The Secret of Liquid Smoke


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.

Slashfood, Liquid Smoke: What Is It?
The Splendid Table, Ultimate Cheater Pulled Pork

Image courtesy Flickr user afiler, via CC.


  1. Yup. You can even make it yourself. I saw it on the Tee-Vee at some point, but I don’t remember the show.

    My dad uses it for various things, and it’s great.

  2. I always thought the name was Lynne Rosette O’Casper. Top o’ the morning to you Lynne Rosette O’Casper! Now I know.

    I frown on Liquid Smoke only because it’s not real smoke. If you care, if you really like to cook and like to cook meat, you can make time to do it in a genuine smoker BBQ. I say this as a man who makes apple wood smoked salmon year-round in a town where it rains for 9 months straight. I care, so I get rained on.

    Do – or do not. There is no liquid smoke.

    1. Liquid Smoke is smoke. It’s no less real simply because it has been condensed. You can argue that the resulting flavor is not the same, but you cannot arge that Liquid Smoke is not real smoke.

    2. Obviously, crockpot BBQ with liquid smoke is not the same as what you’d get slaving over a slow smoker.

      That said, it’s still pretty damn good. And certainly the best not-actually-BBQ BBQ that I’ve had.

    3. I agree with you in theory, but I am currently living in an apartment and it is against the law for us to have a BBQ, thanks a lot Virginia. So, unless I feel like taking a trip down to the local park to use their grills Liquid Smoke is a great alternative.

  3. seattlepete, some of us don’t have yards, or even fire escapes to use a smoker on. Liquid smoke can be a real option for those of us who have limited space to do such things. I can use the crockpot inside my NY apartment, I’m not about to leave a smoker on the sidewalk for a couple of hours getting extra monoxide.

    I care, but am limited by the environment I live in. There is no do and I’m not about to do not. There is liquid smoke.

  4. I know next to nothing about Liquid Smoke, but Splendid Table is one of those NPR shows that sounds like the worst idea in the world, but turns out to be a ‘driveway moment’.

  5. Disclosure: I have a bottle of liquid smoke in the fridge that I do indeed use.

    Really, the only beef I have with liquid smoke is that it should be a secondary flavor, and liquid smoke makes it way too easy to overdo it. Plus, a lot of what we expect with smoking, such as crispy ends, caramelization, and the Maillard reaction (doesn’t apply to cold smoking) sometimes just doesn’t happen when we’ve used liquid smoke. It’s not to say it isn’t tasty, just perhaps a little incongruous.

    With that being said, use the flavoring as much or as little as you would like. I personally prefer to do it the old fashioned way for lots of reasons, but I have also made some outstanding ‘smoked’ food with nothing but liquid smoke.

  6. Go go Prof. Kirshenbaum!

    I had him for graduate Organic Chemistry at NYU – great class, highly recommended!

  7. Alton Brown’s show “Good Eats” showed how to make your own. I can’t remember the exact episode but I think it must have had something to do with American style barbecue.

  8. i heard this episode and forgot all about it. thanks for the reminder! will be making it this weekend

  9. I always think of her as Lynn Risoto Casper. And always wonder if she really can pull that stuff out of her head, or has “helpers”. Same with Car Talk.

    But back on topic… pulled pork in a crockpot. I’m gonna have to try that. There’s a local microbrewery ( that has a pulled pork sandwich that is to die for, along with their IPA of course.

  10. I was told once — by someone who worked for the FDA running their gas chromatagraphs, no less — that artificial peach flavoring is chemically identical to that of real peach juice or syrup, with the exciting benefit that it contained no cyanide, as opposed to minute, trace amounts of the poison in the real stuff. Pretty rare when the artificial chemical made in a lab is better for you than mother nature, but it happens!

  11. Liquid smoke isn’t a “creepy chemical additive” because *nothing* is a “creepy chemical additive”. That, or *everything* is. Everything, including ourselves and all that is called “natural”, “organic”, and other meaningless newage nonsense is made up of molecules. And therefore chemicals. Deal with it.

    1. There used to be a natural foods store in Cambridge that had a sign advertising “chemical free food”. My brother and I figured it was either holograms or plastic containers with a vacuum inside that you could open for a satisfying “thipp!”

  12. @anon Reductionism of food to a single chemical compound has historically resulted in severe misses due to the incredibly complicated nature of the food and our body’s interaction with the food. So while the artificial flavor may be chemically identical to the primary flavor agent(s) of peach, the nutritional benefits won’t be.

    @jonathan Well that’s a silly position. It’s all just matter, so there’s no meaningful difference, huh? Well, why don’t you sprinkle some mercury on your baked potato? It’s just molecules after all.

  13. The fine folks at Cook’s Illustrated ( also make use of liquid smoke in occasional recipes. They did a taste test of homemade smoke vs. store bought back in Sept of 2007, and call for it as an ingredient in Lo Mein, Skillet BBQ Pork Chops, Smoky Spicy Avocado dip, among other recipes.


  14. @Anon
    If Whole Foods sold 100% Natural Mercury it would be exactly the same as any other mercury. That’s the point. There’s no such thing as “natural” or “organic” (except in the non-mystical sense of carbon containing molecules)

    1. Hear hear. The problem isn’t with what is or is not in the food, the problem is people using really stupid terms for it. Complaining that your food has “chemicals” in it REALLY is the same as complaining that your food has “substances” or “matter” in it. Yes, it does. It’s supposed to, what with humans not being ergivores.

      You’re not complaining about that, you’re complaining about dangerous chemicals or foreign matter (waiter, there’s a moth in my soup).

  15. With all due respect to SeattlePete–believe me, I loves me some smoked salmon–not everyone has the time or facilities to do real wood smoking. This is an adequate substitute for them what don’t. Also, a good practical way of making rauchbier for extract beer brewers.

  16. So glad you posted this. I’ve used it for years. It’s great if you’re a vegetarian but want to get that nice smokey flavor in Red Beans & Rice, for example. But, i always thought it may be a harmful product. I’m very glad to hear that it isn’t.

    Thanks Boing Boing!

  17. I haven’t tried liquid smoke yet, but I have tried smoked salt, and believe me, it’s the bomb.

    My local fancy store (Christina’s in Cambridge) sells a variety of smoked salts. I’ve only tried the Mexican smoked salt. It was sealed in a plastic bag, but every time I opened the spice cabinet the most wonderful smokey perfumes emerged.

    You can use it like regular salt, or go half and half with regular smoke. It adds smokiness, just like the liquid stuff does. And all it is is salt that has been smoked in a smoker.

    One question is that it might possibly have the same carcinogens that are in regular smoking, because nothing is done to purify it. Then again, it certainly is no worse for you than regular smoking.

  18. I’ve always found it funny that people think you have to “slave” over a smoking session. In honesty, it’s not much more work than putting something in a crockpot. Only difference is that once every hour and a half to two hours you have to go out and add a bit more wood or charcoal. That takes all of about 2 minutes to do. There is no slaving, only smoking.

    I do understand though that not everyone has the space to devote to an outdoor cook area and in that instance liquid smoke is a decent option for indoor cooking. I personally just wouldn’t call it “authentic” smoked/BBQ food any more than I’d call Spam real ham.

    1. “I personally just wouldn’t call it “authentic” smoked/BBQ food any more than I’d call Spam real ham.”

      Does smoking food make people’s undies get up in a bunch? The recipe says CHEATER in the title, it’s pretty clear that no claims to authenticity are made.

  19. being a vegetarian, i haven’t had much call for liquid smoke. are there any vegetarian recipes out there that anyone knows of that use it?

    1. I’m vegan, and I love using liquid smoke. It’s a key ingredient in my tempeh “bacon” recipe, as well as a nice addition to baba ganouj.

      And as others have said upthread – you only need a little bit!

  20. I would think that you could certainly toss a bit of liquid smoke into your favorite vegetable blend to add a smoky “off the grill” flavor to them. I grill vegetables all the time and they generally come out very tasty.

  21. Real Louisiana Red Beans and Rice with Liquid Smoke.

    1 pound dry red kidney beans (if you’re in Louisiana, only Camellia brand will do)
    4 cloves garlic
    1 very large onion (about 2 cups chopped)
    4 ribs celery
    1 large bell pepper (about 1 1/2 cups chopped)
    3 bay leaves
    2 teaspoons thyme
    1 teaspoon oregano
    1/4-1 teaspoon red pepper
    1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    1-2 teaspoons chopped chipotle pepper, in adobo (this is not traditional but lends a smoky taste; substitute another tsp. of Liquid Smoke seasoning if you prefer)
    1/2-1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce
    1 teaspoon Liquid Smoke
    salt, to taste
    cooked rice, to serve

    Get it here —

  22. I’ve been using Liquid Smoke for a number of years… both Hickory, and Mesquite.

    One piece of advice – a little goes a long way.

    You can always add a bit more until it gets to the flavor you’re looking for.

    Naturally, I learned the hard way a long time ago.

  23. Please for godsake stop with the “it’s natural so it must be good for you”. Even if you manage to draw some meaningful distinction between natural and artificial there is no reason to believe that because something is natural it is ok to eat or if it is man made that it will harm you. Hemlock is natural, but you don’t see people eating that for the fiber.

  24. Had my first foray into liquid smoke this weekend. Added some (about 2-3x the recommended amount) into vegetarian red beans and rice and simmered it for a few hours. You’d never think there was no meat in it. Delicious.

  25. Liquid smoke may be fine for a smokey flavor, but real BBQ is also about the transformation that the meat undergoes over a long period of smoking at low temperatures. This changes the flavor of the meat in other ways, not to mention the texture.

  26. You don’t even need a crockpot for this. My SO makes great bbq ribs using a similar technique, but instead of 5 hours in the crockpot, we steam them over hot water for much less time. Result: tender, moist flesh. Then the ribs get rubbed, basted in a good bbq sauce, and popped in a slow oven for the flavor to soak in. The final touch is simply mopping some more sauce on top and broiling until we get that great caramelization on top and the crispy brown-black tips. It is so little effort, and so delicious.

    Instead of liquid smoke, we add boubon to the bbq sauce. Great smoky flavor plus all the additional aromatics from the bourbon. The smoky flavor is also “natural” but extracted in quite a different way – it comes from the charred barrels used to mature the whisky.

    @jonathan: Yes, it is dumb to be scared of “chemicals” generically. However, it’s not dumb to be interested in the extraction or synthesis process that gets you your desired molecules, as different processes mean different risks of contamination of the end product, and varying toxicities of contaminant. Personally I prefer a product with a known extraction method, like liquid smoke, to something extracted / synthesized via unknown process from unknown starting point (aka “creepy chemical additive”).

    In the world of food flavorings, the term “natural” actually provides some useful information on how the product was extracted/synthesized/refined, thanks to the FDA. As I understand it, in the USA, flavors labeled “natural” have to come from a natural feedstock (banana, strawberry) and be extracted/derived by a traditional process, such as drying, fermentation, alcohol extraction, etc. “Artificial” or synthetic flavorings covers every other extraction and synthesis process & feedstock. (see ) The flavor molecules of the synthetic flavoring will be identical; the difference is in what you get besides the flavoring, which completely depends on the extraction / synthesis process.

    This doesn’t mean that “natural” is always better. For example, in vitamins: I ran across a study which found that in 2002, several samples of “natural source” Vitamin E were actually more contaminated than samples of synthetic Vitamin E: . The authors suspect the extraction process.

  27. I use liquid smoke to make frozen turnip greens taste better. That and lots of cayenne and red pepper flakes.

  28. I use a drop or two of liquid smoke in my vegetarian split pea soup and corn chowder as a substitute for ham or bacon. It’s delicious and one tiny bottle lasts me a couple years.

  29. I like to mix a little liquid smoke in canned tuna and mix that with cream cheese and spread it on crackers.

  30. I remember years ago watching Justin Wilson (the Cajun chef on PBS) making a vegetarian dish, probably much like the one in the comments above. Besides being vegetarian, another thing that made this recipe stand out was the fact that he made a point of actually measuring out the liquid smoke in a spoon because too much would ruin the food (he had a running gag where he would “measure” out some hot sauce with a slotted spoon or wisk).

  31. @ninebox: with regard to the FDA, I find some mixed information. Though according to FDA policy, “natural” means the product does not contain synthetic or artificial ingredients, I find elsewhere that the advertising term “natural” has no legal definition, standards or regulations, according to the FDA, and there is no plan to establish a definition anytime soon because of limited resources and other priorities.

  32. In junior high school chemistry, we distilled wood as one of our labs.

    Among the stuff we got was something that looked and smelled a lot like Liquid Smoke. I asked the teacher, and he gave me a very weird look and denied it utterly.

    And yet- it WAS liquid smoke! He just wasn’t a cook.

  33. My husband believes if one is good, two will be better resulting in too much liquid smoke! My son saved the day by adding vinegar!

Comments are closed.