When Making Bourbon Chicken, There's No Need To Reach For Top Shelf

prepared bourbon chicken
prepared bourbon chicken - Jennine Rye/Tasting Table

While liquor is best known for adding a definitive flavor to cocktails, it can also be an essential ingredient in the kitchen. A spirit-free penne alla vodka or drunken shrimp just doesn't have the same ring -- as well as taste -- to it. Another dish reliant on such a central boozy addition is bourbon chicken.

It's a dish with a fascinating medley of influences, combining Chinese-American stir frying techniques with a Cajun-tinged pour of an all-American spirit. The origins of bourbon chicken are disputed, but evidence points to New Orleans. With the city's iconic drinking culture, it's perhaps not a surprise the sauce is built around the spirit.

Yet despite bourbon's centrality to the dish the precise selection of the bottle isn't all that important. No need to splurge on one of the best drinking bourbons to craft a batch. Instead, settle on what's affordable and available. If you don't grimace at the thought of sipping the booze, then the dish will turn out tasty. After all, nearly all of the alcohol will cook-off, and there are plenty of other aromatics in the mix.

Read more: The 27 Best Bourbon Brands, Ranked

Bourbon Chicken's High-Heat Preparation Cooks Off The Spirit's Intricacies

bourbon deglazing pan
bourbon deglazing pan - Jennine Rye/Tasting Table

When preparing a batch of sticky Chinese bourbon chicken, the liquor is added during the deglazing step. It enters the pan at high heat and is purposefully subjected to evaporation. This is then followed by simmering for several minutes, alongside aromatic components like soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and vinegar. Considering that whiskey is the only alcohol that fully cooks out of a dish within minutes, it becomes clear that the bourbon's intricacies aren't at the forefront of flavors.

That's not to say bourbon isn't an indispensable part of the dish. Its addition mirrors how Shaoxing wine is used in Chinese stir fries. It adds complexity, and imparts a bold character to the palate of the sauce, mingling with the other components over high heat.  The bourbon's mash bill will bring additional notes, whether it's the spice of rye or the sweetness of wheat.

It's also helpful to consider the bourbon's alcohol content  in addition to palate. Reach for an overproof bourbon to increase smoky notes and better thicken the sauce. That extra alcohol content will enhance reactions, making that sauce extra glossy, sticky, and flavorful -- exactly what makes bourbon chicken so special.

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