Inside The Whiskey Kitchen: An Introduction to Cooking with Whiskey

I love cooking and learning how to bring a sense of place to my dishes. In wine-growing regions, they cook with local product as it is abundant, familiar and brings a sense of terroir (taste of the land).

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, we too have a distinct terroir that is represented in the amber-water known as bourbon whiskey. It reflects our seasonality, ingenuity, independence, patience and tastes. Incorporating whiskey into cooking helps bring a plethora of flavors (like caramel, vanilla, ginger, citrus, smoke, and more) and a unique twist that most will enjoy without being able to identify.

On a scientific level, the alcohol bonds with the fat and water molecules to blend and carry flavors across both sense of taste and smell.

I add whiskey to marinades, braises and sauces. It brings a noticeable brightness without the sour zing of a vinegar. It also adds a subtle woody, smoky flavor that helps connect it with other tastes. For best results, stick with 2 oz whiskey per four (4) servings.

Cooking with whiskey

The raw ingredients for a dish cooked with whiskey (image via David Frick)

Whiskey can also be used with sweets, baked goods and glazes, where it can pair with ginger, citrus, cinnamon and nutmeg. Best results come from 1 oz whiskey for four (4) servings.

Safety First

Let’s start with a couple ground rules to prevent any problems. 80+ proof is highly combustable:

  • Rule 1a: Have a small fire extinguisher handy. This should be a kitchen staple anyway.
  • Rule 1b: Use a pan with a snug-fitting lid. No oxygen… no flame… safety of house and people.
  • Rule 1c: Never pour whiskey over open flame. Turn the burner off or move the pan to unused burner while adding the spirit. Give it a moment while the highly combustable bubbles and vapors escape before returning the pan to the heat. (Unless, of course, you want to flambé.)
  • Rule 2a: Only cook with what you will drink. Skip the top shelf and opt for the house bottle you normally use with cocktails.
  • Rule 2b: Pour yourself a glass to enjoy while cooking. Let the flavors inspire.
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Personal note on rule 2: I prefer bourbon and rye whiskey options aged four to six years that range between 90 to 100 proof. I find Scotch whiskies can overpower with smoke and peat. Canadian and Irish blends can be too smooth and subtle for cooking.

Simple Starts

Adding whiskey is a crafty way to elevate basic recipes, impress foodie friends, build repertoire and expand your palette. Take this recipe with catsup for example.

Gourmet Catsup: 

  • Empty an entire bottle of basic catsup into a saucepan on med-low heat.
  • Add several dashes of Worcestershire sauce, a tablespoon of steak sauce, and 1oz whiskey.
  • Stir regularly while bringing it to a slow simmer for 3-5 minutes.
  • Let cool with lid for 30 minutes.
  • Pour into new squeeze bottle or clearly mark the original.

You’ll enjoy a richer, savory sauce with a non-tangy brightness that fills the nose and mouth. Since there is alcohol in it, you don’t want children using it for their nuggets, fries, green beans, or whatever. They probably wont like it anyway because it isn’t what they are expecting.

Looking for something a little more sweet?

Bourbon Salted Caramel Sauce:

  • What’s not to love about sugar, cream, butter, and vanilla being delicately boiled into an oozy, decadent sauce!?
  • Adding a pinch or two of kosher salt is elemental.
  • Stirring 1oz of whiskey just as you take it off the heat sends it to another stratosphere!

Without technically getting cooked, the whiskey is very aromatic and helps bring out deeper notes of vanilla, toffee, and molasses while somehow keeping the entire sauce balanced and enjoyable. Enjoy it on chocolate cakes, fruit pies, ice cream, or even just a spoon!

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Slow-Cooker Magic

Slow cookers are excellent braising machines that make delicious meals easy. Whatever the cut, my basic rub is salt, pepper, garlic powder and paprika. My braising liquid includes Worcestershire, honey, smooth brown mustard, house whiskey whisked together.

Elevate meat from bottom of pan (carrots and potatoes, or included rack) and pour enough braising liquid to cover 1/4-1/2 the meat. Place lid and select setting to cook for at least 4-6 hours.

May these ideas inspire you to elevate your cooking to allow you, friends and family to enjoy the fruits of your Whiskey Kitchen. There is much more to come.