The other day while I was looking for a way to marinade a piece of steak, I came across a recipe I found rather odd. This steak marinade actually called for using soda, specifically Coca-Cola to tenderize the meat. Just a quick search online gave me hundreds of Coca-Cola steak marinade recipes, including Jack Daniels and Coke marinade, Coca-Cola marinated rib-eye steaks and even Cola marinated flank steak.
After researching for a little bit I still wasn’t fully convinced that a bottle of sugary soda could break down meat proteins like that of an acid like lemon juice or vinegar. Obviously I had to test it out myself and see why everyone was calling Coca-Cola the best steak marinade around.
First things first, I needed to jot down my shopping list and make a trip to the grocery store to pick out my steak. I knew I wanted to go for a tougher meat, so that meant that strip steak, T-bone steaks, sirloin, rib-eye, tri-tip, and tenderloin were out of the question. Naturally more tender, testing out the effects of a marinade wouldn’t make sense.
So it was onto the tougher (and cheaper) cuts of meat–chuck specifically. On sale for $4.99 a pound, I grabbed two pounds of the meat and headed towards the soda aisle stopping to grab a bottled steak marinade.
The test is simple. Test equal amounts of boneless beef chuck with three easy steak marinades–Coca-Cola, bottled marinade, and beer. One steak would have no marinade and would act as the control. The marinade would sit for 2 hours, then the steak would be cooked in a cast iron skillet over high heat until medium-rare.
Once in the kitchen I divided the steak into 1/2-pound portions and placed them in individual plastic bags, pouring the marinades in each bag. The store-bought marinade had the most common marinade ingredients including soy sauce, garlic powder, brown sugar, lemon juice and olive oil.
Two hours later, I could already see a major difference in the color of steaks. The steak which was sitting in the beer was almost white in color while the steak in the soy sauce marinade was visibly darker.
According to The Kitchn, marinades are usually made with an acidic component (fresh lemon juice, orange juice, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, etc.) along with a flavor component (olive oil, basil, Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, sesame oil). As the marinade sits on the meat, the acid begins to break down the surface tissues, rendering it more tender.
In the article, “Unlocking the Mysteries of Marination” Food Editor Russ Parsons describes that most common meat marinades have a pH from 2.1 to 4.5, with lemon coming in as the most acidic at 2.1 and vinegar at 3-4 pH. Coca-Cola had a pH of 2.53, making it a perfect candidate to soften the protein on the outside of the steak.
All science aside, it was time to start to cook up these steaks using the same method, temperature and timing. Each steak got a sprinkling of salt and pepper and was cooked in a cast iron pan with butter and a bit of olive oil.
After spending some time cooking up the steaks it was time to dive in. I placed all four steaks on different plates, writing down the marinade and slipping it under the plate so no one would know. I called over my family for dinner and the testing began.
The first steak we tried with the Coca-Cola marinade was surprisingly tender and had a bit of a caramelized crust from all of the sugar in the marinade.
The second, the steak with no steak marinade recipe was cooked medium-rare lending to a bit of tenderness but had more of a resistance of the meat than the Coca-Cola.
Next up was the beer, and let me tell you, a pure beer marinade with a beer like Heineken is not the way to go if you are looking for flavor. Flavor points aside, this marinade took the longest chew and felt tough and fibrous.
Last was the bottled marinade and while it was the most flavorful the meat was actually one of the toughest of the bunch.
In conclusion, the steak that we found to be the most tender was actually the steak which marinated in the Coca-Cola. Can you believe it? Now I can.