“Liquid smoke” sounds like a semi-magical substance, and to some, even a little scary, but it’s actually a simple and totally natural product that can be a useful addition to your pantry, as long as you know how to use it (sparingly). Let’s take a look at how liquid smoke is made, whether it poses any health concerns, and how it can add flavor to your food.
How is Liquid Smoke Made?
When wood is burned, it produces vapor (i.e. smoke), which can be trapped so that it condenses and turns into a liquid. This liquid is then concentrated to intensify the smoky flavor, filtered to remove bitter, undesired compounds and impurities (like ash), and bottled up for distribution. Some brands do add other ingredients like salt, sugar, molasses, vinegar, or artificial coloring, but liquid smoke always starts as burning wood (often, the chips and sawdust produced by cutting hardwood into lumber).
The product has been around for quite a while. The first brand of liquid smoke sold in America—Wright’s, which is still a top seller today—dates back to 1895. Pharmacist Ernest H. Wright was inspired to experiment with the substance by a drop of black liquid he observed trickling down the side of a stove-pipe, which admittedly doesn’t sound terribly appetizing. At the time, smoke was valued more as a preservative than a flavor-enhancer, although it had the added benefit of tasting good too. Wright’s liquid smoke was marketed as a quicker and cheaper alternative to the painstaking process of actually smoking meat—which is both an art and a science—in order to make it last longer. It still serves the same basic purpose as a shortcut ingredient, although it’s the sought-after smoky flavor that people want these days, with little thought to its preservative properties. While barbecue purists will fight you (hard) on its legitimacy as an ingredient, most people are perfectly happy with the iconic “barbecued” flavor liquid smoke imparts to meats cooked indoors.
If you’re an inveterate DIY-er, you can make your own liquid smoke, but if you’re willing to go to that much trouble, you’re probably already prepared to smoke-cure your own meat anyway. For the rest of us, small bottles of liquid smoke are usually stocked near the barbecue sauce in most supermarkets. You can find various flavors, including hickory, mesquite, applewood, and pecan. Since they’re generally used in such small quantities, it doesn’t make a huge difference which flavor you buy, although, of course, additives will change the individual flavors more, so you may want to stick to brands with fewer ingredients—and taste a bunch to find your personal preference. You can also buy liquid smoke online; Lazy Kettle is one of the more popular brands without additives.
Is Liquid Smoke Dangerous?
Not any more dangerous than grilled food, which most of us eat with relative abandon, especially in the summer months. That char that makes food taste so good does contain chemicals that have been linked to cancer, yet that’s a risk many are fine with taking. (There are some things you can to do to mitigate the danger, like marinating meat.)
Ingesting liquid smoke is probably safer than eating actual smoke-cured (or grilled) meat, because the process of distilling the liquid captures flavor compounds while leaving most of the carcinogenic compounds behind. But even if that wasn’t the case, you use such a tiny amount of liquid smoke at a time, it would be incredibly low on the list of concerns (potentially even lower than coffee and bottled water).
How Can You Use It?
In small quantities—we’re talking well under 1/2 teaspoon, usually, although you can certainly add more to taste—liquid smoke is great for adding a smoky nuance to just about anything. It’s a common addition to barbecue sauce, slow cooker kalua pig, and various forms of vegan bacon. Indeed, since liquid smoke itself is vegan, it’s often used to add a smoky, “meaty” savor to meatless dishes of all kinds. But you can add a few drops to anything that would be good with a bit of hazy depth, from cocktails (in particular, Bloody Marys or anything with bourbon) and cheese balls to caramel and chili. Big companies use it all the time to add flavor to their products, from barbecue-seasoned chips and smoked almonds to processed cheese and bacon (most of it, even when it says “hickory smoked” or “applewood smoked” on the package, is actually treated with liquid smoke rather than being traditionally smoked over smoldering wood—so if you love mass-produced bacon but say you don’t like liquid smoke…you’re technically incorrect). A popular complaint about liquid smoke is that is tastes fake, harsh, or “like chemicals,” but that’s almost always because using too much of it is overpowering. Start with a few dashes, taste, and add more a little at a time until you get the level you like.
Here are some specific recipes that use liquid smoke, from the comfortingly conventional to the more unexpected; try them out and find your own new ways to add a little smoky flavor to your favorite foods.
Liquid smoke joins forces with hot smoked paprika, soy sauce, and butter in this crisp, savory, spicy, and addictive homemade snack mix. It’s perfect for pepping up parties, warding off weekday hanger attacks, fueling road trips, or munching on movie night. Get our Slow Cooker Party Mix recipe.
These spicy, succulent hot wings could hardly be easier. Just toss them in a slow cooker with tomato paste, hot sauce, liquid smoke, spices, and a little sugar, then let them cook for a few hours before finishing them in the oven to crisp them up. Get our Slow Cooker Hot Wings recipe.
One of the most common and best uses of liquid smoke is in barbecue sauce, like this complex blend of ketchup, cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, honey, and about a dozen other ingredients. Although the ingredient list is long, the actual preparation is really easy, and the resulting sauce is great on pretty much anything: ribs, chicken, burgers, tofu… Get our Big-Time Barbecue Sauce recipe.
Liquid smoke gives beef short ribs cooked in the oven an outdoorsy barbecue flavor, and can be used to the same effect for pretty much any protein if you don’t have a grill (or don’t feel like using it). Get the recipe.
Kalua pork is so simple, yet so delicious. Just pierce the meat all over and rub it with coarse Hawaiian salt and a hefty dose of liquid smoke, then slow cook it until it shreds apart. You can make it in the oven if you like, or use your Crock-Pot as directed here. Get the recipe.
Liquid smoke adds a nice nuance to baked beans without bringing bacon into the mix, so these are great for vegetarians (and are easily made vegan too). Get the recipe.
Speaking of vegans, they’ve figured out how to make bacon substitutes from lots of other stuff, like coconut, eggplant, and mushrooms—and even rice paper. Liquid smoke mimics that familiar bacon flavor, while tamari, nutritional yeast, molasses, and maple syrup help intensify it. Get the recipe.
If you’ll eat fish but not meat, you can make salmon bacon bits with the help of liquid smoke too—or go bigger (and softer) and make your own lox. The liquid smoke imparts just a touch of woodsy taste and fragrance, and salt and sugar help cure the salmon while it chills in the fridge. This would make a great centerpiece at a bagel brunch. Get the recipe.
A tiny amount of liquid smoke adds an intriguing flavor to cocktails, too. You can simply rinse your glasses with liquid smoke (see this Glampfire cocktail for an overview), or stir a few drops directly into the other ingredients. It’s best to use an eye dropper if you have one, in order to precisely control the amount, but you can also just stick a toothpick into the bottle and use that to drip a couple beads of liquid smoke into the mix. This complex Old Fashioned also incorporates brown butter-infused bourbon, black walnut bitters, and blood orange. Get the recipe.
While liquid smoke is definitely a savory ingredient, it can work in small doses in desserts too, especially paired with ingredients like dark chocolate and caramel. Try adding a dash to chocolate chip cookies, or make these moan-worthy mousses that also include a little chipotle and mascarpone. Get the recipe.
Header image courtesy of Anova Culinary.