The 10 Most Famous Kentucky Dishes

From Derby Pie to Mutton Barbecue

Benedictine spread with vegetable dippers.
Diana Rattray

Kentucky cuisine includes many familiar Southern foods, but the state also lays claim to many unique regional dishes. From the traditional Derby fare of Louisville and fine Kentucky bourbon to the mutton barbecue only found in Owensboro and the sustenance cooking in the Appalachian mountain region, Kentucky's cuisine is rich and diverse.

Several noteworthy Kentucky dishes originated in Louisville, its largest city. Benedictine, a sandwich spread made with mayonnaise, cream cheese, and cucumber, and colored with green food coloring, parsley, or spinach was first created by a local caterer. The Hot Brown sandwich was a specialty of The Brown Hotel and dates back to the 1920s. Derby Pie™, a trademark dessert of Louisville's Kerns Bakery, is sinfully rich and delicious, filled with chocolate chips and pecans. The pie is a tradition enjoyed on Kentucky Derby Day, the first Saturday in May.

Wilted lettuce—aka "kilt" lettuce—has long been a favorite in the Appalachian mountain region, along with fried apples and a variety of relishes and preserves. The apple stack cake is another specialty of Appalachia that is credited by many to James Harrod, founder of Harrodsburg, Kentucky, home of the Beaumont Inn. According to legend, the stack cake served as a replacement for a fancy (and expensive) wedding cake for the early settlers of the mountains. Neighbors would bring in cake layers to donate to the bride's family, and the family would spread the apple filling on the layers as they arrived. The number of layers was seen as a measurement of the popularity of the bride.

Celebrate Kentucky and its famous food offerings with these iconic recipes.

  • 01 of 10

    Kentucky Derby Pie

    Kentucky Derby Pie
    The Spruce

    This great Kentucky Derby pie is rich and deliciously decadent. The famed is a delicious combination of chocolate chips and walnuts in a sweet, buttery filling. A splash of bourbon adds local flavor to this version. Use ready-made purchased pie dough or bake the pie in a homemade pie shell. The original Derby-Pie® was created in the 1950s in Walter and Leaudra's Melrose Inn in Prospect, Kentucky. The Kerns continue to offer one fantastic version at Kern's Kitchen in Louisville.

  • 02 of 10

    The Mint Julep

    Mint julep in Kentucky Derby glass.

     Diana Rattray

    The mint julep is a time-honored sweetened Kentucky cocktail traditionally served at the Kentucky Derby, which runs annually on the first Saturday in May. Bourbon is used in the classic Kentucky mint julep, though you might find it made with whiskey in other states.

    Frosted silver plated or pewter cups were traditionally used, but today they are most often served in a highball glass.

  • 03 of 10

    Kentucky Benedictine Spread or Dip

    Benedictine spread with vegetable dippers.
    Diana Rattray

    Benedictine is another famous dish from Louisville, Kentucky. The spread—or dip—was created by Jennie Benedict, a caterer and household editor for the Louisville Courier-Journal. The spread is typically made with cucumber juice and cream cheese, along with onion juice and a few drops of green food coloring. This version includes a small amount of mayonnaise. It's a fabulous appetizer for a party, but you can also chill it and spread on sandwiches.

  • 04 of 10

    Southern Wilted Lettuce (Kilt Lettuce)

    Wilted Lettuce Salad
    Diana Rattray

    This "kilt" (or killed) lettuce salad will bring back fond childhood memories to people who grew up in the Appalachian region of Kentucky. Made with a hot, tangy vinegar and bacon grease dressing, it's similar to the Southern-style spinach salad. The hot bacon dressing "kills" the lettuce, making it wilt, so don't add the dressing to the salad until just before serving.

    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10

    Kentucky Bread Pudding With Bourbon Sauce

    bread pudding with bourbon sauce
    Diana Rattray

    This fabulous bread pudding was shared by the Beaumont Inn of Harrodsburg, Kentucky. According to Nick Sundberg, the inn's chef at the time, the bread pudding was a favorite at Sunday brunch. You can top the pudding with a whiskey sauce or non-alcoholic sauce, but the bourbon makes it pure Kentucky goodness.

  • 06 of 10

    Bourbon Balls

    Bourbon balls for gift giving.

    The Spruce

    Whiskey is made all over the world, but 95 percent of the world's bourbon comes from Kentucky. These sweet, slightly boozy bourbon balls are always a hit, and they are a delicious treat to make for holiday parties and gifts. They're similar to rum balls, but with that unmistakable Kentucky spirit.

  • 07 of 10

    Owensboro Mutton Barbecue

    Mutton barbecue in Owensboro, KY.

     Rick Browne/Getty Images

    Head to the Western Kentucky city of Owensboro for their unique mutton barbecue. The Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn and Old Hickory Bar-B-Q are two of the oldest barbecue restaurants in Owensboro, and they both offer mutton, beef, pork, and chicken.

  • 08 of 10

    Burgoo

    Bowl of beef and chicken stew, burgoo.
    Diana Rattray

    There doesn't seem to be a definitive answer to how this stew came to be called "burgoo." Some say it might come from the French, as in bourguignon, while others claim it is named after an oatmeal porridge which was eaten by British sailors as early as 1700. While burgoo was mentioned in print as early as 1830, it wasn't mentioned in association with Kentucky until 1941. Since then, burgoo has been a tradition, found at political rallies, potlucks, and barbecues statewide.

    While early burgoos were made with game meats and birds (or whatever was available), these days the typical pot of burgoo includes beef and poultry, along with a wide variety of vegetables.

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10

    The Hot Brown Sandwich

    Kentucky hot brown sandwich with bacon and tomatoes.
    bhofack2/Getty Images

    Create in 1926, the hot brown sandwich has long been a Kentucky tradition. The sandwich was invented by Fred K. Schmidt, a chef at Louisville's Brown Hotel. The typical hot brown is made with layers of turkey, sliced tomatoes, a cheese sauce, and bacon atop toasted bread. It's finished under the broiler for the perfect balance of gooey and crispy.

  • 10 of 10

    Kentucky Butter Cake

    Kentucky Butter Cake
    Diana Rattray

    The Kentucky butter cake is so moist and rich that it needs no other embellishments. The rich buttermilk pound cake bakes in a Bundt or tube cake pan. After baking, the cake is poked all over with a skewer; a sweet butter sauce is then drizzled over the cake, adding extra moisture and even more butter flavor.