You've probably had the savory-smelling, yellowish-brown liquid in barbecue sauces, ketchup and marinades; maybe even on ribs, wings, brisket or cheese. And yes, if you're a fan of McDonald's beloved McRib sandwich, it's part of what gives that cult favorite its, well, unique flavor.
We're talking about liquid smoke, a — shocking — smoky liquid flavor substitute that helps cooks quickly and easily do the work of a smoker.
What Is Liquid Smoke?
A secret ingredient to some and a blasphemous cheat to devoted barbecue enthusiasts, liquid smoke is exactly what it sounds like: condensed smoke flavoring that can be almost indiscernible from the real thing.
Though the product we know today was invented by Ernest H. Wright in 1895, liquid smoke actually dates back to the 17th century where "wood vinegar" was used as a flavoring agent and preservative for meats. Wright improved the process of harnessing wood smoke condensates (otherwise known as pyroligneous acid), commercializing the process by the start of the 20th century.
By the 1960s, liquid smoke was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and stocked in most supermarkets across the continental U.S. on its own and in ketchup, barbecue sauce, cheese and more. It's shelf stable for up to two years and you can incorporate liquid smoke into an endless number of foods.
How Is It Made?
Liquid smoke is made from actual smoke: Woodchips or sawdust are burned at high temperatures and the smoke is collected in a condenser and cooled into a soluble liquid. That's then filtered of its impurities (like tar and ash) and further condensed. Some brands add more ingredients like molasses, vinegar, hickory flavor and caramel coloring.
Of course, no clever food flavoring is without its controversy and liquid smoke is no different. Adding just a teaspoon too much of the water-soluble liquid can render meals inedible, meaning you need to follow recipes that use liquid smoke closely to ensure you don't ruin your meal. (Nobody wants to throw pounds of brisket into the trash.)
But all recipes that use liquid smoke don't involve meat. One of the hottest hacks for liquid smoke today is it for vegan and vegetarian cooking to give dishes that barbecue flavor. Vegan chef Tabitha Brown's recipe for carrot bacon, for instance, went viral after she posted it on TikTok. The simple recipe calls for thin strips of carrots dipped in a mixture of liquid smoke, maple syrup, garlic powder, smoked paprika and onion powder and then crisped up in an air fryer or oven at 380 degrees Fahrenheit (193 degrees Celsius). The results are smoky "bacon" strips for those who don't eat meat.