"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?
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.)
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?