Bland cornish hens from slow cooker
December 25, 2020 8:04 PM   Subscribe

Today, I made made this recipe for cornish hens in the slow cooker. But they turned out very bland.

I admit that I forgot to baste the hens. But at least the bottom half of the hens were bathed in the sauce. And we couldn't taste any of the sauce on the hens at all.

I also admit that I overcooked the hens. But that seems like it would just make them more tender, not bland.

Can this recipe be made un-bland?
posted by NotLost to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I find most slow cooker recipes are bland (my guess is it’s why so many include stuff like powdered ranch dip or canned soup concentrate), and way better in a Dutch oven with lid cracked in a 300°F oven. Slow cookers IME lead to bland sauces because by design there’s no maillard browning or evaporation. SE with the breakdown.

Otherwise it might have just needed more salt.
posted by supercres at 8:17 PM on December 25, 2020 [22 favorites]

Yeah there isn't any salt whatsoever in this recipe unless the stuffing mix has salt. My guess is that's the primary problem..
posted by Happydaz at 8:28 PM on December 25, 2020 [5 favorites]

What supercres said: browning and use more salt than you did. I’d also reduce the remaining juices significantly — by half — and pour over or serve as a side.

On refresh: salt and pepper is not explicitly listed. It’s in the first sentence: Season the hens, inside and out, with salt and pepper.
posted by lemon_icing at 8:32 PM on December 25, 2020

Ramp up the salt significantly, probably. You can also dry brine your hens ahead of time which will go a long way (just liberally salt all over and let them sit for up to a day, though just an hour will be helpful too.) I would be hesitant to open a slow cooker to baste, considering how long it would take for it to get back up to temperature? Also, the stuffing mix is going to soak up a ton of flavor and not give much of anything back to the birds and not get any browning at all...

I would dry brine, mix a significant portion of citrus into the stuffing to put something with flavor on the inside of the birds, increase the salt, orange zest, and lemon content of the sauce, and brown the outside of birds before putting them in to slow cook. And I would do it in a pot in the oven as suggested above so I could more confidently baste and get back up to temp faster. In short, I would use a different recipe.
posted by Mizu at 8:56 PM on December 25, 2020 [8 favorites]

Before I even opened up the recipe, I thought: “probably not enough salt.”
Slow cookers notoriously dampen spices and flavors. I always end up seasoning with salt and pepper after the food leaves the slow cooker.
posted by gnutron at 9:30 PM on December 25, 2020 [3 favorites]

Is the picture with that recipe representative of what your hens looked like? I’d be surprised if you could get that kind of color in a slow cooker; that looks like a crisp skin from a pretty high-temperature roast.

I would modify your recipe by first putting the hens breast side down in a hot skillet with olive oil and crisping the skin. Then add them to the slow cooker together with any juices from the pan.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:00 AM on December 26, 2020 [2 favorites]

Yes, I find it hard to believe that the picture represents birds cooked in a slow cooker. I don't think you can get that type of browning in a slow cooker. My Christmas dinner was a crown of duck, and it was incredibly flavorful and moist. I dry-brined it first, for about 6 hours, and cooked it for a long while in a slow oven on top of a little mountain of apples, oranges and prunes. I did baste it. I'm saying this to add my voice to the chorus of dry-briners.
However, I think you should crisp up the skin of the Cornish hens after cooking, under the broiler.

I would also season the juices before serving (while the birds are broiling), with salt and pepper as needed, more orange juice and maybe a bit of Worcester Sauce and Aceto Balsamico.

Using a home-made chicken stock made from roast chicken carcasses or chicken thighs would probably also improve the taste and mouthfeel, since store bought stocks rarely have enough gelatin and umami, in my experience.
posted by mumimor at 2:01 AM on December 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's definitely possible to make flavorful things in a slow cooker, but it requires a ton of seasoning.
posted by wierdo at 4:20 AM on December 26, 2020

The cup of chicken stock seems unnecessary and adds so much moisture that it sounds more like soup. Basting helps get some of the flavors on the skin, but the steam will baste the food inside for tenderness, and I doubt it would make much difference. I'd leave out the stock entirely; the OJ and lemon juice would then be more dominant and they should provide plenty of bright acidity. That seems like an awful lot of honey; I'd cut that way back. And, yes, more salt and pepper. I imagine this would work best in a large crock pot that would act as a roaster.
posted by theora55 at 5:13 AM on December 26, 2020

Bigger picture: some recipes are just bad ideas that make bad food.

If something very simple like "more salt" or "brown it under the broiler at the end" doesn't help, it might be easier to find a different recipe.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:36 AM on December 26, 2020 [2 favorites]

I once accidentally overcooked chicken thighs in a slow cooker (had it set on high instead of low) and they were inedible. It was a recipe I’d made before so I knew the issue was due to overcooking. Man, they were nasty.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 5:42 AM on December 26, 2020

I guess it depends on what is in the stuffing mix but in addition to no browning and maybe not enough salt, this sounds like it would be bland AF no matter what because there are basically no herbs, aromatics, or spices aside from some citrus. I'd modify as follows:

1. Pan fry the hens to brown the skin, set aside
2. Dice some onion and sautee on medium heat in the same pan until soft and lightly browned, add diced carrots, celery, and some herbes de Provence blend and fresh ground pepper, sautee until just al dente
3. Use some of the chicken stock (okay) or some white wine (better) to deglaze the pan, cook off some of the liquid
4. Add orange juice, chicken stock (less if you used white wine in the previous step), veg oil, and citrus zest, stir briefly to heat and combine. At this point taste for salt and add more if needed.
5. Place the hens in the slow cooker, pour sauce over to coat. Set slow cooker to low and check on it after maybe 4 hours? Continue cooking time as needed but be careful of leaving it too long and ending up with chicken mush (a slow-cooker hazard).
posted by 4rtemis at 6:34 AM on December 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would have put halved citrus fruit in the cavity, and cooked the stuffing in the oven (so that it's crispy around the edges). But then, I think I would probably have skipped the slow cooker completely. As others have said, things don't really brown in a slow cooker. And yes, lots more seasoning.
posted by pipeski at 6:43 AM on December 26, 2020

If you scroll through the pictures, they do put it on a sheet pan and (probably) broil them.

That's a poorly written recipe. I'm not sure about all those positive reviews. Maybe they all like bland food. The one critical review was spot on with the poor directions. If you need to broil something at the end, you should write that. You should not rely on someone to realize you have to scroll through the pictures to see that step.

I'll nth the salt. Plus box stuffing mix is pretty bland, IMO. It needs onions/garlic/shallots, herbs, some citrus zest, maybe a little cayenne for heat (if that's your thing).
posted by kathrynm at 9:00 AM on December 26, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you scroll through the pictures, they do put it on a sheet pan and (probably) broil them.

Looking at it on my phone I didn’t even realize there were multiple pictures.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:50 AM on December 26, 2020

You should not rely on someone to realize you have to scroll through the pictures to see that step.
My, those pictures are a completely different recipe! Apart from broiling the Cornish hens at the end, they also show stuffing between the birds in the slow cooker. Which may be nice for some people, but I can tell you got a strong NO from my family once I tried something remotely similar. Stuffing is all good, but you do not want stuffing at the expense of sauce/gravy.
OP, dump this recipe.
posted by mumimor at 10:59 AM on December 26, 2020

I made a similar mistake with a dish this Christmas because I used no added salt stock instead of my usual "normal" version the dish ended tasting a lot blander than when I normally make it. So I'd lean into not enough salt as most of the umami flavor boost would come from the stock reducing with that ingredient list and could be as simple as you used a different brand of stock than the person making the recipe & it didn't reduce as much. Also your hens may not have been injected with saline solution a lot of chicken is to give it weight & keep it moist and again make it seem more flavorful.

Also it looks like they browned the chickens at the end, which they don't mention in the recipe but show in the pictures.
posted by wwax at 11:36 AM on December 26, 2020

I don't think the recipe is badly written --the photos are user-submitted and reflect alterations which some of the commenters shared. I never assume that the pictures and the recipes are from the same person on any site that allows people to upload their own, but sometimes they are useful for tips.

I do think the recipe is poorly constructed. In addition to the things lacking that others have pointed out, the broth and stuffing mix used could have a major impact on the flavor (or lack thereof). The seasonings in those are just as important as the ones explicitly listed out. To be honest, the amount of things I'd change with this recipe are so numerous that it wouldn't be as quick to prep as this one sounds like and I, too, probably wouldn't use a slow cooker for these in the first place.

Also I think the blandness would be enhanced by overcooking... I think a lack of flavor is more noticeable when the texture is compromised.
posted by sm1tten at 11:59 AM on December 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

Thank you for so many helpful responses.

My hens did not look like those those in the photo. Mine were not brown and crisp.

I was smart enough to doctor the stuffing mix. I added onion, celery, and poultry season. The stuffing was actually good.

But I don't plan to use this recipe again. And I am now doubting how much I will use the crockpot in the future.
posted by NotLost at 6:07 PM on December 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

Don't give up on the crockpot yet. We make corned beef in ours. We frequently dump in country style ribs and bbq sauce and set it to make pulled pork.
posted by kathrynm at 5:02 PM on December 27, 2020

The thing about slow cookers is they're great for some things and terrible for others. They're great for soups and stews and chili and that sort of thing. Stuff that would normally simmer for hours on the stovetop.

They won't give you the just-cooked juiciness of a good roast chicken. They definitely won't brown anything. Honestly, a photo of browned skin on a slow cooker recipe is a sign that they're lying about how the recipe will turn out.

If you want a slow-cooker chicken recipe, make chicken soup or chicken cacciatore or gumbo or etc.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:24 AM on December 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

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