Ingredient Intelligence

Liquid Smoke Is a Magical Ingredient for Smoky Flavor Without a Grill

updated Jul 10, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

Want smoky flavor without firing up the grill or backyard smoker? Liquid smoke is just the ingredient for that! A petite bottle of liquid smoke can give you years of rich, smoky flavor from a single bottle and it has a surprising number of uses (read: it isn’t just for your oven-cooked ribs).

Liquid smoke has a long history (it has been around since 1895!) and it has spent years with a rumored reputation as a “bad for you” ingredient. But this potent ingredient is mostly just smoke and water, making it safe and tasty in everything it touches. Here’s what you need to know about liquid smoke, how it is made, plus how to use it beyond the barbecue.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

What Is Liquid Smoke?

Thin and brown-to-yellow, liquid smoke is actually hardwood smoke that has been captured in condensation and collected. This liquid is further processed to remove any impurities and then bottled. Some brands add a little caramel coloring, salt, molasses, and sometimes vinegar for color, texture, or flavoring. Brands also vary in the hardwoods they use, so you can find liquid smoke that is made from Pecan, Hickory, and Apple Wood.

Wright’s Liquid Smoke is one of the most recognizable brands of liquid smoke (their recipe is just smoke and water) and they are the originator of bottled Liquid Smoke after Ernest H. Wright developed the method for capturing a smoker’s condensation in 1895.

Is Liquid Smoke Safe?

For years, rumors around Liquid Smoke’s safety centered around added chemicals and carcinogens as they related to human health and consumption. Plus some folks worried about a high sodium content in Liquid Smoke. While liquid smoke does contain some as potentially harmful (but naturally occurring) chemical compounds — namely pyrogallol-like polyphenols or PLPs, which are also found in tea and coffee — many of these are filtered out in the manufacturing process and found in very small doses in the recommended usages for Liquid Smoke. So don’t go using a bottle of Liquid Smoke, when most recipes need just a tablespoon or less.

How to Use Liquid Smoke

You can add liquid smoke to marinades and sauces for grilled foods to give them a smoky flavor. A few drops adds tons of flavor to salad dressing, dips, and even cocktails and caramel sauces.