Liquid smoke is a liquid flavouring made from condensed wood smoke. It is used to add a smoky flavour to food without cooking it over a barbecue or smoker.
Substances similar to liquid smoke seem to have been in use for hundreds of years, primarily as a preservative. Ancient Roman historian Pliny the Elder mentions a liquid called ‘wood vinegar’ in his Natural Histories, which he recommends for use as an embalming fluid, while Enlightenment scholars gave it the more scientific name ‘pyroligneous acid’ in the late eighteenth century.
But the story of liquid smoke as a commercially available flavouring begins with a nineteenth century US chemist called E.H. Wright. Wright discovered liquid smoke as a young boy, the story goes, when he noticed a black liquid trickling out from the end of a stovepipe and realised that the smoke was condensing when it hit the cold air, then trickling back down the pipe as smoky water.
As an adult, Wright experimented with creating his own condensed smoke. Once he had perfected the method, he coated a ham with his new product and served it to his friends, all of whom were convinced that the ham had been smoked. This new ingredient quickly became a hit, and Wright’s Liquid Smoke is one of the leading brands of smoky flavouring available in the US to this day.
Liquid smoke is simply made, by condensing the smoke and steam from burning wood chips. These two by-products are directed towards a cold metal pipe, where the steam condenses into water, trapping the smoke inside it. This smoky water is then distilled into a more concentrated form and filtered to remove any ash and soot.
Different types of wood can be used to add a subtly different flavour. The most popular is hickory, but applewood, pecan and mesquite are also available if you want to try something a little different. Some brands may also have added ingredients such as salt, sugar, molasses, vinegar, or artificial colourings. Liquid smoke with too many added extras are best avoided, as they can have a somewhat artificial taste.
There has been some concern over whether or not liquid smoke is safe to use. Liquid smoke indeed contains certain chemicals that can have carcinogenic effects when consumed in large quantities, but the same can be said of any naturally smoked or charred foodstuff, from chargrilled meats to toast. The chemicals in question are found in anything ‘burnt’, which includes smoke, but as liquid smoke is filtered for any solid ash, it is likely safer than other smoked or charred foods.
How to use liquid smoke.
Liquid smoke can be added to any food you want to enhance with a smoky flavour. In fact, you have likely already used liquid smoke without realising it, as it is a common ingredient in shop bought foods, particularly anything that describes itself as ‘smoked’ or ‘barbecue flavour’.
When it comes to adding liquid smoke to your food, always remember that less is more. It is a highly concentrated ingredient, which means that you only need a very small amount to achieve the effect you need. If you use too much you can end up overpowering the food and giving it a ‘fake’ taste.
Liquid smoke can be used to flavour a variety of different foods. It tastes great with meats, and can be used to make delicious hot wings or barbecue ribs that have never been anywhere near a smoker. Simply brush a few drops onto the meat before cooking, or add to a marinade. You can also use the same technique for popular grilled veggies like corn on the cob or peppers.
For anything cooked with a sauce, try adding ¼ teaspoon at first, then taste and add a little more if needed. Liquid smoke is great for adding depth of flavour to chillis, baked beans and even mac and cheese.
If you’re vegetarian, vegan, or even if you’re just trying to cut fat from your diet, liquid smoke can be added to recipes instead of bacon for a remarkably similar smoky flavour. You can even make your own vegan bacon at home by adding thin slices of your vegetable of choice to a simple marinade of liquid smoke, paprika, soy sauce and maple syrup, then grilling, baking or frying.
There are also some more unexpected foods that benefit from a touch of smoky flavour. It can be used to add depth and complexity to caramel candies and sauces, providing an interesting balance to all that sweetness. You can even use it in cocktails, to complement the wooden barrel-aged flavour of dark spirits like brandy, whiskey or rum.