What Is Liquid Smoke?

A Guide to Buying and Cooking With Liquid Smoke

liquid smoke in a glass bowl

The Spruce/Madhumita Sathishkumar

Liquid smoke is a natural product made from condensing the smoke from burning wood. It was invented by Ernest H. Wright (of Wright's Liquid Smoke) who, as a teenager, noticed a black liquid dripping from the stovepipe that heated the print shop he worked in. Years later, when he was a chemist, he realized this occurred because the smoke had come in contact with cold air. He then experimented with wood combustion and found that by condensing the hot smoke from a fire, a smoke-flavored liquid would form. Wright's Liquid Smoke was introduced in 1895 and is still sold today. The flavoring is used in a variety of dishes to contribute a smoky taste without cooking in the smoker.

What Is Liquid Smoke?

Liquid smoke is a natural byproduct of burning wood. The exhaust of a wood fire is basically smoke and steam; fire produces water in the form of vapor, and this vapor, condensed through a cooled tubing, captures the smoke. This liquid is distilled into a concentrate and filtered of its impurities (soot and ash). What is left is a yellowish-brown substance that is liquid smoke. Most brands of liquid smoke are inexpensive.

Fast Facts

  • Shelf life: at least 2 years
  • Varieties: hickory, applewood, pecan, and mesquite
  • Used for: adding smokiness to food without a smoker

Liquid Smoke Uses

While some barbecue snobs may vow to never use liquid smoke, most of them probably consume it without even realizing it. Most of the liquid smoke manufactured in the world doesn't find its way into little bottles on the grocery shelf. Instead, it is used as a flavor additive in several foods such as commercial barbecue sauces, marinades, and "barbecue" flavored foods. Liquid smoke is also in hot dogs, smoked meats, and many kinds of cheese. It is also used in most of the bacon we buy. Producers of these foods can use the word "smoked" in the name their products, like smoked Gouda or smoked sausage, and never actually smoke anything in the way we would assume. The process of adding liquid smoke or other smoke flavorings becomes the justification for the use of the word "smoked."

There are plenty of ways to use bottled liquid smoke, beyond simply imparting a smoky taste to a piece of meat.

How to Cook With Liquid Smoke

For those who don't have access to a grill or smoker but want to cook some smoked meat or fish, a few drops of liquid smoke brushed on or used in a marinade are all that is needed. Because of its concentrated taste, only a small amount is required, no more than 1/4 teaspoon. For a more subtle flavor, dilute the liquid smoke with some water or vinegar.

Liquid smoke can be added to a variety of recipes—used sparingly—from homemade barbecue sauce and cowboy beans to smoky roasted nuts and unique cocktails. It can also add another level of flavor to a recipe for mac and cheese.

What Does It Taste Like?

Liquid smoke tastes like, well, a liquid form of smoke. And since there are several different flavors available, such as hickory, mesquite, and pecan, each tastes like a specific type of smoke from a particular type of wood. Liquid smoke products that have added ingredients will take on a more artificial flavor.

Liquid Smoke Recipes

Liquid smoke can be used as a substitute for bacon in recipes that employ the cured pork for its smoky taste, more so than its texture. It will contribute that quintessential flavor without adding extra fat.

Where to Buy Liquid Smoke

Small bottles of liquid smoke can be found near the barbecue sauce on supermarket shelves. Read the ingredient list on the labels carefully to be sure it is a product that is all-natural. Common brands are Wright's (which says "all natural" on the bottle) and Colgin, which includes additives like molasses, coloring, vinegar, and salt. A variety of flavors are available including applewood, mesquite, and hickory with hickory—being the most popular.


Bottles of liquid smoke should be stored in the pantry. If kept tightly sealed, they will last for two years or more.

what is liquid smoke
The Spruce Eats / Brianna Gilmartin