Food's Five Biggest Secret Recipes, and How They Are Kept Safe

This February, National Public Radio’s “This American Life” program claimed to have uncovered Coca-Cola’s legendary original formula, publishing it online for the world to see. The recipe is one of the most closely-guarded in the food and drink industry, and has been kept secret for one hundred and twenty-five years.

Unfortunately for NPR, the recipe wasn’t the real thing - or so the beverage behemoth says.

NPR isn’t the first to “reveal” Coke’s secret and it won’t be the last. According to a joint-study released by the antivirus software specialist McAfee and technology services provider, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), hackers are shifting away from stealing personal information and towards targeting trade secrets and marketing plans. Intellectual property will be the nourishment that feeds the new underground economy.

With that in mind, here’s how vaults, safes, seeming transparency, and a talking dog make America’s top five secret recipes impervious to cyber attacks.

KFC Fried Chicken

Bucking the paperless trend, Colonel Harlan Sanders’ Original Recipe eleven herbs and spices are inscribed in pencil on a yellowed piece of paper inside a Louisville, Kentucky safe, says KFC spokesman Rick Maynard. The safe lies inside a state-of-the-art vault that is surrounded by motion detectors, cameras and guards. Ninjas, too? Maynard won’t say.

Each supplier produces a different recipe component. A computer at a separate supplier blends the ingredients so no single supplier knows the whole recipe. And even if someone got the recipe, says Maynard, without the right proportions, cooking process time and temperature, “it’ll be fried chicken but it won’t be KFC.”

McDonald’s French Fries

The secret to McDonald’s fries, one of the few foods that please both toddlers and four-star chefs, is that there is no secret. So says Michael Butkus, McDonald’s Senior Director of Strategic Sourcing. It’s about the potato seed (high-starch russets), the farms, farmers, irrigation, handling and processing and the global standardization of that process designed to ensure that its fries everywhere taste the same. McDonald’s restaurants finish them “only with good, old-fashioned salt in a specific grind,” and serve them hot. That’s it, he says.

Not quite. Like KFC, Butkus won’t comment on frying temperature, duration, oil type, or freezing. McDonald’s par-fries their potatoes then freezes them, tossing them frozen into the fryer. Belgians, who invented French Fries, have always fried-twice but they don’t freeze-and-fry. Asked whether freezing is part of the secret, Butkus waxes poetic about potato-growing practices. You do the math.


North Carolina pharmacist Caleb Bradham (b. 1867) is forever linked to Hollywood legend, Joan “No Wire Hangars” Crawford simply by a tonic he invented in 1898. Brad’s Drink was later renamed Pepsi-Cola and Crawford ended up on its board after the death of her husband, Pepsi CEO and Chairman, Alfred Steele. Pharmacists of Bradham’s generation often concocted drinks with purported health benefits to sell at their soda fountains. Drinks began to be bottled in the 1890s.

Queries made by this writer about the recipe’s whereabouts were met with “we don’t talk about that” and “I can’t tell you anything,” by Emily-Post-Meets-The-French-Resistance spokesperson, Andrea Foote. “The best way to keep a secret” she says good-naturedly, “is to keep it to yourself.” PepsiCo says only that they “feel fortunate” to have developed proprietary recipes that consumers love. That’s like saying that people who win hundred-million dollar lotteries “feel fortunate” to have won.

Bush’s Baked Beans

Canning has been Bush Brothers & Company’s forte since 1904. If it could be put in a can - sauerkraut, spaghetti, etc. - they put it in a can. In 1969 the brothers Bush went to toe-to-toe with the big boys of beans, Campbell’s, Heinz and B&M, armed only with a recipe created by the founder’s daughter-in-law, Kathleen.

“Jay Bush knows the recipe,” says spokesman, Mike Morris. “He’s shared it with Duke, but we don’t make Duke unavailable for interviews.” Duke is the family dog who in commercials always threatens to spill the beans. A replica of the recipe book, sans recipe, is on view at their Chestnut Hill, Tennessee visitor’s center, says Morris.

Other than brown sugar and double-cured bacon, their spice blend makes the beans unique and, just like at KFC, no single supplier knows all the components. “We all take our own safeguards,” says Morris. “But I don’t think there a whole lot of international espionage out there to figure out how to make baked beans.”


“Revealing” Coke’s secret recipe has become a time-honored tradition occurring every two or three years says company archivist, Phil Mooney. “Someone turns up with ‘the formula’ passed down to him by a contemporary of Pemberton’s.” Pharmacist John Pemberton invented Coca-Cola on May 8, 1886, flavoring it with coca leaves and bitter, highly-caffeinated kola nuts. Pre-Coke drinks had fruit- or plant-based (i.e. root beer) profiles. Pemberton sold his formula for $2500 in 1887, dying a year later. In 1886, Pemberton sold nine Cokes a day. Today, the company founded on his recipe today sells 1.7 billion drinks every 24 hours.

The recipe lies in a vault in a downtown Atlanta SunTrust Bank vault and only two executives at a time have access to it. Mooney demurs when asked if anyone’s ever come close to uncovering the formula. Even if they had the ingredients, he says, they wouldn’t know the proportions or process. If ingredients don’t matter, when asked if he’d confirm whether Coke contains neroli, coriander and nutmeg oils, he responds, “It’s really quite amazing, isn’t it?” It’s a non sequitur that ensures that Coke will continue to benefit from the mystique that secrets tend to confer.

One person who claims to have cracked both the Coke and KFC formulas is recipe cloner, Todd Wilbur. He’s published his results in a series of ten best-selling “Top Secret Recipe” books. He says the companies don’t mind what he does: “Just because you make it at home doesn’t mean you’re not going to get it any more. They’re in the convenience business. I’m not.” Wilbur reverse-engineers recipes by isolating ingredients and components. He works backwards from the final product until he achieves taste parity. Try his versions of Coke and KFC Extra Crispy below and judge for yourself.


Recipes taken from Todd Wilbur's Top Secret Recipes, and Even More Top Secret Recipes courtesy of Plume books.

This Coke recipe, because of the old-fashioned technique of adding the syrup to soda water, creates a clone of Coke as it would taste coming out of a fountain machine, which is usually not as fizzy as the bottled stuff. But if you add some ice to a glass of bottled Coke, and then some to this cloned version, the bubbles will settle down and you’ll discover how close the two are.


6 cups granulated sugar

2 cups (one 16-ounce bottle) light corn syrup

8 NoDoz tablets, crushed to powder*

2 tsp citric acid

7 cups boiling water

1 tbs lime juice

1/2 tsp vanilla

1 drop lemon oil

1 drop orange oil

1 drop cinnamon (cassia) oil


1 tbs red food coloring

1 1/2 tsps yellow food coloring

1/2 tsp blue food coloring

44 cups cold soda water

1. Combine sugar, corn syrup, powdered NoDoz and citric acid in a large pitcher or bowl. Add the boiling water, and stir until the sugar has dissolved and the solution is clear. Strain the syrup though a paper towel-lined strainer to remove the NoDoz sediment.

2. Add the lime juice, vanilla, lemon oil, orange oil and cassia oil to the syrup and stir.

3. Add the colors to the syrup, then cover it and chill it for several hours until cold.

4. To make the soda, add 1/4 cup of cold syrup to the 1 cup of cold soda water. Stir gently, drop in some ice and serve.

Makes 44 10-oz servings.


The NoDoz substitutes for the caffeine originally derived from kola nuts. Each NoDoz table contains 200 milligrams of caffeine, and a 12-ounce serving of Coke has 46 milligrams in it. So if we use 8 NoDoz tablets that have been crushed to powder with a mortar and pestle (or in a bowl using the back of a spoon) we get 44 milligrams of caffeine in a 12-ounce serving or 36 milligrams in each of the 10-ounce servings we make with this recipe.

You’ll probably have more trouble obtaining Coke’s crucial flavoring ingredient: cassia oil. I was hoping to leave such a hard-to-get ingredient out of this recipe, but I found it impossible. The unique flavor of Coke absolutely requires the inclusion of this Vietnamese cinnamon oil (usually sold for aromatherapy), but only a very small amount. You’ll find the cassia oil in a health food store (I used the brand Oshadhi) along with the lemon oil and orange oil.

The yield of this recipe had to be cranked up to 44 10-ounce servings since these oils are so strong—just one drop of each is all you’ll need. Find them in bottles that allow you to measure exactly one drop if you can. If the oils don’t come in such a bottle, buy eyedroppers at a drug store. Before you leave the health food store, don’t forget to get the citric acid.

Because subtle difference in flavor can affect the finished product, be sure to measure your ingredients very carefully. Use the flat top edge of a butter knife to scrape away the excess sugar and citric acid from the top of the measuring cup and teaspoon. And don’t estimate on any of the liquid ingredients.


KFC’s Extra Crispy Chicken

1 whole frying chicken, cut up

6 to 12 cups vegetable shortening

Brine Solution

4 Cups cold water

2 tbs salt

1/2 tsp MSG


2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tbs popcorn salt

1 tsp MSG (see Tidbits)

1/2 tsp ground black pepper

1/2 tsp paprika

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

1/2 tsp ground sage

1/2 tsp ground coriander

1/4 tsp ground thyme

1/4 tsp garlic powder

1. Trim any excess skin and fat from the chicken pieces. Preheat the shortening in a deep fryer to 350 degrees. Use the amount of shortening recommended by the manufacturer of your fryer.

2. Combine the water, salt and 1/2 tsp MSG for the brine solution in a large bowl. Stir to dissolve salt. Add the chicken to the bowl and let it sit for 20 minutes.

3. Combine the dry coating ingredients in a large bowl. Mix well.

4. When the chicken has soaked in the brine solution for 20 minutes, coat each piece with the flour mixture and then arrange each piece on a plate or baking sheet. When al the pieces have been coated, drop one at a time back into the water again, then into the flour. This time roll each piece of chicken around with your fingers several times so that the coating builds up. This build-up of coating will make the chicken crispy. Arrange the chicken on the plate again until each piece has been coated. Let the chicken rest for about 5 minutes so that the coating sticks. Preheat oven to 225 degrees.

5. Drop the chicken, one piece at a time, into the hot shortening. Fry 3 to 4 pieces of the chicken at a time for 12 to 15 minutes, or until each one is golden brown. Be sure to turn the chicken halfway through the cooking time so that each piece cooks evenly.

6. Remove the chicken to a rack to drain for about 5 minutes before eating, then put the chicken into the warm oven while the other pieces are frying.

• Serves 3 to 4 (8 pieces of chicken)


MSG is monosodium glutamate, the solid form of natural amino acid found in many vegetables. It can be found in stores in the spice sections, and as the brand name Accent flavor enhancer. MSG is an important component of many KFC items.