Summertime Cooking With Coca-Cola

What could symbolize summer more than the sound of cracking open an ice cold Coke? Sweet, sugary, and ridiculously satisfying when the weather is hot and humid, Coca-Cola is America's go-to soft drink. Served in tiny glass bottles, a can, or sipped out of a to-go cup from your local pizzeria, Coke has been there through the years. Yes, it has seen its trials: being laced with actual drugs, damaging health accusations, cane sugar vs. corn syrup debacle, and some sad attempts at low-calorie soft drinks. But, through it all, Coke has remained an American stand-by and is found in almost every vending machine, gas station, and restaurant today. 

What you may not know about Coke is that it actually works really well in recipes. If you've ever had a beer-braised dish, then you know how much goodness an ordinary drink can add to a dish. Same goes with Coke.

Though Coca-Cola tightly guards their recipe, many of the flavors can be picked up and manipulated to work for different dishes like these braised short rib sliders and glazed lamb skewers. Patrick Phelan, the Executive Chef for Assouline, created these recipes for the launch of the new Coca-Cola book (filled with gorgeous photographs of the soft drink through the years). He shared his delicious concoctions and some interesting knowledge about cooking with Coke — there's more to it than you would have thought.

What does Coke add to a recipe? "Probably the most significant thing is the vanilla-caramel flavor with hints of orange," says Phelan. But he adds that because of the glucose and citric acid, the soda is also a great natural thickener, so it's really great for dishes that need to reduce.

For more tips and insights into cooking with Coca-Cola, check out what chef Phelan has to say and try your hand at his delicious recipes. 


What would other flavors did you find in Coca-Cola?

I would start by saying that when I get requests like this to put a specific ingredient in food, rather than putting the ingredient straight in, I try to figure out best what's in it. Coca-Cola is very secretive, but I found lime juice, vanilla, caramel, orange, nutmeg flavors in it. All of these flavors are added to the dish, and I try to exploit those them, so I don't just pour Coke in and make it the center point.


What do you add to a sauce to balance out the sweetness of Coke?

It's interesting because we did some savory dishes, for dessert it's not an issue, but for savory, if you season the meats before with salt and pepper, that savoriness tends to take care of that sweetness. 

For the lamb skewers, we basically seasoned the lamb with salt and pepper and nutmeg, which we pulled from the Coca-Cola flavors, and that made a really salty rub on the meat. Then the tartness of the tomato came up to balance that. For using the sauce reduction, it's your preference for when you are grilling to either baste it or put it alongside as a dipping sauce.


What types of foods does it work well with?

I think definitely with the dishes we did the meats worked best, just because any time you sear meat and then cook in braising liquids, things like orange rinds, coriander seed, star anise, vanilla, lemon and lime juice are all great accompaniments in a braising liquid. There's already carbonation in Coke, so when we are doing brisket, similar to beer braises, Coca-Cola works really well in that. You get some tanginess with the meats, but pairing it up with fruits is one of the ways to go.

You can also do a chicken stir-fry dish. Mountain Dew just had me do a stir-fry recipe for them and Coca-Cola works in the same way. If you coated the chicken with equal parts cornstarch and flour, and put a sear on that, you could go with Worcestershire or soy sauce and hit that with the Coca-Cola, and you'd get a thick sauce like the one you want in a stir fry.


What would you say to people who would argue against using Coke because it's full of sugar and caffeine?

I think my general feeling on all cooking, especially if you are going to some of the finer restaurants today, you're going to find pork belly and foie gras on the menu. If you ate those in excess, they'd be bad for you. I think even in these recipes, for things like sugar and caffeine, anything eaten with restraint is acceptable in cooking in my opinon. But it's funny, because I'm not a big soda drinker. 


Could you ever use Diet Coke in any of the recipes?

I'm not sure. In my personal opinion, it tastes extremely different than regular. Of course it would cut down on the sugar and calorie content. Regular Coke has a really sweet finish to it and that's the last thing left on your palate in my opinon. With a lot of diet sodas, the lingering taste is more of a cornstarch taste. That being said, the soft drink itself is being used so minimally that I don't know if it would make a difference as long as you used other natural flavors like orange, lime, and lemon, which is what I would encourage in all of these recipes. Use the flavors that build it up and use the natural ingredients that make it shine. You'll get a better result. 

Click here to see the Homemade Oreo Cookies with Cream Filling and Milkshake Shots. 

Click here to see the Glazed Lamb Skewers with Charred Tomato, Apricot, and Exotic Spice. 

Click here to see the Braised Short Rib Sliders with Pickled Red Onion, Arugula, and Gruyére.