Coke-Braised Carnitas


A few soda-related joys in life: Icy Coke with grilled cheese after a day at the beach; a can of Dr. Pepper to wash down my slice at Sal’s Pizzeria; Orange soda — the nasty, neon kind– with grilled hot dogs at my elementary school end-of-the-year picnics circa 1978.

My kids have no such romantic association with soda. Last weekend, when Andy grabbed a giant bottle of generic cola off the shelf, you would’ve thought we’d tossed a few bricks of cocaine into the shopping cart.

“Dad! What are you doing?” Abby shouted. “That’s SODA!”

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “And it’s uh.maze.ing.”

He knows the deal.

It’s not like our kids don’t drink soda or even that we have officially prohibited it in the house. They drink it on vacation or at the beach or with lunch at the hot dog stand or Shake Shack. (Chasing down a burger with water just doesn’t cut it somehow.) Thanks to movies like Fed Up, books like Chew on This, and mayors like Bloomberg, we never had to explain that it wasn’t exactly the healthiest idea to chase down a meal with a 12-ounce drink that contains 10 teaspoons of sugar. You could say the conversation was in the air. (Or in the case of Fed Up, screened in an actual 7th-grade classroom.)

“I’m not going to drink it,” Andy told the girls. (Phoebe was now piling on). “I’m going to cook with it.”

Needless to say, this explanation didn’t do a lot to quell the riot in aisle four. And by the time he glugged almost half the bottle into a hot Dutch Oven over a pork loin in pursuit of candied carnitas, the girls were thoroughly disgusted. With him. With us. With the Coca-Cola Company. With Atlanta. Until, of course, we poured them a tall glass over ice. With the mercury dipping into the single digits, this was decidedly not lunch at the beach, but the girls (like the rest of the world, hence the problem) were powerless against soda’s siren call.

And the tacos, of course. I was tired of the basic tomato-based braise. I was in the mood for a more sweet-and-spicy filling, which is why Andy seized on the Coke plan. Not like he was the first. Coke, with its distinctly caramel-y irreplaceable flavor profile has long been used by chefs and cookbook writers in braises. It’s the key ingredient in my sister’s Hanukkah brisket every year. And when paired with some heat (hot sauce) and salt (soy sauce) for an all-afternoon pork braise, it’s a contender to show up on our dinner table a couple times a year, too. If the kids allow it, of course.


The pour. You want the braising liquid to be about half way up the pork.


Slow-braised Pork Carnitas

2 to 2 1/2 pounds pork loin
2 tablespoons peanut oil (olive oil is fine if you don’t have peanut)
2-3 cups Coke (or enough to go half-way up the pork; see level in bottle above, that’s how much what was left over)
1 tablespoon hot sauce or Sriracha
2 tablespoons soy sauce
6-8 tortillas
toppings: avocado slices, shredded cabbage, cotija cheese, sour cream, lime wedges, salsa

Preheat oven to 325°F. Over medium-high heat, brown pork in peanut oil in a Dutch Oven on all sides. (Don’t skimp on this part. You want a nice brown crust.) Add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Cover and place the pot in the oven with lid slightly askew. Turn every 30 minutes or so, and remove after about three hours. Remove pork from liquid and shred on a cutting board using two forks. Place pork in a bowl or platter as you go. Toss with a little bit of the braising liquid — just a little, it’s very sweet. (See: 10 teaspoons sugar above!)

Heat tortillas directly on burners (or in a cast-iron pan on high heat) for about 20 seconds a side until charred. Keep them warm under foil as you go.

Garnish with desired toppings and serve.

Freeze extra pork for easy weeknight dinners.

Chef’s privilege.

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39 Comments

Lucy Mitchell

I can remember, back in the 80′s, sitting beside my best friend and her saying “you know, coke actually is IT. The add is true!” I don’t drink it now though. I wonder would that recipe work in a pot in a regular oven? On a low heat for about two hours?

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It sounds yummy! But I’m curious about how it looks when the dish done…
Although I know coke is not healthy but like the kids, I really like it >.< Thank you for sharing the recipe.

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Jan @ Family Bites

Fantastic! I used to make a cola-braised pot roast for dinner, and the leftover liquid made the most amazing gravy ever. Time to dust that recipe off and give it a go again.

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Randi

Oh how funny! My two boys are the exact same way if they see me or their father with a soda.

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Danielle

mmm….I would love to make tacos with this one day and a burrito bowl the next.
How do I modify if I don’t have a Dutch oven? Is that do-able?

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Melissa@Julia's Bookbag

OH YES. this is happening as soon as I get the roast. and the soda :)

fav soda memory – orange Fanta at our favorite Chinese food restaurant, when I was a little girl growing up in Hawaii :)

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Kath the Cook

Here’s an alternative, so delicious, so easy…

Carnitas
Adapted, just barely, from The Homesick Texan Cookbook
3 pounds boneless pork shoulder or pork butt, cut into 2-inch cubes
1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 cup lime juice (from about 2 to 3 limes)
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon Kosher salt, plus more to taste

Corn tortillas, for serving plus
Avocado slices, chopped cilantro and fixings of your choice (we love pickled jalapenos or onions, lime wedges and a bit of slaw)

Place the pork in a large Dutch oven or heavy pot. Add the orange juice, lime juice, garlic, cumin, salt and enough water to just barely cover the meat. Bring the pot to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer uncovered for two hours. Don’t touch the meat.
After two hours, increase the heat to medium-high and while occasionally stirring and turning the pieces, continue to cook for about 45 minutes, or until all of the liquid has evaporated, leaving only the rendered pork fat. Let it sizzle in this fat long enough to brown at the edges, turning pieces gently (they’ll be eager to fall apart), only as needed.
When pork has browned on both sides, it’s ready. Adjust seasonings to taste and serve on warmed tortillas with fixings.

Pickled Onions – thinly sliced red onions
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup water (sometimes I just omit water)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

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Chrissy

It’s funny how some things just become okay and necessary ingredients for the sake of a dish! Orange crush is my favorite trip down memory lane.

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Gretchen

That last picture reminds me of the scene in “Elf” when Buddy chugs a 2 liter of Coke:

You sure like sugar.

Is there sugar in soda?

(nods)

Then yes!!!

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Jenny

To those of you wondering about the crockpot — I’m sure you can do this. You’d have to brown the pork first on the stovetop though. Then proceed as directed maybe on low for the 6-hour setting? Veteran slow-cookers should weigh in here, but I kind of feel like you can’t really go wrong as long as you start with browning.

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lulu

Yes, this can be perfectly made in a crockpot. I dont even brown the meat, why add something extra to wash. And instead of hot sauce, i use canned chipotle peppers in adobo, do not use the whole tiny can, its pretty spicy. This adds smokiness, extra flavor and spice to anything.

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Tina

I made this in my slow cooker tonight, and it was amazing. My 5 year old prefers coke braised pork tacos to my usual tomato based recipe, and it turned out so well. I made a few modifications:
-Used pork shoulder, as that’s what I had, and it’s a better choice for the slow cooker.
-After browning the meat, I added the liquids to the pot and reduced them somewhat, before adding the liquids and the meat to the slow cooker.

We don’t have a $200 dutch oven, so I modify all of your braises for the slow cooker, and it usually works out quite well. I tried your dinner party ragu last week, with the same liquid-reducing modification as above, and it was amazing, too.

My 6am self has been very kind to my dinnertime self this week!

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Tina

Tiffany, I had it on low for about 10 hours. This would destroy a pork loin but works so well for a pork shoulder. It absolutely fell apart after this amount of time, the outside was caramel dark and the inside was silky and unctuous. My whole family couldn’t stop picking at it while we got the rest of dinner on the table.

I used my smaller slow cooker, in which a pork shoulder fits rather snugly, without touching the sides of the insert, so one can of coke was perfect, after reducing it on the stove. My husband flipped the pork half way through the cooking time, which isn’t strictly necessary but ensures you get caramelization on both sides.

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erica

HELLO!!!

I make this in the crock pot. just drain off the soda. shred and add a little bit of bbq sauce.

serve with cole slaw and toasted burger buns.

BTW I love my crockpot, reading all the comments on here about how people hate it makes me sad

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Jenny

Don’t be sad @Erica! You’ve figured it out. I’m still in the learning process here. In my limited experience, I have found that most of the slow-cooked meat I’ve made comes out tastier when I have a chance to brown it. But I realize the whole point of a slow-cooker is that no-brainer ease –so that’s what I’m struggling with. Thanks for weighing in with instructions for other crock-pot lovers.

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Tina

If I don’t brown meat before it goes in the slow cooker, I find it has a lot less flavour and texture in the final product. So -I- think it’s worth it. Also I can start to develop the sauce in the browning pot, scraping up all the fonds bits and reducing the liquid, because you need a lot less liquid in a slow cooker.

My daughter’s RaddishBox arrived yesterday, and this month’s theme for that is the 5 flavours, and we got to talk about how the coke braised beef had all of those flavours – sweet from coke, salty from soy sauce, spicy from chili paste, bitter from the sprinkling of over browned bits, umami from the lovely silky meat.. teachable moment!

Jenny, I love my crock pot too but one has to realize it’s limitations and adjust recipes (and expectations) accordingly. For taco meat and other wetter/mushier foods, it’s marvellous. For turning super cheap cuts of meat into food you’d marry, it’s marvellous.For beans, soups, all-day simmered sauces, it’s marvellous. But it does not brown, it does not crisp, it does not concentrate flavours – I don’t actually mind a bit of extra work (browning meat, reducing sauce before or after cooking, adding ingredients at different stages) because in the end, it’s still less effort than a stovetop meal, and it’s still my 6am self taking the load off of my 7pm self… I’ve adapted a number of your Dutch oven recipes quite successfully, I think, but it’s never just a dump-and-go scenario. I have recipes like that, just dump everything in and walk away, but they are pretty basic family fare, nothing to blog about. :) Each has it’s place. I love my slow cooker for big batch cooking of sauces, stews or braises – a extra pot is no big deal when I’m making dinner for three different nights in one go, stocking the freezer with ingredients or whole meals. There are some very good slow cooker cookbooks out there, and lots of substandard ones – I really like Andrew Schloss’s Art of the Slow Cooker, also Not your Mother’s Slow Cooker… Judith Finlayson’s Vegetarian Slow Cooker is also useful, for beans and greens and such.
Your Korean short ribs, your pork shoulder ragu – both are regulars at my table, via the slow cooker. Roast chicken to shred and use in other meals (because of food allergies we can’t buy rotisserie chickens). Chicken, veggie or turkey stock simmers overnight while you sleep. Pulled pork for tacos (tomato/spicy or coke braised). Your tomato sauce , with or without grandma’s meatballs (browned on stovetop or in the oven then plunked into the sauce to cook). All kinds of pasta sauces, in fact, and I have a fantastic recipe for slow cooker butter chicken, wherein you simmer the sauce all day, puree it, and dump the chicken pieces in for the last hour and finish with cream.
A colleague taught me to use whole spices in the slow cooker, and it makes a huge difference. You really need to over-season, if you want the flavours to be great at the end. Liquid doesn’t evaporate, so there’s lots of dilution, I guess. Please stick with it, as I’m sure you’ll find a role for the device in your kitchen. It can’t do everything, but it is worth using for some things :)

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Nicole @ thejameskitchen

Uuh, I think, I can never go back from the Homesick Texan’s Carnitas either but I see the beauty in cooking with coke or root beer etc. and will certainly give it a try: it is a spiced brine with sugar.

Absolutely, 100% agree with only drinking sodas or juice on special occasions (luckily I grew up in the 1970s in Germany, where sodas where not only very expensive and my parents did not allow me a coke at all. Even the brilliantly marketed Kindercola (children’s coke) or any other sugary drink was only poured in small glasses on holidays, outings, birthday parties and the like. Man, am I grateful & I should tell my Mum.

I am very interested in food, nutrition and all related subjects – how could I not, I love cooking & eating – and have followed the scientific studies and public debates. Being regularly in Britain, I was already quite shocked by what triggered Jamie’s (British) School dinners programme, gosh, ten years ago: children not knowing an onion from a leek or an asparagus spear and how could they eat what they don’t know, simple? What kind of food products they got hooked up on and fed in schools as well as at home, terrifying. It surely is not a question of money or even education but of attitude, education and the ability to question.

How can we leave small children alone in choosing the food they eat & make the right decisions every day for themselves when we are not giving them the tools to make an informed decision or even offering a proper choice. We do not let them choose their clothes most of the times or vote or drive or drink because we feel they are too young to act responsibly. I am gobsmacked.

Thank you for bringing up Fed Up, I did not know it. What horrified me the most about Fed Up, is the absolute truth that we would go to war if a foreign country would do this to us or our children. Now substitute country with power, a power that only has their own interest and profits at heart. It highlights all over how important it is to think & cook for yourself. I admire your blog and books exactly for that: giving people, who know how to cook as well as people who don’t or struggle with it, ideas and impulses.

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Susan

What a great post. We eat tacos all the time and I love this alternative. We’ll be trying this soon. Have a lovely weekend!

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Bérangère

This is torture!! I’m sick, fridge is empty and waiting for a brave outing in subzero temperatures to get some decent grub. Kids are crying in unison about how hungry they are… I have a frozen chicken breast on the bone, some sad looking garlic and 3 limes and somehow ended up here. :) I could eat this so badly.

I was curious though. Why do you use pork loin instead of shoulder? It could simply be that it is what you had on hand and felt like having carnita right? :)

I recently had 2 pork loins but was craving pulled pork so badly and held back because of the cuts I had. I figured I should suck it up and wait for the next trip to the store for some pork shoulder or pork butt. I usually handle pork loin as a roast, infused with garlic and herbs like thyme or rosemary, seared and layer on top of a bed of onion or carrots that roast with it. Takes less time, super tender with a decent sauce if you add cider or broth to deglaze. It never occurred to me that it could be handled like that.

I am trying this version this weekend!

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AB

Tina, thank you for the comments about slow cookers. If you had a blog I would totally read it. Hint to the folks promoting your blogs here – I would check them out too if you had substantial posts and not the usual “yum! I’m making this tonite!”comments.

Anyway, I agree completely with your points about slow cookers. To paraphrase a saying about salads, be a thief with seasonings and a miser with liquids when it comes to slow cookers. A little liquid goes a looong way. If you add too much, you end up boiling the food for several hours – yech.

Although sometimes I do the dump and set, I often use slow cookers on the weekend. We are still busy, but usually have a later start to the day, which gives me time to do the extra prep needed to create a delicious meal waiting for us when we get home from a busy day around town.

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Andrew

I’m a huge fan of braised pork! I’ve tried coke, pepsi, root beer, but I think my favorite would have to be using dr. pepper.

Such a great dish that’s so easy to prepare. Just season the meat, toss it in a slow cooker with the soda and you’ll have a hot dinner by the time you get home from work!

I usually use a pork shoulder, but I’ll have to give your pork loin a shot

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Phoebe @Feed Me Phoebe

Jenny, the use of coke is so clever! Will definitely have to try this out for all the braising I am likely to do later this winter! Have you tried braising pork with any other soda? Let me know! xo

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Alma Smith

Dear Jenny,
As a full blooded mexican with a passion for my family’s roots, culture, and culinary tradition, I feel that I must inform you that your recipe, however creative it may be, is not a truly authentic way to cook carnitas. It is unfortunate that many people, in an attempt to recreate such a delicious dish, resort to the use of short cuts & substitutes.
True carnitas are never cooked with any kind of soda, Coca Cola or not, and neither are they braised before cooking. You see, carnitas have been around since long before the invention of soda pop, and it was never an original ingredient. While hot sauces and salsas might be a fantastic garnish to the finished tacos, those too are not included in the creation of this dish.
Also, in line with keeping things authentic, you would never use soy sauce in lieu of salt. If anything, use Sea Salt, if you do not prefer table salt.
My family comes from a long line of mexican butchers, and has passed down, in complete secrecy, a true, and very authentic recipe for Pork Carnitas. So secret, that the only way to receive it, is to marry into, or be born into our family. It pains me to say that for this reason, I cannot share with you the real recipe.
Please know that I am not writing this for the sake of criticism. I write this to educate both you and your readers on authentic cooking. While a recipe may be similar, no random concoction of ingredients deserves the labels of “real” or “authentic”, when it comes to cooking carnitas. The word carnitas refers to a very specific dish, and a very specific method of cooking, and this recipe, like many others, does not make the cut.

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It sounds yummy! But I’m curious about how it looks when the dish done…
Although I know coke is not healthy but like the kids, I really like it >.< Thank you for sharing the recipe.

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