Tandoor-Style Grilled Chickens or Cornish Hens Recipe (2024)

Why It Works

  • Cornish hens and smaller chickens cook through before their breast meat turns dry and leathery.
  • Butterflying and skewering the birds promotes even cooking and makes them easier to maneuver on the grill.
  • Deeply slashing the birds at one-inch intervals allows the marinade to flavor the meat more effectively.
  • Marinating the chicken for five hours flavors and tenderizes the meat without turning it mushy or chalky.

There are a few things in life that everyone should experience. First and foremost is rolling in snow and then jumping in a hot tub. It'll alter your life—or at the very least your circulation. But coming in a close second is watching a skilled Indian tandoor cook do his magic. There are few things more awesome than seeing bright red hunks of raw marinated chicken threaded onto massive four-foot-long metal skewers, seeing those skewers lowered down into the fiery inferno of a 900°F (480°C) clay tandoor oven, then emerging 15 minutes later charred, smoky, tender, and juicy.

You'd be surprised at how many Indian restaurants will happily let you take a peek into the kitchen if you ask nicely (I've never been turned down). Indian cuisine is largely spice- and sauce-based, but tandoori-style chicken relies more on its intriguing cooking technique than, say, a carefully balanced curry.

See, tandoor ovens—the large, bell-shaped coal or wood-fired ovens used in traditional Indian baking—were traditionally used only formaking naan. It wasn't until the early 20th century that an enterprising Punjabi restaurateur named Kundan Lal Gujral created culinary history by saying to himself,"Hey, I wonder what happens when I stick a chicken in there?"

It's a phrase I've used on many occasions, none of which has had as happy an ending as it did for Kundan. The dish would eventually go on to spawn the now equally-famous chicken tikka, which would in turn beget the British classic chicken tikka masala (essentially hunks of tandoori chicken cut up and served with a spiced tomato-cream sauce).

These days, pretty much every Indian restaurant in the United States prominently features tandoori chicken on their menu in varying degrees of quality. At its best, it'sincomparably juicy, mildly spiced, with an intense hit of smoke.Served simply with sliced onions and a squeeze of lemon or lime, it's good, honest, simple cooking. But more often than not, you end up with dry, stringy breast meat reheated in the oven—chicken so dry that even the sizzle platter it's served on can't save it.

My goal: figure out how to make this Indian classic in my own backyard.

The Basics: Chicken Prep

For reasons that should be readily obvious to anyone, we're not going to be making our chicken in a tandoor oven. Luckily, a backyard charcoal grill will do just fine (yeah, you can go with gas, although it won't get quite hot enough for what we're after).

With a traditional tandoor oven, the chicken gets cut into halves or quarters before being stuck onto skewers.On a grill, it's much easier to butterfly them.They stay flat, they're easy to flip, and they cook more evenly. The easiest way to butterfly a chicken is to cut out its back with a pair of kitchen shears (see our recommendationhere). A few snips through the ribs, a quick push down on the breast to flatten it and break the wishbone, and you're done.

Tandoor-Style Grilled Chickens or Cornish Hens Recipe (1)

Tandoori chicken is traditionally cooked with the skin off. While for most methods of cooking chicken this would be a bad idea (skin is an insulator that prevents dry breast meat from becoming tough or stringy), with tandoori chicken, the thick yogurt-based marinade helps to prevent the meat from drying out.

The easiest way toget your chicken ready for the grillis to twist the legs up so that they're pointing upwards and laying on either side of the breast. Then, I make sure everything stays flat and flippable by keeping everything in place with a couple of metal skewers (wooden ones will work, but don't expect them not to burn in the high heat needed for this type of cooking).

Once you get the chicken skewered, it's time for the marinade...

Do Marinades Really Work?

Of the various restaurants I've visited and recipes I've perused, there are only a few very minor variations in the cooking technique, andallof them start with a yogurt and citrus juice-based marinadeseasoned with garlic, ginger, a few spices, and a bit of red food coloring. This last ingredient is one that many restaurants actually seem embarrassed to admit to using.

"you'll see the telltale jug of red food coloring sitting right there on the spice rack."

I'll hear chefs say, "oh, the color comes from the cayenne pepper," but take a glance around, and you'll see the telltale jug of red food coloring sitting right there on the spice rack.

Simple fact: if you want your tandoori chicken to be the deep red shade you find at Indian restaurants, food coloring is the way to do it. I use powdered achiote, just because I have it on hand and it somehow feels more "natural" to me, but there ain't nothing wrong with a bit of the red dye #2.

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Back when I was in college, I was still of the mindset that in order to work, a marinade needs to, well, marinate, which meant time. I still know many people—well respected cooks even!—who think that as far as marinades go, longer is better. This is emphaticallynotthe case, and is one of the greatest marinade myths. There are a few ways in which marinadesdoact.

  • Fats and liquids transfer flavor.Aromatic compounds from spices, herbs, and whatever else you stick in the marinade will dissolve in fat (if your marinade has oil in it, for example), while other compounds will dissolve in water or in alcohol. This can help to distribute that flavor evenly around a piece of meat or vegetables. Note: this is essentially a surface treatment. Oils and fats willnotpenetrate into the meat at all.
  • Salt will loosen muscle fibers.I always put a good healthy dose of salt into my marinades, as it's one of the few ingredients that can actually penetrate the meat beyond the very outermost layers. Muscle fibers actually dissolve and loosen up in the presence of a salty liquid, allowing them to retain more moisture during cooking (see more on the science of brininghere).
  • Acid will "cook" meat.And herein lies the problem with most marinades, particularly those containing acidic ingredients such as wine, vinegar, or citrus juice. Acid can denature muscle protein in very much the same way that heat can (for more on the science of acids and meat, find a primer on the subject in my article about ceviche). Given enough time in an acidic marinade, your meat will dry out, turning stringy and chalky just as if you had overcooked it.

It's this last factor that I believe seriously destroys most bad restaurant tandoori chicken:chicken that's been allowed to sit in its marinade for too longso that it's already "cooked" before it even hits the oven.

Here's another fact about marinades: They don't really penetrate very deeply into the meat. Try marinating a piece of chicken or beef in a marinade with an intensely colored dye (such as a tandoori chicken marinade), and you'll find that even after 24 hours, it'll barely have penetrated beyond a few millimeters.

I've found that any more than six to eight hours of marinating in an acidic marinade and your chicken or beef will become hopelessly mushy and chalky in the exterior. I prefer the texture of afive-hour marinade.

Tandoor-Style Grilled Chickens or Cornish Hens Recipe (3)

Increasing Surface Area

So if a marinade is really essentially a surface treatment for meat, what's the best way to increase its effect on flavor?

How about we just increase the surface area of the chicken? By slashing it with a sharp knife at regular intervals along its surface (make sure to slashagainst the grain), you greatly increase the area in which the marinade can flavor it.

With my chicken done marinated, it came time to cook it. Now, if there's one thing I know about chicken, it's that Idon'tlike it when it's overcooked, and the FDA's recommended 165°F (74°C) internal temperature for chicken breast is well beyond the pale of what's acceptable to my palate. I much prefer my chicken cooked to a more reasonable (and still reasonably safe) 145°F (63°C). A temperature at which it still retains plenty of juiciness.

You hear a lot of fuss in recipes about how chicken legs need to be cooked a good 20°F higher than chicken breast, and how much of a problem this causes. The first part is true. Because leg meat contains more connective tissue, youdowant to cook legs hotter—to at least 165 to 170°F (74 to 77°C) or so, if not more. It's the latter part that completely ceases to be a problem once you start cooking your chickens butterflied.

Because the legs and thighs are thinner than the breasts, I find that they naturally end up about 20°F hotter than the breast when the whole thing is finished cooking, even without flipping, chilling, separating, or any of the other fussy techniques that have been developed over the years to deal with the problem.

TL/DR:Butterfly your chickens all the time, and you'll never have unevenly cooked breast and leg meat again. (Here's my recipefor butterflied roasted chicken.)

Smaller Is Better

There is, however, another problem with cooking chicken over high heat on the grill: the exterior begins to dry out before it's completely cooked through. Granted, this is not a huge deal—I even know some folks wholikethat slight leatheriness to the exterior of a piece of juicy grilled chicken breast. I, on the other hand, prefer my chicken to be juicy through and through.

The problem arises because the chicken simply takes too long to cook. The entire time it's on top of the coals, the exterior is slowly losing moisture. In the 15 to 20 minutes it takes for the very center to reach 145°F, the outer layers of meat have lost nearly 30% of their weight in water.

"The smaller the bird, the faster it'll cook through"

The easiest way I know to fix it?Use a smaller chicken. The smaller the bird, the faster it'll cook through, and the less time it'll have to dry out. Better yet,just use a Cornish game hen.These young birds, defined as a five- to six-week-old chicken that's a cross between a Cornish hen and another bird, are small, tender, and cook up really fast, resulting in meat that's significantly juicier than a larger chicken would be.

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Isn't that cute?

Once I'd decided to make the switch from chicken to hen, my tandoori-style chicken (er, hen) jumped up in quality by leaps and bounds. Insanely juicy, charred, smoky, and tender, it's quite honestly better than any I could remember having at a restaurant.

Don't want to fire up the grill? Don't worry, this works too:

Tandoor-Style Grilled Chickens or Cornish Hens Recipe (5)

At least, it's a decent approximation of working. Just don't expect any smokiness.

Tandoor-Style Grilled Chickens or Cornish Hens Recipe (6)

Next life goal: to eat awesome tandoori-style chicken whilst rolling in the snow next to a hot tub. Next winter, here I come!

Don't Forget the Naan!

Tandoor-Style Grilled Chickens or Cornish Hens Recipe (7)

In case you missed it,here's my recipe for making naan on the grill.

August 2011

Recipe Details

Tandoor-Style Grilled Chickens or Cornish Hens Recipe

Active60 mins

Total5 hrs

Serves4to 6 servings


  • 4 Cornish game hens, about 1 1/2-pounds each (see notes)

  • 2 tablespoons toasted ground cumin

  • 2 tablespoons toasted paprika

  • 1 tablespoon toasted ground coriander seeds

  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric

  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

  • 1 tablespoonachiote or a few drops red food coloring (optional)

  • 8 cloves garlic, grated on a microplane grater

  • 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated on a microplane grater

  • 2 cups yogurt

  • 1/2 cup lemon juice

  • 1/4 cup kosher salt

  • Thinly sliced raw onion

  • 1/2 cup roughly chopped cilantroleaves

  • 2 lemons or limes, cut into wedges


  1. Using sharp kitchen shears, remove the backs from the Cornish hens.

    Tandoor-Style Grilled Chickens or Cornish Hens Recipe (8)

  2. Peel skin off of hens, then using a sharp knife, make deep incisions at 1-inch intervals all over the flesh.

    Tandoor-Style Grilled Chickens or Cornish Hens Recipe (9)

  3. Lay hen with breasts facing up. Press down firmly on center of breasts until wishbone cracks and they lie flat. Arrange legs so that they are pointing up towards the top of the breast. Use 2 long metal or wooden skewers to secure legs and breasts in place. Place in a large rimmed baking dish.

    Tandoor-Style Grilled Chickens or Cornish Hens Recipe (10)

  4. Combine cumin, paprika, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, achiote, garlic, ginger, yogurt, lemon juice, and salt in a large bowl and whisk to combine. Pour marinade all over cornish hens, using hands to coat every surface. Cover loosely and refrigerate, allow to marinate for at least 4 hours and up to 8, turning occasionally.

  5. Ignite a large chimney starter full of charcoal and allow to burn until all coals are ignited. Spread coals evenly under one side of grill and set grill grate in place. Alternatively, set all the burners of a gas grill to high heat. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Brush grill grates clean.

  6. Wipe excess marinade off of hens then place meaty-side down directly over the coals. Cover partially and allow to cook until deeply charred on first side, 7 to 10 minutes. Flip and continue cooking until hens register 145°F (63°C) in the thickest part of the breast and 165 to 170°F (74 to 77°C) in the legs, about 5 minutes longer (for larger chickens, transfer to cooler side of grill, cover, and continue cooking until desired temperature is reached).

    Tandoor-Style Grilled Chickens or Cornish Hens Recipe (11)

  7. Remove hens to a large cutting board, tent loosely with foil, and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Remove skewers and using a heavy knife or cleaver, chop each hen into 8 serving-sized pieces. Serve immediately with onions, cilantro, lime wedges, and freshly grilled naan.

Special Equipment

Charcoal grill,chimney starter,instant-read thermometer,8 metal skewers, kitchen shears


Small chickens can be used in place of the Cornish hens. After initial charring steps on the grill, transfer chicken to cooler side of grill and cook covered until center of breast registers 140 to 145°F (60 to 63°C) on an instant-read thermometer.

Read More

  • How to Get Started Grilling
  • The Food Lab's Grilled Chicken World Tour: 5 Recipes to Rock Your Backyard Bird
  • Grilled Naan Recipe
Tandoor-Style Grilled Chickens or Cornish Hens Recipe (2024)


Which is better tandoori chicken or grilled chicken? ›

As per me, Tandoori chicken is one of the most healthiest food option out there. Traditionally its cooked in a Tandoor (Similar to Oven) and all the chicken fat melts down into the tandoor and thus making it more healthier.

Which is better Cornish hen or chicken? ›

Cornish Hens Tastier And More Tender

That quality, however, may be a reflection of the age of the mass-market Cornish hens. The USDA currently defines Rock Cornish and Cornish game hens as "an immature chicken younger than five weeks old ... of either sex, with a ready-to-cook carcass weight of two pounds or less."

What is the difference between tandoori chicken and regular chicken? ›

Grilled foods are cooked horizontally and require regular flipping to cook evenly. Since tandoors are cylindrical, food is cooked vertically on skewers, which allows heat to circulate around the food and eliminates the need for flipping.

Is Cornish hen better than turkey? ›

They're at least as scrumptious as turkeys, but they're much smaller — weighing in at 1 pound to 2 pounds — making them easier to cook. They roast up much more quickly, and you don't have to wrestle them into a roasting pan to make them fit. With hens that are on the large size, you get two servings out of every bird.

Which is healthier grilled or tandoori? ›

The grilling method makes tandoori chicken healthy as it doesn't require much oil and retains the proteins. The chicken breast is marinated with yogurt before grilling. Yogurt contains healthy nutrients, such as zinc, potassium and vitamin B12. It is also responsible for giving the dish its customary smoky flavor.

Which is healthier chicken tikka or tandoori chicken? ›

Chicken tikka is packed with protein, fibre, fat, and carbohydrates. It contains 0.7 grams of fibre, 4.2 grams of protein, and 5 grams of net carbs. On the other hand, Chicken tandoori is enriched with protein, fibre, and carbohydrates. It has 8.7 grams of net carbs, 1.8 grams of fibre, and 17.5 grams of protein.

What is special about Cornish hens? ›

Because they're harvested so young, Cornish hens' meat is exceptionally tender. Their high skin-to-meat ratio makes them remarkably succulent too.

Is Cornish hen more tender than chicken? ›

Size and age make all the difference

HowStuffWorks reveals that the younger age and smaller size of Cornish hens results in meat that is more tender and juicy than that of an older, larger chicken.

Why is Cornish hen so expensive? ›

Basically the difference is the age at which they are processed. Cornish hen is a strain of broiler that is slaughtered to have a weight of no more than two pounds after processed.

Why is tandoori chicken so tasty? ›

They are seasoned and colored with cayenne pepper, red chili powder, or Kashmiri red chili powder as well as turmeric or food coloring. The marinated chicken is placed on skewers and cooked at high temperatures in a tandoor oven, which is heated with charcoal or wood, which adds to the smoky flavour.

Why is tandoori chicken so popular? ›

Tandoori Chicken is one of the most popular dishes in Indian cuisine. The main ingredients are chicken and spices. It is famous not only because it is delicious but also because it is very healthy.

Why is tandoori chicken so good? ›

There is no dish more iconic than tandoori chicken in Indian food. People love this dish worldwide for its versatility and unique flavor. Since you marinate the chicken in spices and yogurt and then cook in the tandoor at high heat, the resulting dish is a moist and flavorful chicken.

Are Cornish hens worth it? ›

Since they are comprised of primarily white meat, Cornish hens are very lean and rich in niacin, which can help lower cholesterol and boost brain function.

Is Cornish hen cheaper than chicken? ›

Bred to develop a large breast over a short period of time, the fowl weighs roughly 2.5 pounds (1.1 kilograms) when slaughtered at four to six weeks of age and typically commands a higher price per pound than mature chicken.

Should Cornish hens be covered when baking? ›

Roast, uncovered, basting frequently with butter for 1 hour (if hen weighs over 1lb 2oz, roast 1 hour and 15 minutes) or until internal temperature on instant read thermometer reaches 180°F when inserted into inner thigh. 6. To brown, increase temperature to 400°F during last 10 minutes.

What is special about tandoori chicken? ›

They are seasoned and colored with cayenne pepper, red chili powder, or Kashmiri red chili powder as well as turmeric or food coloring. The marinated chicken is placed on skewers and cooked at high temperatures in a tandoor oven, which is heated with charcoal or wood, which adds to the smoky flavour.

Does tandoori chicken taste good? ›

Since you marinate the chicken in spices and yogurt and then cook in the tandoor at high heat, the resulting dish is a moist and flavorful chicken. The meat is succulent, and the skin of the chicken is usually crispy. Both chicken breasts or tights can use to prepare tandoori chicken.

Is grilled chicken the healthiest chicken? ›

When creating a healthy diet plan, grilled chicken is almost always a staple. This is because grilled chicken is lean and contains far less fat and calories than other types of meat. Eating it regularly can help you lose weight, especially when you swap it out for fattier meats like beef or pork.

Which is healthier grilled or roasted chicken? ›

Grilled chicken is generally lower in calories and fat, making it a good choice for those looking to reduce their calorie intake. Roasted chicken can be healthy as well, but it often contains more added fats and calories, especially if the skin is left on.


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