this time, and you should be whetting your appetite with your third or fourth beer.

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As far as flavoring goes, Cornish hens are very mild, so you'll want some sort of light marinade to add some flavor to 'em. Earlier this week, I wrote a recipe for a quick and easy chopped Greek salad—a summertime staple at my home, so seeing as I already had the requisite ingredients, I decided that a Greek-style marinade for my hens would be the ideal accompaniment. It's easy: lemon juice, good olive oil, oregano, garlic, salt, and pepper. Done.

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And since the grill was fired up anyway and there was a bit of extra space (I hate wasting fire in the summer), some zucchini in the same marinade seemed like a natural fit.

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If you want to go all out, you can reheat some flat pitas on the grill while your hens rest so that you and your dining companion can pick meat off the hens and wrap them up in the soft, charred bread with a dollop of tzatziki and some of the Greek salad as you go. I almost always want to go all out, as it makes my dining companion feel like they owe me a favor.

It's nice to be owed favors when you're enjoyoing the comfortable warm breeze on your deck and the ice cold beers are all the way in the kitchen.

Get The Recipe!

Easy Grilled Cornish Hens and Zucchini with Lemon-Oregano Marinade, Tzatziki, and Greek Salad »

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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