Liquid smoke sounds like the punchline of those silly jokes you'd hear on a television show about cars, but it is a culinary additive that has been available to Americans for more than 100 years, where it shows up in recipes ranging from dipping sauces to smokeless smoked meat. Commercially, it is a common ingredient in barbecue sauce, potato chips, and even bacon.
The History Behind Liquid Smoke
As the story goes, liquid smoke was invented in 1895 by Ernest H. Wright, who founded Wright's Liquid Smoke, a product you can still find on grocery store shelves today. Wright was a chemist, who had worked in a print shop in Kansas City as a boy. He remembered that drops of black liquid would form on the stove pipe. From this idea, Wright began experimenting with condensing hot smoke from a burning wood fire into liquid smoke.
Originally, liquid smoke was not marketed or sold as a food additive, but rather as a preservative. In the 19th century, the most common use of smoking was to preserve meat, not to create the delicious flavors we enjoy today. Instead, the process was meant to extend the shelf life of meat products. Liquid smoke offers at least some of the benefits of smoke as a preservative because of the chemical makeup.
Is Liquid Smoke Actually Liquid Smoke?
The process of making liquid smoke involves collecting and condensing wood smoke. When the hot smoky air encounters cold air, it is condensed into water, trapping the smoke particles. The process has been known since antiquity to create various by-products of the charcoal-making process. In the time of Pliny the Elder, the process was used to produce wood vinegar, which is also called pyroligneous acid. Wood vinegar was a popular fertilizer and pest-control agent that is also easy and affordable for farmers to make, though it isn't common today.
What is Liquid Smoke Made From?
Most commonly, you'll find liquid smoke available today from the same types of hardwoods you smoke with. Popular options are hickory, pecan, and mesquite. An all-natural product won't include anything other than water and smoke which have been filtered to remove tar and other substances. It is common to see products today that also include a variety of additives and other ingredients. Salt, molasses, vinegar, and other flavors are often included on the ingredient list of many liquid smoke products as a flavor enhancer.
How Do I Use Liquid Smoke?
You'll notice that liquid smoke is typically sold in small bottles. The reason for this is that you use a very small amount at a time. Remember, this is concentrated smoke, not something you are going to dump a whole bottle into a marinade. Instead, you can add just a few drops of liquid smoke.
Liquid smoke is a good way to help the preservation of processed meats like homemade sausages, hot dogs, and other ground meats. It won't give you a perfectly shelf-stable product, but every little bit helps. It can be very helpful when you want food products that have an intense smoke flavor.
Liquid smoke makes a great flavoring agent for enhancing homemade barbecue sauce and is an excellent way to kick up the flavor of a big pot of beans. We've seen it used in salad dressing, on vegetables, and it even finds its way into cheese dips.
Liquid smoke makes an acceptable replacement for real smoke when that isn't possible, like adding a smoky flavor to fish, burgers, or bacon that is lacking in the flavor department. Liquid smoke is a popular additive to a marinade that you are going to use for beef jerky in a dehydrator where the smokiness combines with the salt to give the taste of smoked cooking without the time and trouble of a smoker.
Another popular way to use liquid smoke is when you are using a slow cooker. Ribs, tri-tip, and chuck roasts benefit from a small amount of liquid smoke when cooking in a slow cooker. You'll also find that some recipes use liquid smoke to prepare meat for sous vide cooking. This gives the taste of smoke and the tenderness of sous vide.
The Downside of Liquid Smoke
Many people dislike the flavor of liquid smoke, even in barbecue sauces or chili beans that pack lots of bolder flavors. On its own, liquid smoke has the smoke flavor, but it lacks the subtle differences you'll achieve when you use a smoker to make smoked meats. While it is a real smoke flavor, it doesn't taste the same as your favorite foods after smoking or barbecue.
Is Liquid Smoke Good for You?
The health concerns surrounding liquid smoke are long-running, but no study has yet shown liquid smoke to be more or less harmful than the smoky flavor from a fire. The key thing that you'll want to do is look for products that are all-natural and don't include a bunch of additives. Many brands today add oil, vinegar, spices, and other ingredients that might not be what you are wanting.
What Can I Use as a Substitute for Liquid Smoke?
If the idea of using liquid smoke products turns you off, there are some ways you can get a smoke flavor without using a smoker. A good choice for a liquid smoke substitute is smoked paprika. It'll add smoky flavor and a bit of spiciness. You can use smoked paprika as a dry rub or add it to a marinade for a more subtle flavor.
Another choice for adding smoke flavorings to create smoked meats is chipotle powder. Chipotle powder is made from drying chiles over a wood fire, then grinding them to a powder. The chipotle powder carries a nice, mellow smoky flavor and a mild spiciness – though various batches may be spicier than others due to the differences in peppers.
Brands We Like
Among the numerous options on the market today, there are a few that stand out. Of course, the original Wright's liquid smoke is one of our go-to liquid smoke products when we are using them. It doesn't have added ingredients and tastes just like the hardwood it was made from. Another option we like is Colgin, another all-natural smoke product made from the vapor of burning wood and nothing else.
A Simple Solution in a Pinch
Liquid smoke isn't something that we use every day, but it does come in handy once in a while. Whether you are making your own potato chips and you want an intense barbecue flavor, grilling shrimp on the griddle, or even making oysters, liquid smoke is a simple solution. You can even use it to add a smoky touch to ranch dressing for your next chicken wing platter.
At the end of the day, we know a lot of barbecue enthusiasts that turn their nose up at liquid smoke, which is fine when you've got the skills and equipment to smoke meat. But for people who don't have a smoker, don't have the space for a barbecue, or are simply looking to make barbecue sauce that doesn't have a bunch of strange chemicals in it, liquid smoke is very useful.
The most important thing to remember about liquid smoke is that you don't have to use very much. A few small drops into a gallon of water is all it takes to add plenty of flavor. You'll want to add in other flavors, too, so don't forget to also use your favorite Bearded Butcher Blend Seasonings to enhance the overall eating experience.
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