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What is Liquid Smoke?

Michael Pollick
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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Liquid smoke is a concentrated food seasoning made from compressed natural smoke and water. People add it to meats and vegetables to make them taste like they’ve been barbecued or cooked in a smoker, and the product is often seen as something of a shortcut for cooks who don’t have the time or equipment to grill or smoke their foods. In most cases it is little more than liquefied smoke vapors, but additives and chemicals may be included too depending on the manufacturer.

Why It’s So Popular

There’s something about the taste of barbecued or slow-smoked foods that appeals to people in many different parts of the world, but getting there takes a lot of time and patience, not to mention space and equipment. Barbecue grills or smokers are essential, and cooks usually also need wood chips or charcoal to get the right flavor. Actually infusing that flavor into food can be a lengthy process, too. Liquid smoke is a way for cooks to imitate the taste of slow smoking without the commitment. A few drops in a marinade or sauce can give a food the flavor of outdoor cooking even if it was made on the stove top.

How It’s Made

Making liquid smoke isn’t usually very complicated, though it does take a lot of know-how. Commercial manufacturing is the most popular method, though it can be made at home, too. The process usually requires a large oven known as a “retort” and a pressure chamber where the smoke can be captured and compressed, as well as wood chips to burn.

Choosing a type of wood is typically the first step, and can go a long way in terms of determining the final flavor. Mesquite and hickory are very common choices, and regional options like pecan or apple are also popular in many places. Small chunks of wood known as “chips” usually led to better, tastier smoke than larger planks, and are easier to manage, too, at least when it comes to controlling the temperature and heating point.

A slow smolder tends to produce better smoke than a raging fire, which makes the size and scope of the oven very important. In most cases, the wood isn’t actually burned at all, but rather is intensely heated to its smoking point. Manufacturers trap the smoke in a compression chamber that rapidly gets cold, separating the smoke particles from the water vapor they’re suspended in. The result is a watery liquid that usually has an amber or light brown color. Most producers will filter it for impurities like pieces of ash, then age it to intensify the flavor.

The Aging Process

Liquid smoke doesn’t technically have to be aged, but doing so will improve its taste and will usually also help its smokiness come across. Raw liquid smoke often has a more watered down flavor, and people would have to use a lot more of it to really detect the smoke. It might also taste sharper, which is to say that it would taste more like burning and less like whatever wood flavor had been selected.

Most manufacturers pipe the liquid right from the vapor compressor into barrels for aging. From here the process is similar to wine or bourbon aging, in that the liquid is sealed and left to sit for a period of time, usually anywhere from a few months to a year or more. Really quality smokes often use barrels made of oak or other aromatic hardwood that will help shape the overall taste profile, though it’s also possible to use metal or other more neutral containers. The most important thing is that the smoke be sealed off from contact with oxygen and allowed to rest.

How to Use It

Just as there are endless ways to smoke or grill foods, so are there a great many ways to use liquid smoke. It’s really popular in marinades and barbecue sauces, and can also be used to add a punch to salad dressings and roasted or fried vegetables — basically anything a cook thinks will be enhanced with a smoky flavor. It tends to be really concentrated, so most recipes only call for a few drops.

Experimenting with different recipes is one place where differences in the underlying wood really come through. For the most part different flavors are interchangeable, though certain varieties may be particularly well suited to specific types of food. Apple wood is a very common choice for cured ham, for instance, as is hickory with pulled pork; pecan smoke often works well with seafood, but may not be strong enough to enhance a beef tenderloin.

Where to Find It

Liquid versions of smoke are usually sold in bottles in major grocery stores, usually alongside other condiments and marinades. They may also be purchased directly from the manufacturer either online or through regional distributors. People who make and bottle their own smoke sometimes sell it at farmer’s markets or other local retailers.

Controversy in the Culinary World

There is some debate in cooking circles when it comes to whether restaurants and other food manufacturers need to specify that food sold as “smoked” or “barbecued” was made with the liquid shortcut. Most prepared foods will list liquid smoke on the ingredient list if it was used, but not always. Barbecue purists generally dismiss it as a poor substitute for real hardwood smoke, while others see very little difference between the two sources of flavor.

Health Concerns and Risks

Medical experts often caution people against eating too many smoked, grilled or charred foods because these cooking processes can lead to high levels of carcinogens, or particles that are believed to cause cancer. In most cases, though, the real concern is the blackened part of the food, not the smoke exposure. Liquid smoke often has a lower carcinogenic risk than food that has been smoked or grilled, and most food safety experts consider it perfectly safe for consumption in small quantities.

In most cases, the liquid is made up of little more than natural smoke and water. It doesn’t usually have any calories or nutrients, though manufacturers will sometimes add sugars and flavoring chemicals to enhance either the taste or the texture. Products that have been altered like this often have a more detailed nutritional profile; consumers who are concerned about additives or extra sugar should be sure to read the packaging very carefully.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to DelightedCooking, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon1000921 — On Jan 30, 2019

I have to stay away from barbecued things. If there is liquid smoke in it, it makes me severely ill a few hours later. I try to ask if liquid smoke is used if I go out to a restaurant.

By anon334149 — On May 10, 2013

I have a problem with liquid smoke. It makes me sick every time I eat something containing it. It gives me bad heartburn and I feel ill the next day. Yuck. I can't stand it. If it contains liquid smoke, then it's not real BBQ.

By anon312508 — On Jan 07, 2013

Salt Meat Cheese in Alexandria (sydney, nsw) sells liquid smoke - hickory and mesquite. I'm working on him getting the other two in!

By summing — On Dec 12, 2012

Where can I buy liquid smoke? I don't think I have ever seen it in the grocery store before.

Does anyone have a brand that they think works particularly well?

By ZsaZsa56 — On Dec 11, 2012

Does anyone have any good BBQ recipes that incorporate liquid smoke? I only have a gas grill, and while it is great for cooking stuff up quickly, it doesn't really give it that smoky flavor that you associate with true BBQ.

By anon275686 — On Jun 19, 2012

This is in response to bizcut Post 6: It's the wood. He is allergic to the wood used to make it. Tree pollen and wood allergies, especially to hardwood, are very common. Also, any type of smoke makes allergies much worse.

If you've ever seen an allergist, the top of the list is to avoid smoke. Try buying different kinds and see if it's a specific wood, but generally if you are allergic to one, there is a good chance you are allergic to all. Also lots of allergies run in families. I hope that helped.

By bbqjunkie — On May 29, 2012

@solomonh: You have to dilute your liquid smoke. Depending on the food, use four or five drops into 1 ounce of water. We use CedarHouse brand liquid smoke. It is an all natural concentrate and a blend of hickory and mesquite. We haven't used Colgin since we tried CedarHouse.

By anon272016 — On May 29, 2012

@anon38531: You are absolutely correct. I also find that not all liquid smoke is the same. Hickory seems so much better than mesquite. Also, adding a few drops to a tablespoon of water will allow it to mix in better. We like CedarHouse all natural liquid smoke. It's pretty amazing and is mainly hickory with a hint of mesquite.

By anon210171 — On Aug 29, 2011

The list of ingredients may not specifically mention liquid smoke, but if the product is promoted as "barbecue" or "mesquite" or "smoky" flavored, there's every chance the manufacturer has included a little liquid smoke in the mix. There's really no other practical method for adding smoke flavor on a commercial level.

Specialty items like smoked hams or smoked pork may contain natural smoke flavor from a real smoker, but mass-produced items like barbecue sauces, snack chips and marinades are more likely to contain liquid smoke. If the package says BBQ flavor or Smoked and you didn't barbecue it or smoke it yourself, assume it was made with liquid smoke.

It should be easy to find liquid smoke products which only contain smoke particles and water. Vinegar or other ingredients may be mixed in to form a marinade or mopping sauce, but the essential liquid smoke process described in the article only uses wood smoke and water.

By anon161863 — On Mar 21, 2011

Is there a liquid smoke that does not contain vinegar? Thanks.

By anon138619 — On Jan 01, 2011

Who invented liquid smoke and is there more than one patent/inventor? When did it first appear in commerce? An email to Colgan has gone unanswered.

By anon131007 — On Nov 30, 2010

What are the ingredients in liquid smoke and how to tell if it is in other foods? I cannot eat it. It causes me to choke.

By Frank Toves — On Nov 07, 2010

Heck! I put a little dab a two drops or three on my V8 juice bottle with tabasco then cover it up and shake it good! It's like having a good V8 Bar-BQ drink and it tasted great!

By anon104352 — On Aug 16, 2010

Does anyone know where to get liquid smoke in Australia?

By anon84242 — On May 14, 2010

I have been using liquid smoke for years. We are not allowed to barbecue where we live at. Liquid smoke saves the day.

By bizcut — On Apr 07, 2010

If liquid smoke is nothing more than captured smoke and water why would someone be allergic to it? My husband is highly allergic to anything that has it in it. We're taking hives, vomiting and swelling of the throat. My mother-in-law is the same way.

By anon69299 — On Mar 07, 2010

yeah liquid smoke has a really strong taste.

By anon58531 — On Jan 02, 2010

My husband used too much liquid smoke in bean soup. My son added vinegar and saved the day.

By anon38531 — On Jul 27, 2009

not all liquid smoke is the same. hickory seems so much better than mesquite. also, add a few drops to a tablespoon of water, will mix in better.

By anon30620 — On Apr 21, 2009

I used liquid smoke for the first time a few days ago and it made such a difference in the pork we roasted...Yum! I also put a dash in my homemade mac and cheese and it was awesome!

By solomonh — On Apr 13, 2008

I have found that liquid smoke has a really strong taste that I absolutely cannot stand. If it is not really barbecued, then it should NOT taste like smoke! Yuck!

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to DelightedCooking, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
Learn more
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