Chances are you have a bottle of liquid smoke parked in your spice pantry, and it’s also likely that you know a grill professional—or a fanatic amateur—who’ll suggest an exorcism and ritual burning if he or she finds out.
Liquid smoke has been around since people began been making charcoal. Condensing the hot, moisture-filled smoke from low-oxygen charcoal burning produces a water-based substance that for centuries was called wood vinegar (pyroligneous acid), used in cooking much as you would any other kind of vinegar. Methods for making wood vinegar were refined in the 17th century. In the United States, in 1895, E. H. Wright inaugurated the era of commercial distribution of wood vinegar as liquid smoke. Batch smokehouses use regenerated atomized smoke to process meat, cheese, fish, and other foods.
Liquid smoke is a fast, easy way to make good smoky foods and barbecue-style meats. Detractors—and there are many—seem to have a lot of reasons for not using liquid smoke, but most of their objections center around a negation of the “barbecue experience,” by which they mean the quasi-ritualized time and effort it takes to prepare and smoke meat. Using liquid smoke requires an understanding of less-is-more; no more than a teaspoon in a cup of marinade.