What Liquid Smoke Is, and How to Cook With It

April 26, 2016

"It's redolent simultaneously of creasote, formaldehyde, termite mounds, the tears of mendacious orphans, crawlspaces, the acidic musk of old age homes, guano caves, vinegar, and bad barbecue," wrote Josh Ozersky in a 2010 rant on Eater called "Seriously, Is There Anything Worse Than Liquid Smoke?" Commenters stepped up to emphatically defend the ingredient that he swore no one would.

That's pretty much the passion with which folks address the bizarre and perhaps bizarrely common pantry ingredient that is liquid smoke—mutiny-threatening allegiances on both sides, for and against.

Loyalties aside, liquid smoke merits the confusion and ardor surrounding it. It's kind of genre-defying: Is it liquid, or gas/smoke? Sauce? Something else? How do they get all of the smoke into that tiny bottle? What exactly does "all natural"—as many liquid smoke brands champion themselves as being—mean in this case?

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The process behind making liquid smoke is one you may recognize: condensation! Here's how one brand, Wright's Liquid Smoke, describes it on their company's FAQ page:

It is made from hickory, applewood or mesquite wood that is burned inside a chamber. As the smoke rises it is captured in a condenser and it cools. The cooled smoke forms water droplets (condensation). These droplets are then collected and filtered twice.

Some companies, like Colgin, also add molasses, caramel color, salt, and/or vinegar. (Colgin adds all four.)

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Top Comment:
“Personally, I'm pretty fond of the stuff- Wright's, at least, I avoid the longer ingredient lists.I use it in homemade barbecue sauce and sometimes in braises. Great in all sorts of bean dishes; I would think it would be very useful for vegetarians, who can't add large amounts of ham, sausage etc. to their beans. It doesn't take much- I generally use 1/2 to 1 capful; I'd guess the cap is about 1/2tsp.”
— Smaug

That's the heart of the concentrate that you buy, which has been diluted slightly with water. Even so, it is very strong; many recipes call for just a few drops or a half-teaspoon of liquid smoke. The difference between using a little bit of it and going overboard is the difference between a sunny barbecue and a faceful of smoke as the wind shifts. Even a whiff of liquid smoke from the bottle is very transporting—all campfires and cookouts and bonfires.

Liquid smokes often come in a range of flavors, with hickory and mesquite being the most common. The flavor largely depends upon the wood burned, but there's some artificial flavoring as well. (Colgin has an apple-flavored liquid smoke, and Willie Toliver, the company's quality control manager, told me that they're developing a few new flavors, like chipotle, as well.)

There are two prongs to the anti-liquid smoke argument. First up on Team Against are the true-blue barbecue enthusiasts, who claim that barbecue simply isn't barbecue—that smokiness isn't true smokiness—unless it comes from an actual wood-burning fire, and that liquid smoke is not only cheating but also gross.

But the pro-liquid smoke camp tends to say that liquid smoke gives people who don't have time or access to a full smoker setup the opportunity to get something sort of similar. It also allows for experimentation, as in carrot lox or sous vide barbecued ribs.

And then there are those concerned about its health implications: Liquid smoke has been accused of containing DNA-damaging carcinogens just as smoke does. On the other hand, an associate professor of chemistry at NYU, Kent Kirshenbaum, found that "the controlled smoking plus an ensuing filtering process has removed if not all, then most of these compounds," as the Washington Post reported. "It's all natural, from wood. There's nothing harmful to your body," Willie Toliver assured me.

So: If you've decided you are going to cook with it, what to make? Anything that begs a smokiness. Meat and fish are natural choices (Willie Toliver, Colgin's quality control manager, likes it as a marinade), but tofu, hard-boiled eggs, carrot "smoked salmon," noodles, or even caramels take well to a few drops. (But do use it sparingly.)

If you're angling to make your own barbecue sauce, add a few drops to molasses for a smoky depth, then use vinegar to cut the intensity and make it thin enough to spread. Toss nuts with oil, salt, and a little liquid smoke before roasting for a catch-you-in-the-back-of-the-throat nut mix. Even hummus, baba ganoush, chilis, and other soups like lentil soup welcome a bit of smokiness. It can even be used to "age" cheap bourbon!

Smooooke on the water! Tell us how you feel about liquid smoke. Do you cook with it? What are your favorite ways to use it?

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Roo
  • William DiPanni
    William DiPanni
  • Jeffro
  • blee
  • epiphany
Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.


Roo September 22, 2018
I use liquid smoke to clean silver. It works way better than actual smoke.
William D. June 19, 2018
I add a tiny bit to my Seitan. It adds a nice layer of flavor. I actually learned this from a Chinese man who owned a restaurant. He did not have it on his menu but he made it for himself.
Jeffro November 26, 2017
I've been using it for a couple of decades although I have a smoker. I put a couple of drops into some soy sauce, rub a pork roast with it, salt and pepper the roast and wrap it in tin foil. I then slow roast it for a couple of hours. I had that hide some or my boys would eat the whole thing in an afternoon.
blee May 11, 2016
lol @GregOlsen hilarious and sad
epiphany May 3, 2016
Yes, Mr OLSEN, of course. The only "lecturing" done by me was a) to call out what to me (and obviously to another commentator on here) seemed like a curmudgeonly and very antagonistic trolling-type post and b) to counter a highly contentious statement with another. A "cancelling-out" if you will, a "championing" which as I stated was here as inappropriate as a "demonizing".
And "done and dismissed"? Truly? Does that mean, oh schoolmaster, that we might now get back to the discussion at hand, i.e. the culinary merit (or lack thereof) of Liquid Smoke? Swell.
Greg O. May 3, 2016
As I said, done and dismissed. Deal with it and let it go.

And, as I said: WE HATE LIQUID SMOKE AND WOULD NEVER USE IT. Deal with that, too. And Let it all go. You will feel much about your judgemental self.
epiphany May 3, 2016
Yes, all done, I will stop feeding the troll and hopefully a moderator will excise with swiftness this ridiculous and irrelevant exchange of ours so readers can enjoy and discuss what they clicked on the article for in the first place. Exeunt.
Greg O. May 4, 2016
You are really something else. Hopefully one of a kind. When's your epiphany?

epiphany May 4, 2016
Mr. Trollsen, as I feel your pathetic game of "one-upmanship" has sunk into harassment, I have turned off notifications and shall no longer be checking comments on this article. If you run into me in future, please do both of us the favour of giving me a wide berth. And given your personality or lack thereof, you may consider doing the same for all of those you encounter.
You are now free to play in your small sandbox under your bridge all by yourself.
Greg O. May 5, 2016
Oh, she who just HAS to get the last word in. Imagine that personality!

And, right on queue, she throws out the harassment card. Please!

Let it go, let it go, let it go, bully. Just repeat that three times (three hundred for the denser types) and you will feel better.

Been here what two, three weeks, sweetie? -- your warts are showing and they are not looking good. Get yourself some help, too, professional help.
epiphany May 3, 2016
@Greg Olson. Fair dos; please pardon the rhetoric. But, as you say, if "you don't like it", you don't have to eat it. Those of us interested in gastronomy come to this site to learn. Again, as a vegetarian, it wouldn't occur to me to click on, say, an article about charcuterie and bang on about how meat is murder and how it has been linked to cancer! It's neither germane, nor appropriate, and just plain bad manners.
There are plenty of websites out there to explore food-related health issues.
I don't feel this the appropriate forum either to demonize (or champion, for that matter) cannabis, which has actually been proven to improve immensely the quality of life of many with serious medical issues.
Greg O. May 3, 2016
Name's Olsen. And, by your same reasoning, it's not a site to lecture, judge and shame others. You attempt to apologize and rationalize your behavior, lecture some more about "bad manners" but then immediately go on and on and on STILL lecturing others?

After all, the very article and author state: "And then there are those concerned about its health implications: Liquid smoke has been accused of containing DNA-damaging carcinogens just as smoke does."

We hate the liquid smoke and would never use it. Done and dismissed.
Greg O. May 2, 2016
@epiphany Assume much? Who said "anyone" was not "way more concerned" about the alleged "health issues" you mention below? Sheesh!
epiphany May 1, 2016
As a vegetarian who loves smoky and smoked foods, I find this stuff indispensable. When a dish needs it, it needs it. I have tried different brands and always come back to the ones with no added ingredients.
For anyone concerned about any "health issues" with this product, truly, as the saying goes, a dab'll do ya (more, and it's bitter and nasty). I would be way more concerned about the plastics leaching into my food, pesticide residue in my produce and chemicals in my toiletries than a few drops of Liquid Smoke in a week. Not to mention my overchlorinated tap water and the polluted air we breathe. Sheesh.
Sharon May 1, 2016
Shame on anyone who would trash this product. It's derived through a completely natural process; condensation. The same process used to make rosewater and other flower waters. Got a problem with that? It's as old as time and there's nothing fake about it. However, you really do have to use a LOT of restraint when adding liquid smoke to food because it's very potent. For the novices, they pretty much all have to blow it badly at least once to get the point. I always transfer some Wright's Liquid Smoke into a small eye-dropper bottle and administer it, literally, by the drop. Better safe than sorry because once you add too much there's no fixing it. I buy lovely little blue glass eye dropper bottles online (not expensive) and use them for many things in the kitchen; when adding rose or orange flower water and flavored sugar syrups to drinks, lemon and other citrus oils, and truffle oil, so I don't have to keep opening the entire bottle allowing precious aroma components to escape. In many instances, ingredients like that HAVE to be used sparingly and an eye dropper allows you to do so. Liquid smoke is a beautiful product, but it must be treated with respect and used sparingly..
Jonny January 4, 2019
Oh wow thanks for that tip. I am just beginning my use of liquid smoke. So the dropper idea is a very good tip for me.

I came to its use because I've had a couple of instances where the smoked meats I used for seasoning were spoiled. Since I was on a quest to lose weight I took this misfortune as a way to eliminate fat & salt from some of my southern staples.

Thanks for the tip. Headed over to Amazon to get dropper bottles now.
Jessie S. May 1, 2016
I live in Hawaii. Liquid smoke is used here to make traditional Hawaiian imu dishes when we aren't able to dig a traditional imu to cook them. Check out this link if you want the details: Hard to do in a condo/appartment/townhouse/suburban home.
Penny H. May 1, 2016
My late sister-in-law took a trimmed beef brisket, wrapped it in foil and poured in a whole bottle of liquid smoke. Then she baked it in a very low temp oven overnight. Some of the best BBQ brisket I've eaten and I'm in Texas.
Sharon May 2, 2016
Now THAT sounds amazing!
Ina R. May 1, 2016
Add it as part of rub marinate overnight to myBBQ brisket
Greg O. May 1, 2016
I don't like it and don't believe that it's been filtered enough to remove harmful components. We were once told, by physicians no less, that smoking tobacco was healthful. Much as we are now being told that smoking cannabis is not harmful. Yeah, right.
Jonny January 4, 2019
Possibly true but just walking outside and breathing gets you a pretty good dose of cancer causing chemicals.

This I'd consider minimal in comparison.
Janet F. May 1, 2016
The fragrance of the liquid smoke is heady like that of sesame oil. I use it sparingly but love the other comments and recipes. Never knew how it was made, thanks!
Donna April 27, 2016
Many years ago my mother and other cooks in our family routinely made a salmon and cream cheese ball appetizer for parties. It contained canned salmon and was flavored with dried herbs, lemon juice, and a little liquid smoke. If you were being really fancy, you would roll it in chopped parsley or finely chopped nuts. I always thought the addition of liquid smoke was odd in this particular recipe, but, I can tell you it was always the first dish to disappear...
Courtney C. April 26, 2016
I love it - I use it when I make eggplant bacon for a vegetarian version of carbonara.
Caroline L. April 26, 2016
Wow! How do you make eggplant bacon?
Courtney C. April 27, 2016
I thinly slice eggplant and chop it up. Then I add it to a hot pan with a good amount of olive oil and salt. After it crisps a bit, I add a few tablespoons water mixed with a few drops of liquid smoke. I let that boil off and then let the eggplant crisp up once more before adding it to the carbonara. It's pretty tasty!
Jonny January 4, 2019
Never heard of that. I think I have a new topic to Google on my commute.
Peggasus April 26, 2016
I always add some to my beef jerky marinade, it's essential.
ktr April 26, 2016
Homemade barbecue sauce just isn't the same without a bit of liquid smoke.
Smaug April 26, 2016
Personally, I'm pretty fond of the stuff- Wright's, at least, I avoid the longer ingredient lists.I use it in homemade barbecue sauce and sometimes in braises. Great in all sorts of bean dishes; I would think it would be very useful for vegetarians, who can't add large amounts of ham, sausage etc. to their beans. It doesn't take much- I generally use 1/2 to 1 capful; I'd guess the cap is about 1/2tsp.
Jonny January 4, 2019
I'm not vegetarian but that's certainly my intended use.

Hard part was finding Wright's. That seems to be the only one without extra ingredients.
Smaug January 4, 2019
I guess it depends where you are- my Safeway carries it, but they don't make it easy to find- it used to be in an over the refrigerator display in the meat dept., but it's now with the sauces- Worcestershire, A1 et al.
Jonny January 4, 2019
Yes, it does depend on where you are. I remember seeing it when I lived in other states but now not so much. Gould probably check their website so I can narrow my search. But for now I decided to cheat a bit and order online.

I could only find Colgin and Stubb in near me. 🙁