How to Use Liquid Smoke [6 Easy Ways]

Want that slow-smoked flavor but don’t have a smoker? Learn how to use liquid smoke to create delectable meats without spending hours at the grill.

mesquite liquid smoke

Grill purists might roll their eyes, but liquid smoke can be a great way to add smoky barbecue flavor to your meats without having to fire up the smoker.

But just as there are right and wrong ways to use a smoker, there’s a proper way to use liquid smoke in order to get the most out of this delicious (and often misunderstood) ingredient. Here’s how to use liquid smoke to get that slow-smoked flavor without the wood chips.

What Exactly is Liquid Smoke?

Detractors often claim that liquid smoke has an “artificial” flavor, but it might surprise you to learn that this is actually a natural product. Liquid smoke is made from burning actual wood and collecting the smoke in a condenser.

wrights liquid smoke

When hot smoke meets cold air, it condenses into water droplets filled with the smoke flavor we all know and love.

Before it’s bottled, liquid smoke is purified. Through an elaborate filtration process, tars and resins are removed, leaving only the distinctive flavor compounds behind. The resulting smoke-flavored liquid is then concentrated, so a little goes a long way. 

Just like wood chips, liquid smoke comes in a number of varieties. Depending on what type of meat you’re preparing, you might choose hickory, mesquite, applewood, or something else. 

In its purest form, liquid smoke contains smoke and water. But make sure you check ingredient labels — some companies add vinegar, molasses, soy sauce, various other seasonings, and even artificial color.

Where Did It Come From?

Like many barbecue classics, commercial liquid smoke has a memorable origin story. Ernest H. Wright, a Missouri pharmacist, first created it in 1895. His inspiration? A drop of black liquid running down a stovepipe.

Wright first observed this phenomenon in the print shop where he worked as a teenager. But it wasn’t until many years later that he coined the term “liquid smoke” and began commercially producing the product.

Of course, before making his product on a large scale, Wright had to test it out. He did so by coating a ham in liquid smoke and serving it to his friends.

Wright might have been the first person to commercially manufacture and distribute liquid smoke, but he wasn’t the first to use condensed wood smoke as flavoring. For centuries, civilizations around the world have created and used liquid smoke, often known by the somewhat less appetizing name of “wood vinegar.”

sticky ribs liquid smoke braise
Applying liquid smoke to meat can replicate barbecue’s slow-smoked flavor

The Many Benefits of Liquid Smoke

Think liquid smoke can’t compare to your smoker? While it has its detractors, there’s a lot to be said for its benefits:

  • It creates slow-smoked flavor in a matter of minutes, saving you hours compared to authentic smoking
  • It’s a great way to give meats a smoked flavor, even when you’re cooking indoors
  • It’s extensively filtered and contains fewer carcinogenic compounds than actual smoke
  • It makes meat taste nearly identical to actual smoked meat when used correctly
  • It comes in many different varieties
  • It’s more cost-effective than purchasing wood chips (or even a smoker)

How to Use Liquid Smoke

The versatility of liquid smoke is limited only by your creativity. If you’re wondering how to use it, check out some of these strategies:

Revitalize Your Marinades

Adding liquid smoke to your favorite marinade recipe can give it a beautiful note of smoke flavor that’s truly unique.

Real smoke has time to permeate the meat. So if you want to create authentic flavor, make sure you give liquid smoke time to soak in.

An effective way to do this is to add some liquid smoke to the marinade you already use. The key here is to not overdo it — most experts suggest using about ½ teaspoon of liquid smoke for each cup of marinade. For best results, add the liquid smoke at the very end of your marinade recipe. Make sure you stir it in thoroughly!

Put a Dash in the Slow Cooker

Marinating your meat isn’t the only way to give liquid smoke time to sink in. This handy ingredient also works nicely in a slow cooker. The exact amount you should use will vary based on how much meat you’re preparing; but as a general rule of thumb, you’ll want to rub the liquid smoke over the entire surface of the meat.

Make Broiled Burgers Taste Grilled

Everyone loves the taste of burgers straight off the grill. But if you can’t grill outside, liquid smoke is the next best thing. Use about ¼ to ½ teaspoon of liquid smoke per pound of ground beef while making the patties. Or if you have premade patties, mix the liquid smoke with a tablespoon of water and brush it on before cooking.

Use as a Finishing Touch

If you’re roasting meat in the oven, you may decide to use liquid smoke as your finishing touch. Some people prefer to coat the meat with liquid smoke (or apply a liquid-smoke-infused glaze), leave it in the oven long enough for the surface to brown, and then remove it.

Make Your Own Smoked Salmon

If you love cold-smoked salmon, you can create your own relatively inexpensive dish with liquid smoke. Start by coating salmon filets in sugar and kosher salt and curing them in the fridge for 12-18 hours. 

salmon liquid smoke soak

After rinsing off the seasoning, you then need to soak the salmon in water and liquid smoke for about 6-8 hours before letting it dry for 8 hours at room temperature. Aim to use about 3 tablespoons of liquid smoke for every pound of salmon.

Going Beyond Meat

Liquid smoke’s most obvious use is infusing meat with that exquisite, slow-smoked flavor. But there are plenty of other interesting ways you can use it:

  • Brush a little bit onto sliced veggies before roasting or grilling
  • Put a few drops in salad dressing for a truly unique taste
  • Mix a dash into your chili
  • Reinvent mac and cheese with a few drops

Of course, you don’t need to feel limited to this list. If you come up with an idea, don’t hesitate to try it. Some people even add a drop to cocktails!

Common Mistakes to Avoid

If you want to get the most out of your liquid smoke, you’ll want to make sure you use it the right way. Be sure to avoid these common pitfalls!

Using Too Much

This is probably the most common mistake when using liquid smoke. Just like salt, using the right amount of liquid smoke creates an incredible taste. However, using too much can quickly ruin an otherwise perfect dish.

Remember that, although liquid smoke is made from real smoke, it’s highly concentrated. Those who dislike it often say it has a “chemical” taste, which is often the result of overuse. When in doubt, use less. You can always add more later!

Choosing the Wrong Flavor

If you have adventurous taste buds, there’s nothing wrong with seeking out liquid smoke that comes with added flavors. But if you want to replicate the actual smoking process as closely as possible, look for a liquid smoke product that only contains smoke and water.

Just like wood chips, ensure you choose the appropriate flavor for the job. For example, if you wouldn’t smoke chicken with hickory chips, you shouldn’t use hickory liquid smoke, either.

Ignoring the Recipe

When you’re new to liquid smoke, winging it isn’t a great idea. If you look up recipes that include this distinctive ingredient, you’ll see that they call for dramatically different amounts of liquid smoke. Make sure you follow the directions to avoid overuse or underuse.

Our Recommendations: The Best Liquid Smoke You Can Buy

Not all brands of liquid smoke are of the same quality. If you want to give your meats the best flavor possible, it’s important to choose a quality liquid smoke. Here are our recommendations:

Wright’s Liquid Smoke

Wright’s is the original liquid smoke — it’s the brand created by Ernest Wright. A quick look at the ingredients list shows you that it contains just two ingredients: water and natural smoke concentrate. While you can’t find Wright’s in a huge variety of flavors, it comes in three classics: hickory, mesquite, and applewood.

Wright's Liquid Smoke
  • All Natural, Gluten Free, Kosher, No salt, No fat, No artificial colors and only 2 calories per...
  • Achieve slow smoked flavor in just minutes, not hours
  • Ideal for barbecuing meats, poultry and vegetables

Colgin Liquid Smoke

colgin liquid smoke hickory

Colgin is a classic liquid smoke brand, and it has no shortage of fans. It’s best for those who like a little extra flavor, as it includes molasses, vinegar, and salt in addition to condensed smoke. The Colgin collection includes hickory, mesquite, applewood, pecan, chipotle, habanero, and jalapeno.

Lazy Kettle Liquid Smoke

Lazy Kettle’s all-natural hickory liquid smoke perfectly captures the taste and spirit of a backyard grill. It contains no MSG, salt, artificial colors, or artificial flavors. If you like smaller gourmet brands, this is a great one to try!

Lazy Kettle All Natural Liquid Smoke
  • LAZY KETTLE LIQUID SMOKE: Pure smoke in a liquid form. Highly concentrated and made by burning wood!
  • THIS IS ACTUAL SMOKE: Not a mixture of ingredients, this is 100% pure smoke in an aqueous base.
  • PERFECT IN THE KITCHEN: Want a "cooked in the outdoors" flavor? A drop of Lazy Kettle Smoke will do...

Is Liquid Smoke for You?

Everyone in the world of barbecue seems to have an opinion on liquid smoke. But barbecue is ultimately a creative venture, and liquid smoke is just one more tool to have at your disposal. When you choose the right variety for the job and use it carefully, you might just find that you’ve unlocked a new dimension of flavor.