September is National Bourbon Heritage Month, not just in Kentucky but everywhere, which means many people will be lifting a glass of America’s native spirit. But you don’t have to stop there: Bourbon is a great addition in the kitchen. And not just for a cocktail while you cook.
Bourbon’s sweetness and subtle flavors often work well in desserts, as anyone who has ever had May Day pie can attest. But did you know it also makes a great marinade for meat?
In fact, I would have said about the only thing that bourbon wouldn’t go well with are cucumbers, but then I ran across a great recipe for a bourbon vinaigrette that would work with just about any salad.
“I think a cucumber can work. You put a touch of soy or fish sauce in a vinaigrette and it works,” said Jonathan Searle, chef at Lockbox, the restaurant at the 21c Museum Hotel in Lexington. A cucumber is neutral enough to work fine, but he said high-acid summer vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers might make it hard to balance the flavors.
Fall is a time when cooking with bourbon is particularly appealing.
“September is bourbon month for a reason, because now is the time you’re drawn to drinking and cooking with that spirit,” he said.
In general, Searle favors using bourbon for its sweeter notes: “the vanilla, caramel, butterscotch notes, especially something with nice spice finish.”
But savory dishes can work, too.
“It’s really about tasting and trying the bourbon and seeing if it has long spice finish,” Searle said. Bourbons, especially high-rye ones, often have black pepper notes that add a spicy kick.
Searle really likes using bourbon with pork, especially for brining pork chops, which are on the Lockbox menu right now. The bourbon contributes notes of allspice and clove, and can even impart a fruity note, depending on the bourbon.
One tip: Don’t waste your really high-proof bourbons in cooking. Save those gems for drinking, he said.
Chef Ouita Michel of Holly Hill Inn and other Central Kentucky restaurants has a slightly different idea: Use them as an accent, but don’t cook them.
“The higher the quality of spirit — a really beautiful bourbon you’ve been saving for a while — think of it as you would a finishing oil,” she said. “A splash in the sauce as you’re finishing. Or in the whipped cream.”
Or in the tapenade or pesto, she said. Really? Yes, anything “you want to brighten up.”
She suggested a great use for the better bourbon: marinating peaches.
Macerate fresh peaches in honey; add sugar or, even better, sorghum, bourbon and a little lemon, and let it sit. “Put that on pound cake, and oooooh,” Michel said. “Just drink the juice afterward.”
She likes to use lower-proof and lesser-quality bourbons for high-temperature cooking.
“One of the first ways I first started cooking with bourbon, back in the dark ages, I would just use a French recipe. They would use brandy; I would you bourbon,” Michel said.
One of her favorites: scallops au whiskey. She sears sea scallops and deglazes the pan with bourbon. “I’ve done it many times. It’s based on an old French recipe. There’s a million of them like that,” she said. “But don’t use your high-end bourbon, don’t use 120 proof, and don’t pour straight out of the bottle! It really can light it on fire.”
She also likes to do that with a nice steak, or mushrooms.
“I cook in animal fats, in general, duck fat, and season it good. Get a cast-iron skillet really hot, get a really good crust on one side, pour out the extra duck fat, then put your bourbon right in there right on top of that meat,” Michel said. “It picks up all of that fond (meat stuck to the bottom of the pan after cooking), and will evaporate super-fast, and go right into that steak. Add a bit of cream, green peppercorns, another splash of bourbon, some tarragon, and you’re all in.”
Bourbon Banana Sticky Toffee Cake
from executive chef Jonathan Searle of Lockbox
6 ounces bananas, rough chopped
3/4 cup bourbon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
11/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 ounces butter
1 cup dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
4 ounces butter
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
5 ounces banana (mashed)
1/4 cup bourbon
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Soak bananas in bourbon and vanilla for 15 minutes. Stir in baking soda.
Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, beat butter and sugar together until light yellow and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time.
Add dry mix in three batches until fully incorporated and slowly add the banana mix. Transfer batter into greased baking dish. Bake for 20-25 minutes until cake springs back when poked.
For sauce: Melt butter in a saucepan, add brown sugar and cinnamon. Caramelize, then add mashed bananas and bourbon. Burn off all alcohol, and add cream and vanilla. Place on top of cake. Pair with your favorite ice cream.