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 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 burning charcoal produces a watery liquid (pyroligneous acid) that for centuries was called wood vinegar and was customarily used in everyday cooking–not just your occasional Renaissance barbecue–much as you would any other kind of vinegar.
Methods for making wood vinegar were refined in the 17th century. In 1895, E. H. Wright inaugurated the era of commercial manufacture and distribution of wood vinegar as liquid smoke. Batch smokehouses use regenerated atomized liquid 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 takes practice and an understanding of the less-is-more rule. My standard is no more than a teaspoon in a cup of sauce or marinade.