The Science Of Liquid Smoke

"Liquid smoke is made by a distillation process similar to making whiskey, so if you hate it, back away from the bar and put down that single malt, pahdna."Meathead

Most barbecue sauces contain liquid smoke or "Natural smoke flavor", and some commercial meats, like hams, jerkies, and sausages are created with liquid smoke. Barbecue purists (snobs?) detest the concept, but I see it as just another flavoring in my arsenal. Because I have several smokers, I rarely need it, but if you live in a hi-rise or a dorm, it can bring some of the outdoor flavor indoors as we did in our indoor ribs recipe.

If you are among the haters, please note that it is made by a distillation process similar to making whiskey, so back away from the bar and put down that single malt, pahdna. In fact, it is made in a similar manner to making barbecue!

As shown in the illustration from Colgin, hardwood sawdust or chips are heated in a tank until they smolder but not burn (1). The gases and particles are cooled so that they condense and liquefy usually with the help of water (2 - 3). It is then refined (5 - 11) and filtered (12) to remove impurities, and then aged in oak barrels (14). This is, in fact, similar to the way smoke flavors food. It condenses on the food which is cooler than the smoke. You can read more about the process in my article on wood and smoke.

Placeholder

Above are three beer cans I painted white. The one on the left was filled with ice water and the middle one was empty. They both went into a smoker for about an hour. The one on the right sat on my desk. As you can see, smoke is attracted to cool surfaces, a process called thermophoresis.

I asked the AmazingRibs.com science advisor Prof. Greg Blonder to describe the differences between smoke vapors and liquid smoke. He said "Wood combustion smoke contains hundreds of chemical compounds. A few with sweet pronounced caramel notes, others smoky and clean like an autumn campfire, but many are bitter and acrid. Some are carcinogenic and others antibacterial and others act as a preservative. Most of the smoke is in the form of gases that cannot be captured and bottled in liquid form, or rapidly degrade into flavorless molecules. Enough stable smoke compounds are either water or oil soluble and they can be condensed, filtered, and washed out of the smoke and then sold by the bottle.

"Liquid smoke, at least the better grades, is designed to minimize bitter flavors and known carcinogenic compounds, while maximizing smoke-like flavor and color. Because liquid smoke contains only a subset of all the combustion products produced in a wood fire, and in different proportions, the bottled flavor is not a perfect reproduction of a fire pit. However, combined with herbs, spices, sauces, and even charred veggies, the results can be close to real barbecue."

Liquid smoke is quite strong and if you wish to use it in a sauce or slow cooker, add just a few drops at a time. There are two major brands, Colgin and Wright's. Colgin adds water, vinegar, molasses, caramel coloring, and salt. Wright's adds only water to most of its flavors, but the applewood flavor also contains apple and maple flavors. There are noticeable taste differences between them, and we slightly prefer Wright's. Can you tell the difference between foods flavored with liquid smoke and with vaporous smoke? Yes. But I'll bet there are people who prefer the liquid smoke! Here's a link to the different liquid smokes on Amazon.Placeholder

Placeholder

Meathead Goldwyn

Meathead is the founder and publisher of AmazingRibs.com, and is also known as the site's Hedonism Evangelist and BBQ Whisperer. He is also the author of "Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling", a New York Times Best Seller and named one of the "100 Best Cookbooks of All Time" by Southern Living.

Placeholder

Placeholder

Many merchants pay us a small referral fee when you click our links and purchase from them. On Amazon it works on everything from grills to diapers, they never tell us what you bought, and it has zero impact on the price you pay, but has a major impact on our ability to improve this site! And remember, we only recommend products we love. If you like AmazingRibs.com, please save this link and use it every time you go to Amazonhttps://tinyurl.com/amazingribs

Placeholder

Placeholder

Get Smoke Signals, our free e-letter. No spam. Guaranteed

Enter your email:

If you help us, we’ll pay you back bigtime with an ad free experience and much more!

Millions come to AmazingRibs.com every month for quality tested recipes, tips on technique, science, mythbusting, product reviews, and inspiration. But it is expensive to run a website with more than 4,000 pages and we don’t have a big corporate partner like TV network or a magazine publisher to subsidize us. 

Our most important source of sustenance is people who join our Pitmaster Club, but please don’t think of it as a donation. Members get 21 great benefits. We block all third party ads, we give members free ebooks, magazines, interviews, webinars, more recipes, a monthly sweepstakes with prizes worth up to $2,000, discounts on products, and best of all a community of like-minded cooks free of flame wars. Click below to see all the benefits, take a free 30 day trial membership, and help keep this site alive.


Post comments and questions below

Placeholder

1) Try to post your question to the appropriate page.

2) Tell us everything we need to know to help such as the type of cooker and thermometer.

3) If you are a member of the Pitmaster Club, your comments login is probably different than your membership login.

Moderators

 

Click to ask questions and make comments