What Is Liquid Smoke?

Liquid smoke 'em if you got 'em.

liquid smoke on green background
Photo: Allrecipes Illustration

Flavorings are odd things. They can promise that they'll add certain tastes to your food, while sometimes not containing any traces of the original essence (looking at you, vanilla). Similarly, a product may say that it contains natural flavors that in truth aren't natural at all. Fortunately, although liquid smoke sounds like it was created in a laboratory, it's one of the flavoring products with less murky origins. Read on to find out what liquid smoke is and how it's made, how to use liquid smoke, whether liquid smoke is dangerous, and substitutions for liquid smoke.

What Is Liquid Smoke?

Liquid smoke is a flavoring agent made by burning wood chips, capturing the smoke, and then condensing it in a liquid substance. Liquid smoke is used to provide certain foods with a smoky flavor without having to use actual wood smoke. Also known as wood vinegar and smoke flavor, liquid smoke is a natural product that people have been making for hundreds of years.

How to Use Liquid Smoke

Liquid smoke is sold as an individual product, but it's also added into foods we buy. It's a common ingredient in sauces and marinades and hot dogs. A product that is labeled as "smoked," such as smoked deli meat or cheese, may very well be flavored with only liquid smoke. Adding a few drops of liquid smoke to a meat or vegetable will give it a smoky flavor without the use of a grill or smoker. For example, you can add liquid smoke to sloppy joes or homemade barbecue sauce.

Is Liquid Smoke Dangerous?

Liquid smoke is safer than cooking with actual smoke because the carcinogenic pathogens in liquid smoke have been filtered out. Ordinarily, it is a generally harmless substance, but the quality of liquid smoke varies greatly — as with other flavorings, inexpensive liquid smoke is more likely to contain additives or chemicals.

"The problem with commercial liquid smoke, much like vanilla extract, is quality," says Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, and LD. "Pure liquid smoke, the distilled essence of smoldering hardwood, is very expensive and laborious to make. Therefore, some lesser cuts of liquid smoke are cut with additives, hastily distilled (leaving less than desirable chemicals behind), or blended with artificial flavors/colors."

Liquid Smoke Substitutes

If you want to give your food a smoky flavor without the use of artificial substances or additives, season it with smoked paprika or chipotle powder.


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