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Cider Brined and Smoked Game Hens

By Chef John Ash

This brine technique works equally well with chicken or turkey. Brining is sort of a magical process that adds both flavor and moistness to the meat. Be sure to use the indirect heat method described below and monitor both temperature of the barbecue and the birds with a thermometer.
The objective is to cook the birds slowly enough so that they can pick up a rich smoky flavor. Enjoy a glass of Sonoma-Cutrer Owsley Pinot Noir while you are waiting for the birds to cook.

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    Serves 6

    Total Time 4-13 hours

    Prep Time 4-12 hours

    Difficulty Level Medium


    1 qt apple cider

    1/2 c sodium reduced soy sauce

    1 c brown sugar

    3/4 c kosher salt

    6 c water

    2 medium oranges, sliced

    1/2 c coarsely chopped ginger

    3 whole star anise

    2 tbsp chopped garlic

    3 whole bay leaves

    6 whole game hens

    Wood chips prepared for smoking


    1. Add the apple juice, soy sauce, sugar, salt and water to a saucepan and bring to a simmer stirring all the time to dissolve the sugar and salt. Add the oranges, ginger, star anise, garlic, and bay leaves and simmer for a minute or two then remove from heat and cool.

    2. Add the game hens to the cooled brine making sure they are completely covered. Refrigerate for at least 4 and up to 12 hours, turning occasionally.

    3. Prepare the grill using the indirect heat method (see next step for details) and also the smoking wood of choice according to the grill manufacturer’s instructions. Remove the hens from the brine, rinse and pat dry. Brush hens liberally with the olive oil, place on grill and cook/smoke until done.

    4. Indirect heat method: The method is simple. You first put a drip pan in the center of the charcoal bed and then arrange hot coal on either side. The cooking grate goes over and then you arrange the food (in this case the hens) over the drip pan. This method prevents flare-ups and the drip pan allows you to capture the juices to make a sauce or gravy.

    5. Birds should reach an internal temperature of 160° in the thickest part of the meat. Depending on heat of barbecue it should take approximately 40 minutes. Let birds rest loosely covered in foil for at least 5 minutes before carving.

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