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Liquid Smoke: The History Behind a Divisive Culinary Shortcut

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Barbecue's love/hate relationship with the manufactured flavor

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Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Biting into the blackened crust of a slice of fatty brisket, one's taste buds are inundated with saltiness, a slight peppery spiciness, and, of course, smoke. At at any god-honest barbecue joint, pitmasters dedicate hours babysitting their smokers, routinely feeding the iron apparatus chips of hickory or applewood and eyeing the timer like a hawk. For these barbecue heads, obtaining such rich, smoky essence doesn't come easy. But not everyone's willing to do things the hard way.

The advent of liquid smoke — literally, smoke condensed into a liquid form — has allowed folks to cut down smoking time from hours to, well, mere seconds (mirroring if not the texture of slow-smoked meat, then at least its principal flavor). Its usage causes barbecue purists (like the late Josh Ozersky) to roll their eyes, and health groups have consistently voiced concern over possible health effects.

But the growing popularity of liquid smoke can be seen almost everywhere. A variety of liquid smoke-branded bottles stock the grocery shelves, and products like "smoked" bacon reveal their true nature on the packages' ingredient labels. In the gastronomy realm, where ingredients like "smoked-infused lettuce" aren't so outlandish, liquid smoke enjoys a recurring role as a flavor additive. So how did this divisive ingredient become so popular?

A New York smokehouse, 1923. Eugene L. Armbruster/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images


Leave it to science to butt heads with tradition. Ernest H. Wright, a Kansas City, Missouri pharmacist, created the ingredient in 1895. According to a 1923 edition of The Rotarian, Wright's inspiration for liquid smoke was the memory of "a drop of liquid trickling down the stove-pipe" in the print shop he worked at as a teenager. The pharmacist realized a decade later that smoke condenses when it comes into contact with the cold air. By running smoke from burning hickory wood through a condenser, Wright collected the droplets containing the chemicals from the hot vapors. The collected liquid could then be used as a delicious, cheap alternative to literally smoking meat.

Liquid smoke's early use was less as a flavoring agent and more as a preservative. At the time, farmers in the South — where Wright was selling his initial batch of product — smoked salt-cured ham and pork bellies largely for preservation reasons. Bugs, however, apparently love the taste of pork as much as humans, and flies oftentimes would lay their eggs in the hunks of flesh hanging in the smokehouse. As a result, the ham and pork bellies were frequently ruined, unable to be sold. While Wright's liquid smoke did capture that savory carnal essence, the new-age smokemaster made his fortune by marketing his product as a cheap preservative. (Contemporary studies have confirmed that Wright wasn't selling junk science: Liquid smoke does have some anti-microbacterial properties, and brining or topically applying liquid smoke to meat can extend its shelf life.)

Contemporary studies have confirmed that Wright wasn’t selling junk science.

Competition quickly cracked Wright's code, and other liquid smoke brands cropped up. Figaro (founded in 1904, now owned by the Louisiana-based Baumer Foods, which is also behind Crystal Hot Sauce) and Colgin (founded in Dallas in 1945) also began selling their products as preservatives.

By the 1950s and '60s, the advent of suburbia and those idyllic backyard cookouts prompted the growing consumer appetite for smokier, carnal flavors. This, coupled with the powdered-this-canned-that-no-fuss-tuna-casserole attitude of at-home cooking, provided the perfect storm for liquid smoke to enter the American kitchen. With the American Food and Drug Administration giving the product its safety blessing in 1960, according to the Handbook of Meat, Poultry and Seafood Quality, by the ‘70s, liquid smoke was in full swing as a flavoring agent for home use as well as commercial brands' ketchups, barbecue sauces, cheeses, oysters, and — yes — bacon. Nowadays, liquid smoke brands are unabashed in advertising their products' main use as quick, cheap flavoring agents.

Photo: Raymond Schobe/Flickr

Is it safe?

On the whole, liquid smoke's ingredients list was intended by Wright to be equal to real smoke. To this day, many brands of liquid smoke follow a similar "recipe" in condensing the hot vapors, although it's not surprising to find additional flavor additives like molasses, salt, or vinegar mixed in at the end of the process.

"This isn’t something we’re pouring over our breakfast cereal."

In more recent years, however, several health experts, scientists, and dietitians all have voiced health concerns over the safety of liquid smoke used in meats, barbecue sauce, and a number of other food products. The European Food Safety Authority, the health arm of the European Union, has conducted a series of investigations to determine the safety of liquid smoke flavorings derived from different types of hardwood.

A large driver in these investigations lies in the fact that liquid smoke contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a family of chemical compounds. A handful of its members been linked to carcinogenic effects and DNA damage. For example, Primary Product AM 01, a flavoring derived from burning beechwood, is considered a safety concern due to findings that it might cause DNA mutations when consumed. The type and amount of PAHs present in a particular type of liquid smoke, however, depends on the type of hardwood used and the temperature at which it's burned. But many nutritionists, including Monica Reinagel, a licensed nutritionist and author of the blog Nutrition Over Easy, believe the concentrations of these molecules in liquid smoke are far too low for any genuine health concern.

Reinagel describes the health concern over the presence of the PAHs in liquid smoke as a "tempest in a teapot." "This isn't something we're pouring over our breakfast cereal," Reinagel says, adding that PAHs found in liquid smoke are no different than those you'd find in traditionally smoked meats or fish. As a result, she believes that wolfing down on meat brined with a few drops of liquid smoke can't be any worse than pigging out on smoked sausage links.

Photo: Denis Vrublevski/Shutterstock

A Controversial Condiment

In the culinary world's mass-market sector, liquid smoke provides a convenient shortcut to achieving the familiar "barbecue" flavor. Ingredients labels typically refer to liquid smoke as "natural smoke flavoring" or "natural smoke source." One can find these often listed on the ingredients label for McDonald's cultishly beloved McRib sauce, as well as typical barbecue-flavored snacks like Lay's potato chips. In a report published this past April by Future Market Insights, a market intelligence and consulting firm, the global liquid smoke market was valued at $65 million in 2015. FMI predicts that liquid smoke's market value will increase at a compound annual growth rate of 8.1 percent over the next decade, citing drivers like "rising disposable income, growing pet ownership, increasing consumption of meat products and lowered total production cost."

Liquid smoke's sales may have increased, but that hasn't necessarily translated into a warm embrace by the cooking world. Several barbecue purists like Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor of Texas Monthly, are up front in their antagonism towards incorporating the condiment in any barbecue-related recipes. "I cringe every time I taste it," Vaughn says, comparing the taste of meat coated with liquid smoke to that of instant coffee. Furthermore, he believes slathering smoked meat with barbecue sauces that incorporate liquid smoke ruins the meat's flavor.

Of course, not everyone — even in the barbecue world — holds such fundamentalist stances towards usage of this ingredient. Steven Raichlen, author of several barbecue books like The Barbecue Bible and Planet Barbecue!, explains that while directly applying liquid smoke to his meat is verboten, he's content with incorporating it in his barbecue sauces. And when diving into the realms of popular food science and gastronomy food channels, the witch hunt dwindles. ChefSteps, a cooking channel started by alumni of the creative team that produced Modernist Cuisine, includes several recipes utilizing liquid smoke, including the aptly titled "Apartment Ribs."

"Flavor-wise, there’s no reason you can’t make good smoky food using liquid smoke."

Similarly, Serious Eats's Kenji López-Alt is unapologetic in featuring liquid smoke in several of his sous vide barbecue recipes for his Food Lab column. "The stuff that goes into the bottle, minus a couple of chemical components that are not water soluble, is almost identical to meat when it's smoking," says López-Alt, who explained that a lot of the problems with liquid smoke comes from beginners not understanding the less-is-more philosophy. "Flavor-wise, there's no reason you can't make good smoky food using liquid smoke."

Although liquid smoke offers such perks as quick cooking time and a sense of measured control in preparing barbecue-style meats, culinary experimenters like López-Alt aren't oblivious to the fact that liquid smoke leaves out a lot of the elements integral to barbecue. He claims that a large part of experiencing barbecue includes factors like the pit master's time and effort required for preparing and smoking the meat. As a result, he understands why using liquid smoke might be considered akin to "bringing a laser-guided basketball player to a basketball game." For the toughest of barbecue heads like Vaughn, this concession regarding liquid smoke's limitations might be the closest thing to agreement.

"I never would use liquid smoke, but I'm not gonna tell people not to use it," says Vaughn. "Just don't use it on meat and then call it 'barbecue.'"

Matthew Sedacca is a freelance writer based in New York.
Editor: Erin DeJesus