Does New Orleans' Famous Bourbon Chicken Contain Booze?

If you've ever been to New Orleans (or a mall food court) you've likely encountered bourbon chicken on a menu. This sticky-sweet, pan-fried chicken is often served with rice and is generally considered a fusion dish between Chinese and Cajun cooking as it originated in a Chinese restaurant on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Most people assume that the dish's name refers to an ingredient in the recipe, though there is some debate about this. Some claim the original recipe did not actually contain bourbon in the sauce and the name was derived from the street where it was made famous, while others believe it was because the chef mixed bourbon with traditional Chinese ingredients — such as ginger and sesame — to make the sauce.

But whether or not the original recipe contained bourbon is a bit irrelevant, since the majority of bourbon chicken recipes today do, in fact, include a helping of the iconic American beverage to round out their unique flavor profiles. That said, like most alcohol used in food, most of it boils off during the cooking process, leaving behind its sweet smoky flavor without the intoxicating side effects.

Cooking with bourbon

While most bourbon chicken contains some bourbon, the amount and type of bourbon in any given recipe varies widely. 

The flavors present in the bourbon you use for cooking will impact the overall flavor of the dish, and higher-proof bourbons will take longer to cook off the alcohol. So, you shouldn't use expensive bourbons for making sauces, as a cheaper bottle, like Jim Beam or Four Roses, can impart the same flavor without burning off top-shelf alcohol. Whatever bourbon you decide to use — whether you want a smokier, tangier, or sweeter variation of the sauce — the key is balancing it well with other ingredients. Most bourbon chicken recipes include soy sauce, chicken stock, bourbon, garlic, ginger, and brown sugar, though some also call for apple juice or apple cider vinegar and other spices to be added.

If you are someone who has a sensitivity to alcohol or wishes to avoid it for religious or health reasons, it may be best to avoid bourbon chicken — even if you can't get drunk on it. However, if you want to make it at home, it is possible to create without its namesake ingredient. If you're making bourbon chicken at home don't want to use any alcohol (or your home bar is simply out and you don't want to run to the store), hoisin sauce can be used as a substitute to impart a little extra flavor. Or, you can go a bit heavier on the soy sauce and chicken stock to make up for the missing liquid volume in your recipe.