Cider Herb Spiced Cornish Hens

These Cider Herb Spiced Cornish Hens are marinated in a mixture of apple cider, fresh herbs, brown sugar, maple syrup and spice, then coated in a homemade spice rub and pressure cooked until tender.   


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Two spiced cornish hens on a white platter with mashed potatoes and carrots

I have to admit, this year’s Holiday season is a strange one. We’ve operated (and survived) nearly an entire year of chaos and uncertainty. And, if you ask me, that’s something to be celebrated. Seriously, we should be standing on rooftops screaming “WE MADE IT!!!”.

Though next year holds its own ambiguity, I invite you to put that aside for a minute. Slow down the clock and don’t underestimate the power a holiday celebration has. Fresh baked pies, Thanksgiving parades, Christmas lights and glasses of bubbly have a way of lifting the spirit and infusing us with pure joy, and maybe even a little hope. Isn’t that what we all need?

I know most of us won’t get the chance to celebrate this season with our loved ones and that’s not easy. But, I encourage you to still make room for festivity, even if it’s just a little.

Today’s recipe, Cider Herb-Spiced Cornish Hens, is an offering to those who are looking for a smaller, yet still grand and elegant alternative to big birds and oversized hams. Whether you’re celebrating with a friend, partner or alone, a decadent meal is still so well-deserved!

A close up of cider marinated cornish hens on a white platter with carrots and white towel in background

How to Make Cornish Hens

Okay, it’s time to get down to business! This spiced cornish hens recipe is made in 5 simple, super straight-forward steps: prepping the hens, marinating, spice rubbing, pressure cooking and, finally, a quick air-fry. Because these birds are very small, they cook quickly and it’s beyond easy to secure tender, juicy meat and crisp skin.

Before you begin cooking, I encourage you to prepare your hens and assemble both the marinade and the spice rub. The better you’re prepared, the easier everything will be!

Here’s what you’ll need to have ready-to-go:


Most markets carry fresh cornish hens ready to cook. Choose hens that look plump and meaty, with unbroken, smooth, unblemished skin. A freshly-bought hen should be stored in the refrigerator and cooked within 48 hours of purchase. Allow the hens to sit out at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before cooking.

* If you’re starting with frozen hens, place them in a bowl and allow them to thaw overnight in the refrigerator.

Two small chickens in a plastic bag along with marinade


This marinade is how the magic is made! The apple cider, dark brown sugar and maple syrup infuse the hens with a subtle, earthy sweetness. Apple cider vinegar adds an acidic component while also helping to tenderize the meat. Onion and garlic layer in a pungent, aromatic element. Thyme and rosemary is what brings that fresh, herbaceous quality to the hens.

Tip: I highly recommend allowing the hens to marinate overnight! This ensures that the most amount of flavor will be infused into both the skin and the meat.


Once removed from the marinade and dried, the hens are begging for a little extra flavor! Paprika adds a smoky heat and helps to create a caramel-colored skin. More rosemary and thyme are added to really make sure that the herb flavor is present throughout the hen. Olive oil layers on a bit of fat that will crisp up the skin and add a subtle floral flavor.

Two cornish hens in marinade inside of an instant pot ready to cook

Don’t be shy with the salt and pepper! We want lots of bright, sharp flavor people!

TIP: After pressure cooking the hens, be sure to properly drain and clean the Instant Pot. You don’t want any rogue bits burning during the air frying process. But don’t throw anything out! Anything left in the pot can be used to make an incredible gravy.

Two small hens in an instant pot after being pressure cooked

What to Serve with Them

Spiced cornish hens can be served on their own as a light, yet satisfying meal! But, I suggest going the extra mile to create a little (or not so little) spread. Why? Because we all deserve a little extravagance this year!

Just to get the ball rolling, here are a few of my FAVORITE holiday (or weeknight) sides:

A cornish hen served over mashed potatoes, gravy, and carrots against a white background

Best Holiday Recipes

After a year of way too many ups and downs, we all deserve a rich, over-the-top, decadently-delicious meal. So, don’t stop with a couple hens! Using a few of my BEST recipes, dress up your table and indulge in a Holiday dinner you’ll never forget.

Here are a few to get ya started:

Two spiced cornish hens on a white platter with mashed potatoes and carrots

Cider Herb Spiced Cornish Hens

These Cider & Herb Spiced Cornish Hens are marinated in a mixture of apple cider, fresh herbs, dark brown sugar, maple syrup and spice, then coated in a homemade spice rub and pressure cooked until tender.
5 from 7 votes
Prep Time 5 hours
Cook Time 35 minutes
Resting Time 10 minutes
Total Time 5 hours 45 minutes
Course: Main Course
Servings: 2 cornish hens


  • 2 cornish hens 2 lbs each
  • 2 thyme sprigs

For the Marinade

  • 1 cup apple cider
  • 3 tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 4 tbsp dark brown sugar
  • 4 tbsp maple syrup
  • 1 large onion chopped
  • 10 garlic cloves
  • 1 tsp thyme leaves
  • 1 tsp chopped rosemary
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper

For the Cornish Hens

  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp paprika up to 1 tsp
  • 1/2 tsp chopped rosemary
  • 1/2 tsp chopped thyme leaves
  • Olive oil for drizzling


  • Prep both cornish hens by removing the giblets and rinsing with cold water then pat dry. Also remove any excess skin and fat.
  • Add a thyme sprig to the cavity of each hen then tie ends of the legs together with twine. Lift wing tips up and over the back then tuck them under.
  • Add both cornish hens along with all marinade ingredients to one large plastic ziplock bag. Mix ingredients well and refrigerate for at least 5 hours.
  • When ready to cook, remove hens from marinade, pat completely dry and season with salt, paprika, rosemary, and thyme.
  • Add cornish hens to Instant Pot then pour the remaining marinade in the inner pot. Lock with the pressure cooker lid and cook for 25 minutes at high pressure.
  • When the cook time ends, quick release the pressure.
  • Remove the pressure cooker lid and using tongs, take the hens out of the inner pot and completely drain the liquid (you can save this to make a quick gravy).
  • Making sure that your inner pot is completely dry, place the air fryer basket into the pot.
  • Drizzle the hens with olive oil to help brown and place in the basket. Top with the air fryer lid.
  • Turn the Instant Pot to air fry for 5-7 minutes. Once complete, let hens rest for 10 minutes.
  • Remove twine and sprigs of thyme from inside hens, then serve with remaining drippings or cook down to make a gravy and serve.


How to Roast Cornish Hens in the Oven: You can bake at 400 for 55-70 minutes or just until hens reach 165°F with a thermometer. 


Calories: 1233kcal | Carbohydrates: 78g | Protein: 86g | Fat: 64g | Saturated Fat: 18g | Cholesterol: 455mg | Sodium: 2633mg | Potassium: 2116mg | Fiber: 12g | Sugar: 37g | Vitamin A: 864IU | Vitamin C: 60mg | Calcium: 242mg | Iron: 6mg
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Filed Under:  Chicken, Christmas, Dinner, Fall Recipes, Holidays, Main Dishes, Seasonal Recipes, Thanksgiving


  1. Good morning! I wondered if you have a time and temperature conversion to a conventional oven for this recipe? No Instant pot or air fryer in the house. 🙂 It sounds delicious!!! I really enjoy your happy, upbeat and delicious blog – thank you!

    1. Yes I added the conventional oven instructions to the note section. Let me know if you have any additional questions.

  2. My husband and I were trying to decide what meat to have for Christmas and thanks to you we have decided to try your cornish hen recipe. Looking forward to making this, thanks again!!!

5 from 7 votes

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