The complex process for producing liquid smoke—and a few delicious but unexpected uses.
As one manufacturer puts it, liquid smoke “is not a chemical or synthetic flavor, but genuine wood smoke, liquefied.” In a series of steps that would boggle Rube Goldberg, wood is placed in large, moist containers where it’s zapped with blistering heat, causing it to smolder rather than burn. The resulting gasses are transported to chambers where they’re quickly chilled and the subsequent condensation is piped though a series of filters to remove impurities. Final processing includes aging in a succession of up to 14 oak barrels, which mellow and refine the liquid’s flavor.
Since the process removes carcinogens like tar and ash, proponents insist that foods doused with liquid smoke are healthier than foods from a smokehouse. The European Food Safety Authority is unconvinced, and its investigations yield mixed results.
Science aside, liquid smoke makes it possible to replicate barbeque in your oven or slow cooker. Mindy Merrell, co-author of Cheater BBQ, a book that hinges on liquid smoke, insists tasters can’t tell the difference and adds, “I’ve eaten a lot more bad, bitter barbeque done the traditional way than I’ve had with liquid smoke.” Anti-microbial properties mirror traditional smoking so you can use liquid smoke for homemade jerky and lox. Vegetarians splash it on greens as a proxy for a hambone. And whether or not it’s in your pantry, you’ve no doubt consumed it—liquid smoke is used in hams, sausages, bacon and commercial barbeque sauce. Some manufacturers even put it in chocolate to add a depth of flavor.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.
Try using pork shoulder or Boston butt in this recipe.