Always a controversial subject, liquid smoke, like Margaret Thatcher, has always polarised opinion.
After my last post featuring a recipe for Dr. BBQ’s “Big Time” BBQ sauce, I thought the subject of liquid smoke deserved more attention. This recipe contained liquid smoke as one of the ingredients, and it occurred to me that not everyone would be familiar with it.
Liquid smoke consists of smoke produced through the controlled burning of wood chips or sawdust, condensed into solids or liquids and then dissolved in water. This method is called destructive distillation. This solution can be modified to develop a wide range of smoke flavors.
The bottle I have is called “House of Herbs Hickory Liquid smoke”, and I bought it in a grocery store in New York for $4. However, I have never seen this sold outside of the US, so it may be a difficult ingredient for people to find. It’s a very concentrated and strong flavour, and most recipes call for only 1 teaspoon.
So what are the alternatives? How else are you supposed to get a smoky taste into a sauce? Well, there are several ingredients that are more readily available which could be used to get a smoky taste into your sauce. Smoked paprika is one and Hickory smoked salt is another.
Gary Wiviott in his book Low & Slow: Master the Art of Barbecue in 5 Easy Lessons has some harsh words to say on the matter:
“These are the dirtiest words of all in the low and slow lexicon. And it’s phony-tasting crap. Never use it, or for that matter, any sauce, rub, marinade, or flavoured wood with ingredients that defy the natural laws of physics. Smoke is, by definition, not liquid”
Mike Mills who wrote the classic Peace, Love, & Barbecue: Recipes, Secrets, Tall Tales, and Outright Lies from the Legends of Barbecue is also not a fan:
“As a general rule, I avoid any recipe that calls fro liquid smoke… there is no substitute for real, authentic smoke flavour, so don’t try to fake it”.
Ironically, liquid smoke does crop up in a recipe a few pages later in Mike’s book for the “Gates Family Kansas city Barbecue sauce”. As this is a recipe from the world famous Gates Bar B-Q restaurant in Kansas city, Mike probably didn’t want to modify it!
It’s also notable that a number of classic barbecue books also use liquid smoke without any apologies. Smoke & Spice: Cooking with Smoke, the Real Way to Barbecue by Cheryl & Bill Jamison prescribe it as an optional ingredient in the first recipe of their sauce section “Struttin’ Sauce”, a Kansas city style sauce. Paul Kirk’s Championship Barbecue Sauces: 175 Make-Your-Own Sauces, Marinades, Dry Rubs, Wet Rubs, Mops, and Salsas also uses liquid smoke in at least 5 of his sauce recipes, although most of his sauce recipes do not require it. I’ve also seen it used in a few recipes from one of the all time classics Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ Book: Recipes and Secrets from a Legendary Barbecue Joint.
So before you make up your mind definitively, my advice is, if you can find it, buy it. It’s not expensive, just hard to find. My philosophy when using a recipe for the first time is to follow it word for word as much as is possible. The second time, I feel more comfortable modifying slightly, knowing what the “base” recipe should have tasted like. Having said that, as liquid smoke can be hard to find, don’t stress out too much if it’s the last missing ingredient. There are alternatives and many highly respected BBQ personalities can’t abide it’s use anyway!
If you know of any good alternatives to this controversial ingredient, then please let me know by commenting in the section below!