8 Traditional Kentucky Foods to Serve for the Derby
When you think of the Kentucky Derby, you probably envision women in elaborate hats and sundresses, men in seersucker suits, and barrels of bourbon for all. You’re not wrong, of course, but for the Southerners who call the Bluegrass State home, the foods and drinks served that first Saturday in May are as worthy of celebrating as the race itself. We’ve rounded up eight of these timeless classics, along with recipe variations that honor the original flavors but add a novel twist. Consider this your complete guide to eating like a horse come Derby day.
1. MINT JULEP
Celebrating the Run for the Roses? The classic Derby cocktail is a non-negotiable. The recipe itself is straightforward—muddled mint, simple syrup, and bourbon over crushed ice—but that doesn’t mean you can’t jazz it up with jalapeños, fruit (try a version with peaches or blackberries), or even beer and basil. No matter which version you choose, make sure it includes crushed—not cubed—ice. The slushier the drink, the more delicious it is.
2. KENTUCKY HOT BROWN
This open-faced sandwich was first served in 1926 at Louisville’s historic Brown Hotel and has since become a regional favorite, appearing on the menus of many local restaurants. Sliced turkey and bacon are layered on top of thick bread, then covered in cheesy Mornay sauce and broiled until the bread crisps and the sauce browns. The hotel still serves its signature dish to this day; re-create their recipe, or try a twist on tradition with this adaptation, which reimagines the sammy as a savory tart. If you’re looking to feed a crowd, hot-brown sliders are the perfect party-sized bites.
3. BENEDICTINE SPREAD
Light and refreshing, this spread, which stars cucumbers, onions, and cream cheese, can be spread onto white bread and served as tea sandwiches, or placed out as a dip for vegetables and crackers. The original recipe, created around the turn of the 20th century in Louisville by famed caterer Jennie Benedict, calls for a few drops of green food coloring, but most chefs nowadays prefer to leave out artificial ingredients. It’s a simple recipe, which also means it’s ripe for interpretations. This rendition achieves the green coloring with spinach and adds a kick with green garlic. Dress up the spread even more by sprinkling crumbled bacon or herbs on top.
4. BEER CHEESE
This cheesy dip, best served with warm, soft pretzels, originated in the 1930s in—you guessed it—Kentucky. It’s so ubiquitous in the region that most natives don’t realize it’s not really a thing elsewhere in the U.S. But it should be! There, the gooey goodness appears on most bar menus and packaged versions are sold in grocery stores. While it’s gained popularity in other parts of the country in recent years, you’ll probably still have to whip up your own for your Derby party. Here’s a straightforward version that pairs a full-bodied beer with cheddar, Worcestershire, mustard, and hot sauce. Or go whole hog and make it a main meal, like this recipe for beer-cheese soup.
5. COUNTRY HAM BISCUITS
Salty, cured ham sliced thin, fried, and then layered between buttery biscuits—there might not be a more indulgent Southern specialty that makes the rounds at Derby parties each year. The Louisville food writer Steve Coomes likens country ham, produced mostly in Kentucky and neighboring Southern states, to “hillbilly prosciutto,” and it’s just as mouth-watering uncooked as it is pan-fried. For an update on the classic, slather baked tea biscuits with flavored mustard or butter blends before sandwiching ham slices in between. Can’t get your hands on a ham in time for the party? Make a simplified version with finely diced store-bought ham and mix it into the biscuit batter with a smattering of cheddar cheese before baking.
6. BOURBON BALLS
These boozy bite-sized treats—first devised in 1936 by Ruth Booe, co-founder of the Rebecca Ruth Candy Co. in Frankfort, Kentucky—can be rolled in powdered sugar or dipped in melted chocolate and topped with pecan halves; on the inside, the creamy center usually consists of some combination of bourbon, sugar, butter, chopped pecans, and semisweet chocolate. For a more unique presentation that preserves that sweet, boozy goodness, try a bourbon-ball trifle that layers chocolate cake with bourbon-laced pudding and mascarpone.
7. KENTUCKY BURGOO
A hearty meat stew, burgoo is most often made with chicken, beef, and lamb simmered with vegetables, beans, tomatoes, Worcestershire, sorghum or molasses, ketchup, vinegar, and spices. Nineteenth-century versions of burgoo served around the South frequently included squirrel, opossum, and rabbit, and was gently simmered and stirred for up to 24 hours. While we applaud the stamina of those early chefs, these days a good burgoo can be made in four to six hours. That’s still a commitment, to be sure, but the results—spicy, stick-to-your-ribs comfort food—are worth it. Like gumbo, burgoo has many variations; we’re partial to this one, which uses bourbon in the stock.
8. CHOCOLATE-BOURBON NUT PIE
Though all Kentuckians refer to this confection of chopped walnuts, chocolate chips, and bourbon as “derby pie,” you’ll never see it appear as such in cookbooks, thanks to the aggressively litigious Kern family, who originated the recipe in 1950 and later trademarked the name Derby-Pie™. Whatever you call it, though, it’s become a staple in Kentucky kitchens everywhere, especially at Derby time. You can still order the trademarked version through the Kern’s Kitchen website, but it’s easy enough to whip up your own rendition. Traditionalists will tell you that you have to use walnuts as the nut of choice in the filling, but pecans are often substituted, making the derby dessert essentially a pecan pie with chocolate and bourbon. This version, cleverly known as “Not Derby Pie Bars” tones down the sweetness a bit and reinvents the basic flavors as brownie-like bars.