The secret: It's not the creepy chemical additive you thought. A couple of weekends ago, I caught an episode of the public radio show "The Splendid Table" with soothingly voiced chef Lynne Rossetto Kasper. The topic was BBQ and I was shocked (Shocked!) to hear Lynne* and her guest recommend liquid smoke as the key to great crockpot pulled pork. In fact, Lynne seemed pretty surprised to hear herself suggest it.
But the truth, my friends, is that sometimes there is a little truth in advertising. And liquid smoke is one of those times.
*We're on a first-name basis like that. In my imagination.
You can be forgiven for wrongfully accusing liquid smoke of nefarious fakey toxic chemicalness. Even chemists have been confused on this one. Back in June, Slashfood interviewed NYU chemistry professor Kent Kirshenbaum, who--like you, me, Lynne Rossetto Kasper and everyone we know--had believed the worst about this cheap, sketchy sounding liquid.
Unlike the rest of us, however, Kirshenbaum actually went out and studied liquid smoke. He found that, despite its synthetic 1950's aura, the stuff is perfectly natural.
What is liquid smoke?
Liquid smoke is very simply smoke in water. Smoke usually comes as a vapor, but there are ways to condense it and turn it into liquid and that liquid can then be carried in water.
How is it different from regular smoke?
Regular smoke is a vapor, and it is difficult to store.
Is one healthier than the other?
It seems that the liquid smoke can be substantially healthier because there are carcinogenic compounds that can be removed. A lot of the carcinogenic compounds [found in direct smoke from charcoal or wood] do not dissolve. But by dissolving the compounds into water, they can be removed.
So, it's like a water bong?
Knowing is half the battle. The other half: Recipes. Today, I made "The Splendid Table's" Ultimate Cheater Crockpot Pulled Pork, using liquid smoke (hickory smoke, to be precise). It took exactly 15 minutes of my time and 5 hours in the crockpot. And it's freakin' delicious. If you eat meat, and you eat pork, you will hate yourself forever if you don't make this asap.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.