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.