My dad was a sometimes cook who was always obsessed with food. He had a penchant and a particularity for specific ingredients, like a certain chili powder from a company in Topeka, an array of hot sauces for different moods, and an insistence that there always be a bottle of liquid smoke in the pantry.
I discovered liquid smoke by accident — well, not really, as I was trolling through the bottles and jars of this or that in the cupboards as a young girl, smelling and tasting what I could. I happened upon a dark bottle, opened it and sniffed. It was like a campfire that had just been extinguished, a lot of smokiness, but no fire, alluring and a bit off-putting at the same time. I licked a dab off my finger and recoiled at the oily greasiness that was for sure smoky but surprisingly bland and tasting of ashes. What was this strange essence and why did we have it?
Outside of an open fire, liquid smoke, which has been around for ages, adds just that, a tinge of what flame and wood (or maybe some bacon) would bring, and you wouldn’t even realize you needed it until you tasted dishes with and without it to note just what flavor improvements it could make.
I believe my dad dribbled liquid smoke into most of the things he made (generally, bean-y or meaty dishes) and snuck it into pots of other things my mom had going. You’d see him coming, giving the small bottle in his hand vigorous little shakes, to lend what he saw as the essential smokiness needed in pretty much anything, from the obvious, like ham and beans, to the not-so-obvious, such as green beans.
But how can you capture smoke in a bottle? Pharmacist Ernest H. Wright, of Kansas City, Missouri, is credited for creating liquid smoke in 1895 from “the memory of ‘a drop of liquid trickling down the stove-pipe’ in the print shop he worked at as a teenager,” according to the Wright’s Liquid Smoke website. Initially, liquid smoke was generated by “running smoke from burning hickory wood through a condenser,” and collecting the droplets.
You can now find Wright’s Liquid Smoke and in an array of wood-fired essences — hickory, mesquite, applewood. Other companies have a range of offerings, too.
For a long time I considered liquid smoke as a hazy, outdated condiment of my family pantry history. I did not need it, I thought, but on a whim, once, I picked up a bottle at the local grocery to have on hand. Soon, I was adding it to beans, greens and more.
The best way to use liquid smoke? Minimally! A little goes a long way … be delicate with the potent drops. I’ve made the mistake of adding too much, and it will take over, rather than enhance. Start with a drop or two and taste what you are making. Most recipes can benefit from a just a few drops to no more than a ¼ teaspoon.
Having dabbled and dribbled, I’ve learned some about what this elixir works best in. While the Wright’s site even suggests using some on graham crackers to make smoky-tinged s’mores, I have never tried it for desserts. But here are plenty of possible dishes that might benefit from a little smoke in a bottle:
- Main dishes — Try a few drops in macaroni and cheese, burgers, meatloaf, ham and beans, pork or beef roasts, and fillings for tacos and fajitas.
- Sauces and dips — Liquid smoke is ideal for marinades for steak, chicken or fish, homemade barbecue sauce and queso dip.
- Soups and stews — Add some smoky depth to chili, corn chowder, black bean soup and vegetable stew.
- Veggies — Mix a little liquid smoke into butter smeared on grilled corn-on-the-cob or a few drops in sautéed corn.
It adds great flavor to baked beans. Try some to season stewed or sautéed greens (collard, spinach, kale, lamb’s quarters, Swiss chard, mustard). It was a family favorite (see recipe) to perk up homestyle green beans.
Stored properly (in a cool, dark place), a bottle of liquid smoke can last for a year or more. When I see my own bottle (or bottles) in the pantry, they send up lasting (liquid) smoke signals from my past, knowing a few efficient drops can sometimes make all the difference.Homestyle Hickory Green Beans and New Potatoes Smoky Lemon-and-Herb Marinade for Chicken
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”