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Why do people put Coke on their ham? What purpose does it serve? Is there another more specific and specialized ingredient that does the same thing?

This recipe is an example, but it isn't the only recipe that lists Coke as an ingredient. What's the point?

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  • sugar. With all the effects it has in a marinade.

  • caramel coloring. Well, it colors and caramels.

  • acid. Both the (volatile) carbonation and the phosphoric acid (not that much of it - undiluted phosphoric acid is a potent corrosive!). Possible tenderizing effect, taste enhancer, and will influence browning reactions on the surface (probably balancing the quick browning of all the sugar). Some cola brands are as acidic as plain vinegar!

  • various spices/spice extracts, some of which would also be well suited to savory cooking: Cinnamon and nutmeg, citrus oils (and also vanilla, which is of debatable merit in a savory recipe).

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    +1 for emphasizing the acid, which is strongest in Coke over other brands of 'soda', just drop a couple of nails in a glass of Coke and come back tomorrow. I would note that sugars are more "glaze" than "marinade" though that distinction is not particularly important. – Cos Callis Feb 7 '18 at 13:12
  • Phosphoric acid is used in heavy duty metal care products... rust removers and stuff... – rackandboneman Feb 7 '18 at 15:48
  • So you could use vinegar and sprinkle sugar over the ham and get the same effect? – Chloe Feb 8 '18 at 6:02
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    More like vinegar and syrup/honey ... – rackandboneman Feb 8 '18 at 8:56
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Basically, Coca-Cola is flavored sugar water, and serves to create a sweet glaze on the ham. It's similar to a maple glaze, honey glaze, brown sugar glaze -- but using Coke instead of a "plain" sugar base. It's often associated with Southern US cooking; Coca-Cola is based in Atlanta GA and there's a long history of cooking ham in the "local" cola.

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A bit of sweetness combined with a savory main meat element and probably some spices is a standard combination in many cuisines. Having many contrasting flavor elements in one dish can be like a painting with many colors: Not the only way to do it, but pleasant, if done right.

A British Christmas gammon may be studded with cloves and get a honey-mustard glaze. The Chinese pork belly gets a sticky sauce with soy sauce, honey, sugar and spices. The French Canard à l'Orange adds sweet and fruity flavors to the duck..... You can probably eat your way around the world and find similar patterns. Even the American diner breakfast with pancakes, maple syrup and bacon uses these elements.

Your ham in coke is a simple way of doing something along that line: you have lots of sugar, a touch of acidity and a few “herbal” notes from the coke. So sorry, no, the coke is not a “magic ingredient”. From a cooking perspective, using the coke vs. another type of braising liquid or glaze is a bit like using “cream of... soup” in a casserole vs. making a separate sauce. Neither is per se better, it depends on the desired result and possibly circumstances.

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