Liquid Smoke Demystified

Smoke as a flavor profile element has already made its comeback; chefs who appreciate the nuances that smoke brings to a dish use it in all sorts of inventive ways. It touches a primeval cooking memory when foods were slow roasted and the smoky intensity from the cooking fire permeated into the dishes. Nowadays, there are little hand-smokers that you can use per-plate. But what if you don’t want your kitchen to look like a dive bar, and you don’t have a backyard smoker [yet]? Well, for those of us who want the flavor without the fuss, there’s liquid smoke.

There’s a little bit of confusion about what liquid smoke really is. Now that I see it more or less regularly on the shelves here in Israel, I think it’s time to clear things up, and show you a cool trick on how to use it.

And no, it is not a cheat.

When wood burns, it gives off smoke, right? Different woods when burnt give off different aromas. Hickory, mesquite, apple, cherry, oak, olive, grapevine all have distinct flavor characteristics when burned. In order to impart the smoky flavor from the wood into food, you lay the chicken, beef, or fish on a grill over the smoking wood. The smoke as it rises encounters the surface of the food and is absorbed, imparting its flavor to the meat.

You’re with me so far?

The Making of Liquid Smoke

So what would happen if there wasn’t any meat to absorb the flavor? The smoke would continue to travel up. Now, if the smoke was directed up a pipe that had a basin at the top which was colder than the smoke, the moisture in the air would condense on the sides of the basin, the same way the bathroom tiles get wet after a hot shower. Since the air also contains smoke vapor, the condensate will retain the flavor of the smoke.

There you have it: liquid smoke.

There are no chemicals, no fakery, no faux, ersatz or otherwise bogus flavorings. Real liquid smoke isn’t a triglyceride-laden laboratory concoction, and needs no additives, colorings or flavorings. It is a true suspension of smoke flavor in liquid.

Use it in anything that you want to give a rustic smoky flavor characteristic. It’s strong stuff, so a little will go a long way. You can easily overdo it.

Using Liquid Smoke

As I mentioned, it’s a little tricky to use. Add just the right amount to your chili and it will taste like you slow cooked it over a campfire. If you overdo it, your chili will taste like an ashtray. You can use it as an additive to sausages (you do make your own, right?), soups, and stews. I cannot emphasize enough to use it sparingly. It’s more of a background sensation than a front-stage flavor.

Remember the old adage about always adding more salt? Well, it goes double for liquid smoke. If you don’t think you’ve added enough, before you add any more, leave it to cook for five more minutes. Then, if after you taste it you think you should add some more, go ahead.

Consider yourselves warned.

Roll Your Own Smoked Seasonings

Here’s a trick to getting just the right amount of smoky flavor into your dishes. Take a cup of kosher salt. Take a tablespoon of liquid smoke. Combine. No, it won’t dissolve the salt. Stir until uniformly tawny in color. Spread out on a sheet pan to dry. That’s right, you just made smoked salt. Now when you want your soup to have a smoky hint, use this salt instead. The smoked salt in the picture was just made (and prompted the article), but it will darken over time, especially if you leave it out in the sun. That’s why the bottles of liquid smoke are usually brown or wrapped in paper; the stuff oxidizes rapidly.

Take a cup of paprika. Take a cup of garlic powder. Take a cup of cayenne pepper. This technique works equally well for all three. Since it might take you a while to use up a cup of cayenne pepper, you can divide it in half, or use a third of a cup of seasoning and a teaspoon of liquid smoke. And keep playing with it until you find a flavor balance that’s right for you.

Yes, you can smoke the salt in a smoker, but then it wouldn’t be strictly pareve. And you might not have the wherewithal to smoke it in the first place. This is easier and cleaner. And. a little jar of smoked salt makes a fantabulous homemade gift that will last longer than flowers.

Smoke ’em if you got ’em!