Is Liquid Smoke Safe To Cook With?

Liquid smoke sounds like the kind of thing you would encounter in chemistry class, and the way this product is made might even remind you of a lab experiment. But just because liquid smoke isn't the most widely-understood ingredient doesn't mean it's unsafe to eat. You can and should be cooking with liquid smoke — in fact, cooking with real smoke is more likely to irritate your airways.

How does a substance that is toxic to inhale get turned into a liquid that can be poured into your food? Smoke itself actually already contains quite a bit of water. When you capture that hot smoke in a condensing machine, it basically creates smoke droplets. After extensive filtering, you have liquid smoke. There has been some preliminary research that suggests that eating burnt foods may cause cancer, notes the Hospital of Central Connecticut, so you might wonder about the risks of this special seasoning.

Liquid smoke does contain potentially harmful compounds called pyrogallol-like polyphenols (PLPs) — which also occur naturally in coffee and tea — as well as carcinogens that are present in foods like smoked meats and fish. However, after the filtering process, the amount of these compounds in a single serving of liquid smoke is so minuscule that there is essentially no danger. One teaspoon actually has less than 2% of an adult's daily limit of carcinogens, according to Nutrition Facts. To put that in perspective, a single serving of smoked ham measures at nearly 50%.

Different types of liquid smoke

Liquid smoke gives a delicious and natural smoky taste to anything you please, without the added risk (or required space) of real smoking. It's a secret weapon for any cook who lacks a smoker, or doesn't want to risk setting off every alarm in the house by using a DIY setup. Liquid smoke also comes in many different flavors. 

Because this product is made by burning wood chips or sawdust and then condensing the smoke, there can be as many versions of liquid smoke as there are types of wood. Some brands add flavors, coloring, and chemicals after filtration, but others use only pure, condensed smoke. The latter type of product will list only smoke or smoke flavor and water as the ingredients on the bottle, and will sometimes specify which type of wood was used.

You can mix and match different types of liquid smoke with your recipes, just like you would when choosing wood for a smoker. Some of the best woods for smoking brisket are oak or hickory, whereas fruit, maple, or pecan woods are ideal for smoking chicken – and you can find liquid forms of all of these woods. Brands like Wright's Liquid Smoke offer applewood, hickory, and mesquite varieties with no additives, and the liquid smoke Alton Brown buys constantly is the Lazy Kettle brand.

Creative ways to use liquid smoke

Pairing liquid smoke with meat and seafood is a natural choice. It's a great tool to achieve barbecued flavor in the comfort of the indoors, whether you want to cook ribs in the oven when you don't have a grill or add a charbroiled flavor to burgers. Use it in marinades, sticky-sweet sauces, au jus, or as part of a curing mixture for salmon. Liquid smoke can also be a powerhouse that gives vegetable and grain dishes a smoky, meaty depth, without any animal products in sight. 

Try making a Dijon mustard, maple syrup, and apple cider vinegar dressing with a touch of liquid smoke to finish off charred vegetables like cauliflower, butternut squash, radishes, or cabbage. You can also add a dash of the smoke to roasted potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, and eggplant, or create more depth in a nutty wild rice pilaf recipe. It also adds an authentic taste to meat substitutes, like tempeh "bacon", tofu "sausage" crumbles, jackfruit "pulled pork," or veggie burgers.

No matter how you decide to utilize liquid smoke, make sure to do so sparingly. It has an incredibly concentrated flavor, and being heavy-handed with it is a surefire way to make your meal taste like lighter fluid. A recipe for an entire brisket may not even use a full teaspoon of liquid smoke, so be sure to add this potent ingredient just a couple drops at time.