Liquid Smoke, that Controversial Condiment

Bottle of Wright's Liquid SmokeLiquid smoke is a condiment that invites controversy.  Barbecue purists roll their eyes and say “no way.”  Health groups consistently voice concern over possible health risks. Yet despite all the ‘nay’, there is a strong ‘yay’ with marketing trends showing that the condiment is growing in popularity as a flavor additive.

Liquid smoke is made by channeling smoke from smoldering woodchips through a condenser that quickly cools the vapors causing them to liquefy.  The water-soluble flavor compounds in the smoke are trapped within the liquid while the insoluble tars and resins are removed by a series of filters.  The results is a clean, all natural smoke-flavored liquid that provides a cookout-like flavor when outdoor grilling isn’t an option.

Ernest H Wright is credited with introducing liquid smoke in 1895.  As a teenager, he worked in a print shop and noticed the liquid dropping from the stove pipe that heated the shop tasted like smoke.  Years later as a pharmacist, he experimented and perfected the process of condensing hot smoke from a wood fire to create Wright’s Liquid Smoke which is still sold today and remains as a pure product, smoke and water.

Unless liquid smoke has added chemicals or ingredients, it is an all-natural product—just smoke suspended in water. (It should be noted that some brands add molasses, vinegar, and other flavorings so read the label to be sure that it is just smoke and water.)  Liquid smoke is used as a flavor additive in a whole host of foods beyond the little bottles on the grocery shelf.  It is the source of the smoky flavor in commercial barbecue sauces, bacon, hot dogs, smoked meats, cheeses, and nuts to name a few.  The process of adding liquid smoke or smoked flavorings to foods is justification for the use of the word “smoke” on package labeling.

What about the health risks?  Smoke, no matter the source, contains cancer-causing chemicals.  Some of those chemicals persist even in the extracts making liquid smoke a potential cancer risk.  Studies have shown that the amount of carcinogenic chemical found in liquid smoke depends on the type of hardwood used and the temperature at which it is burned. Other studies have shown that liquid smoke is less risky than food charred and cooked over smoke. A researcher at NYU found that controlled smoking plus an ensuing filtering process removed most, if not all, of these compounds. Therefore, most experts contend that the concentrations of the carcinogenic molecules in liquid smoke are far too low for any genuine health concerns as one would need to consume far more liquid smoke than most recipes call for to see any effects. Moderation is key with this magical ingredient, so use a light amount (1/4 teaspoon) in dishes for the safest route and if sediment is detected, let it settle and use only the liquid above it.

Liquid smoke has zero calories, zero fat, and most brands are low in sodium (about 10 mg per teaspoon), but it still brings an intense flavor like bacon.  Knowing that we should use it sparingly, it may be brushed on meats to add a depth of flavor or added to foods that generally rely on saturated fats and salt to bring out their flavor; thus it may add flavor for those on restricted diets who find that their food lacks flavor. Just a dash imparts that distinctive meaty, salty flavor that we know and love.   Taste of Home says “there is almost no sauce that wouldn’t benefit from a few drops of liquid smoke.  Adding a few drops to everything from your BBQ sauce to vinaigrette to your ranch dressing will help elevate your burgers, salads, and everything in-between.”

Agree or disagree with the barbecue purists–liquid smoke does not replace true smoke.  However, using a little liquid smoke now and again when smoking or grilling is not possible or to step up the flavor of foods and sauces is an option.

Reviewed 5/2024, mg.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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16 thoughts on “Liquid Smoke, that Controversial Condiment

  1. I’m allergic to liquid smoke..
    Avoidence of liquid smoke is a difficult thing for me to do,
    Since hungry man tv dinners have it in their ingredients…
    Is there something for me to do about it?

  2. I’m allergic to liquid smoke..
    Avoidence of liquid smoke is a difficult thing for me to do,
    Since hungry man tv dinners have it in their ingredients…
    Is there something for me to do about it?

  3. A lot of companies will add caramel coloring to their ingredients as well. Caramel coloring has been shown to have some potential negative health effects for people who consume it.

  4. Those who think they are allergic might just be allergic to the caramel colouring added.

  5. Does anyone know which hardwoods are better for the lower carcinogenic content? The article mentions it but doesn’t say which are better.

  6. Aslo, your question is well taken. Sadly, the research literature does not contain very much information on the subject. The classic on the subject was done by a group in Spain. Spain. “In this paper, the influence of the wood source on the formation of PAHs was studied. For this purpose, five liquid smoke flavorings, obtained from different types of wood (oak, cherry tree, popular and beech samples), were used. . . . The results revealed that the flavoring obtained from poplar wood presents the highest number and concentrations of both total and carcinogenic PAHs, even though the levels of these latter are very low. . . . Thus, the wood nature influences the amount of PAHs but individual studies of each wood are necessary to establish the importance of this influence.” The study also revealed that the amount of PAHs in liquid smoke not only depends on the type of wood but also the smoking temperature. PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are made when you burn fossil fuels like coal, gas, charcoal, and wood during the cooking process. Turns out that these cancerous compounds tend to be fat soluble versus water soluble. That means much more of the flavor compounds (vs. cancer compounds) are being captured in the bottle of liquid smoke. Meats smoked or cooked on a grill retain much higher numbers of PAH. I’m sorry that I cannot provide more specific information to answer your question.

  7. Hi, There are several brands/manufacturers of liquid smoke; some contain added ingredients beyond the liquid smoke. It is important that you read the label to determine if MSG or other ingredients that may contain free glutamates has been used.

  8. Hi Danica, do you mean molasses? If so, some brands of liquid smoke do contain molasses. Check the labels. The Wright brand does not contain molasses.

  9. Hello Vicki and thank you for submitting your question to Iowa State University Extension and Outreach AnswerLine.

    Dried spices and flavorings in home canning are generally optional and can be added in small quantities. Some things to keep in mind, especially when using liquid smoke, is that the flavors will intensify after they are canned. So use it sparingly. Also, you will want to use pure liquid smoke light Wrights. Since you don’t say what you want to add the liquid smoke to, I have two suggestions. If it is meat, add to the broth to taste or in the case of raw meat, sprinkle onto the meat sparingly and then toss to mix in. If it is to beans, be sure to cook your beans flavoring the broth to suit your taste (rather than adding smoke to each jar). Follow all of the usual instructions of a tested recipe for canning your product safely.

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