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The Surprisingly Tasty Art of Cooking With Soda

Root beer potatoes, anyone?

Has your quarantine cuisine gotten a bit repetitive? Or is your pandemic pantry looking a little bare? Why not grab a can of Coke, pop it open, take a moment to consider your options… then pour that Coke directly into your next meal?

The idea of cooking with soda, rather than using it as a mixer, may sound bizarre to you, but there are plenty of chefs who know soft drinks make just as good ingredients as they do beverages. There’s an entire cookbook worth of recipes that use Coca-Cola, Sprite, root beer and other fizzy drinks, many of them Southern in origin. And while you may be thinking that sugary soda could only be a recipe for desserts, think again — they can be used to make an entire dinner.

Colas like Coke, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper actually make great braises, glazes and marinades for meat, especially pork. The sugar — well, the high fructose corn syrup — adds sweetness, much like the traditional brown sugar used to glaze hams and make rib and pulled pork sauces. Additionally, the acidity in sodas also helps tenderize the meat and reach that “fall off the bone” softness that we crave. This process takes time, of course, which is why sodas get used in a lot of slow-cooker recipes for roasts, brisket and ribs. Root beer, cherry colas and even Vanilla Coke can also add some interesting (and tasty) additional flavors to meat if you’re feeling experimental.

If you’re a fan of combining meat and citrus (e.g., Canadian bacon and pineapple) you can use Sprite, 7 Up or Mountain Dew to provide a citrusy tang, which is especially good if you’re making shrimp or Mexican dishes like carnitas. Orange sodas like Crush and Fanta will do the trick, too, but they can also be used to augment the flavors of homemade Orange Chicken if you’re craving Chinese. Speaking of chicken, Martha Stewart’s website has a recipe for chicken wings glazed with Coca-Cola, while ginger ale sauce can give piquancy to chicken breasts. And believe it or not, Beer Can Chicken can become Soda Can Chicken easily using just about any flavor of soda.

Baking with soda is just as prevalent, maybe moreso. Coca-Cola cakes are a Southern tradition, which is pretty much just a regular chocolate cake with a cup of Coke added to it. The flavor of Coke brings depth to the dessert, while the soda’s carbonation provides bubbles to help make the cake light and airy. The recipe can also be used to make cupcakes as well, obviously, but the Coke is used in the frosting as well. Just cook it down with butter, vanilla and unsweetened cocoa, add powdered sugar and whisk.

Root beer cakes, Dr. Pepper cakes, Sprite cakes, orange soda cakes, ginger ale cakes — you get the idea — all exist, too. The general rule is to use dark brown sodas for chocolate cakes and lighter sodas for white cakes, because they pair better together. In a pinch, you can even use soda as a substitute for butter and eggs. Seriously! Just grab a box of instant cake mix, ignore everything it tells you to add, pour a can of soda in it instead (or 12 ounces, if you’re a 2-liter drinker), mix and bake. While not everyone swears by it, the result is a Vegan, much lower-calorie dessert, which you can lower the calories even further by using diet soda instead. And if you stick to the brown soda/chocolate and light soda/non-chocolate divide, sodas can be added to brownies, cookies and even fudge

But you can’t just make a meal of a hunk of soda-augmented meat and dessert, right? Well, of course you can, but you don’t need to stop there. Soften your carrots in Coke before you roast them to add a bit of sweetness. Marinade peppers, onions or other veggies in soda before skewering them and tossing them on the grill, then use it to juice up your baked beans. And then you can serve biscuits made with Coke, Sprite or Mountain Dew on the side.

Look, once you’ve broken all cooking taboos and dumped Coke in spaghetti sauce, there’s no reason why you can’t add some soda to just about any recipe that can accommodate the addition of liquid and sweetness, of which there are plenty. Soda is just flavored, carbonated water, after all, so all that really matters is if the flavor pairs well with whatever you want to make. 

Hell, if something completely crazy like root beer potatoes sounds good to you, nothing’s stopping you. After all, no matter how crazy a concoction you make, someone has almost certainly beaten you to it.