As July heats up and ushers in a national holiday with backyard cookouts, home cooks abandon the ovens of their kitchen and turn their taste buds toward the grill. Everyone loves a barbecue; there is just something about the flavors of such fare that defines summer. Have you ever pondered how smokey nuances manage to permeate even the foods that never touch the grill, such as a potato salad or a pot of beans? It’s magic, captured in a cute little bottle that can usually be located near the meat displays of most supermarkets. The substance is called, simply, liquid smoke.
I love this stuff. When you want to add just one more facet of summer barbecue flavor to a side dish, or even amp up a homemade barbecue sauce, this is the easy shortcut. This product is all natural; the ingredient list on a bottle of liquid smoke couldn’t be shorter: water and hickory smoke concentrate. A little goes a long way; one bottle will last an entire season, as only a minute amount is required to impart the flavor into your culinary project.
The brand most commonly found in markets is called Wright’s, named after its creator, Ernest H. Wright. Wright was a pharmacist in Kansas City, Missouri, with a lifelong interest in chemistry. He began to dabble with burning wood in order to collect the liquid from the smoke’s condensation from within the stove’s pipe. Upon enlisting some friends as guinea pigs to sample a ham that he prepared with this liquid condensed smoke, compliments and requests for seconds led to the bottling and selling of the flavor enhancer in 1895.
Today liquid smoke is prepared through a method called destructive distillation. Smoke is produced through a controlled burning process of wood chips, condensed and then combined with water. While Wright’s Liquid Smoke is enhanced with hickory, other brands may utilize other woods to vary the flavor of the smoke.
The list of culinary uses for liquid smoke is lengthy. It is essentially a seasoning used to add a smoky flavor to anything. It can be used in a homemade marinade or barbecue sauce recipe for meats. It can be added to soups, stews, chilis and even dips. For those who like to cure their own meats, it is one of the components of a curing solution as is typically used in bacon. I have added liquid smoke to baked beans as well as a potato salad dressing. My easy recipe for this potato salad follows. For another excuse to play with this smoke sensation, see my recipe for Smokey Chipotle Mashed Potatoes: http://cattroianoathomeinthekitchen.blogspot.com/2011/11/savor-spuds.html
Smokey Potato Salad with Blue Cheese and Pecans
2 pounds baby Yukon gold potatoes, quartered
1 ½ cups mayonnaise
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
½ teaspoon liquid smoke
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ cup chopped red onion
½ cup chopped celery
1 cup pecans
1 cup crumbled blue cheese
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the potatoes and reduce the heat to medium high, allowing to boil until the potatoes are tender, about fifteen to twenty minutes. Drain the potatoes and allow to cool to room temperature. Meanwhile, in a large serving bowl, whisk together the next six ingredients to make the dressing. Add the potatoes, red onion and celery and toss well to combine and coat. Stir in the pecans and the blue cheese until combined. Serves 3-4.
Mr. Wright was definitely onto something. This entrepreneur with a lust for chemistry experimentation has since inspired a whole population of epicurean chemists, if you will, as we experiment with various ingredient combinations, always striving for the next level of flavor experiences. A word of caution: it is easy to become obsessed with use of this ingredient, particularly when creating your own recipes and you just want to add that last kick of smoked flavor. You will begin to covet that little bottle as your own secret weapon in culinary cook-offs. Once you start this method of smoking, it truly is a challenge to quit! Then again, why would you want to?