The Straight Scoop About Liquid Smoke

by R.B. Quinn
The Straight Scoop About Liquid Smoke

Liquid Smoke Brands

Liquid Smoke

Liquid smoke is exactly that—smoke from smoldering hardwoods or fruitwoods condensed in water with impurities and carcinogens removed. It is safe, consistent, time-saving, economical, and environmentally friendly smoke in a bottle.

Liquid smoke is a Cheater BBQ essential—a critical ingredient for making great barbecue without a fire. After a year of cooking with liquid smoke we still don’t understand its undeserved reputation as some kind of imposter. Maybe it’s all in the name. Ironically, scores of food products’ list ‘natural smoke flavor’ or ‘natural flavors’ on their labels, the they just drop the “liquid” part. 

Liquid smoke tastes and smells like real smoke because it is real smoke. It has been accepted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration since the early 1960s. Just like traditional wood smoke, not only does liquid smoke deliver great flavor it also still performs the age-old job of inhibiting spoilage and reducing pathogens in meats. Liquid smoke filters out the eye burning and coughing carcinogens generated during traditional wood burning. Like a nicotine patch or gum, you get the buzz (the flavor), without the damaging effects of the tars from airborne smoke.

Consistency is the biggest challenge in outdoor barbecue. The weather, the wind, the wood, the temperature, the equipment, the time, the rub, the mop, the meat, the mood, everything is a determining factor in the outcome of barbecue. And that’s a big part of the fun. Liquid smoke paired with the controlled environment of the indoor kitchen eliminates more than half of these iffy variables. That’s fun, too.

Liquid Smoke in the Store

The modern appetite for smoke flavored foods is insatiable. Food manufacturers, the foodservice industry, and home cooks use millions of gallons and pounds of natural smoke flavoring every year. Take a walk down any grocery aisle and you’ll see dozens of products listing “natural smoke flavor” as an ingredient—even in things that don’t claim to be smoky, like “hearth” pizza crust.

Colgin, the largest U.S. producer of retail liquid smoke, is the brand we see most often in our area. Their product is a dark blend of water, smoke flavor, vinegar, and molasses. Hickory and mesquite are the best selling flavors, but Colgin has also introduced pecan and apple flavored liquid smoke. Other smoke blends include Reese, and Figaro both of which include sugar and other ingredients to temper the smoke.

Wright’s concentrated liquid smoke, another popular brand, is a little different. It is a concentrate of natural hickory or mesquite smoke blended with only water. It is lighter in color and highly smoke flavored without the marinade style sweet and sour notes. Lazy Kettle is small brand that is also a smoke concentrate.

Retail liquid smoke is usually shelved near the barbecue sauces, ketchup, and marinades, in supermarkets, natural food stores, specialty and gourmet shops, and virtual online stores. It is most often sold in 3.5 to 5-ounce bottles. One small bottle is generally enough for one good size pork butt, brisket, or a three pack of ribs.

Liquid smoke can also be dashed into dishes a little at a time like hot pepper sauce. Be prepared for both uses by stocking up the pantry. If you’re committing to indoor barbecue, you’ll need a stash. Larger bottles of some brands like gallons of Colgin and quarts of Wright’s can be ordered easily over the internet. Don’t worry about it going bad; liquid smoke doesn’t need refrigeration and enjoys a long shelf life.

How Much Smoke is Just Right?

Now there’s the barbecue question of all time with no real answer whether you are smoking over a wood fire or indoors in the oven. It’s like asking who makes the best barbecue or sauce. It’s up to you. The better question is how much is too much. With smoke, you know it when you taste it. We’ve had plenty of bitter, chemical-tasting, over-smoked outdoor barbecue. However, we’ve never had over-smoked, chemical-tasting indoor barbecue. One reason may be that liquid smoke is infinitely easier to measure and manage consistently than wood chunks and charcoal. All the brands are a little different, so you’ll have to do some testing on your own.

Colgin recommends one teaspoon per serving as a good starting point. With a concentrate like Wright’s, we use less because of the higher concentrated flavor. As a general rule of thumb, for the marinade blends like Colgin, we start with about one tablespoon of liquid smoke per pound of meat. This amount has never smoked us out and is actually quite conservative. We’ve also used Wright’s at this level producing recipes with a more smoky profile. No matter how much you like to use, liquid smoke manufacturers say the flavor does not diminish during cooking and can be added at any point during cooking. Like lots of flavors and seasonings, smoke should be added to suit your taste. The only way to find that out is to get in the kitchen and get cooking.

Smell Smoke

The mere smell of smoke sets the inviting party mood of a barbecue. If half the enjoyment of eating is aroma, then liquid smoke will have your guests at “hello.” Liquid smoke provides as much smoky aroma as outdoor wood smoke and will convert your kitchen into a barbecue pit. In all of our recipe testing, every visitor to our kitchens–the plumber, the UPS guy, the neighbors, the oven repair man–all reacted the same way. “Y’all cooking barbecue?” That was a good sign.

Use Liquid Smoke Outdoors

Liquid smoke works just as well outdoors. We’ve met plenty of barbecue fans who regularly add liquid smoke to brines, marinades, basting mops, and sauces for foods that are cooked over real wood fire, charcoal, and gas. The efficient and popular gas grill is particularly needy of a little wood smoke flavor. Wright’s even recommends “smoke on the rocks,” flavoring your gas grills lava rocks with their smoke.

Liquid Smoke Beyond Barbecue

We’ve had lots of luck adding liquid smoke to many foods beyond the usual barbecue meats and seafood including vegetables, fruits, and even beer and chocolate. Anything that tastes great on a grill tastes great with a little smoke. Desserts featuring brown sugar, nuts, any caramel character, or chocolate are particularly suited for smoke.