Jack and Coke – and meat?

From M., 18 January 2010, Marinating meat in booze and soda – does it work?

Q: Traveling in Korea this week, I at copious amounts of marinated beef. A couple friends of mine commented, the best beef marinade they have ever had was a mixture of Coca-Cola, Orange Juice, and Bourbon. Why would this be a good blend? I also heard that the Coke breaks down the meat, is this true?

A: Thanks for your question. This is an interesting one, and I may revisit the question in the future when I have an evening to experiment with a couple of Cokes and some bourbon in a controlled environment. I can make some educated comments right now, though.

Coca-Cola, like all carbonated drinks, is slightly acidic, as it contains carbon dioxide and phosphoric acid. It also contains sugar (whether in the form of sucrose – table sugar – or high fructose corn syrup). Acids tenderize meat somewhat by breaking down the fibers, so a marinade including Coca-Cola (or any other carbonated soft drink) would have a mild tenderizing effect. Not much, though, because marinades don’t penetrate more than about 1/8″ into the meat. At the same time, the sugar in the drink would promote caramelization when the meat is roasted or grilled. Orange juice also is acidic (and slightly sweet) – it long has served a purpose in marinades. Think of Cuban roast pork, marinated in a sour orange mojo.

Bourbon is sweet and contributes other flavors as well, like vanilla, caramel, tobacco, and citrus. Despite the other flavors and the caramelization potential of the sugar in the bourbon, I’m not always crazy about adding a lot of alcohol to marinades. Unless you flame off the alcohol first – by burning it off in a pan on the stovetop – it can contribute that alcohol taste to the food, especially if you leave the food in the marinade for a long time. My advice when using alcohol in marinades? Leave it in for a short time only, or burn off the alcohol before adding it to the marinade. Place the alcohol in a pan on the stovetop. Using a long match, light the alcohol. Allow it to burn until the flame dissipates, indicating that the alcohol has burned off. I usually burn off alcohol for braises as well.

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