It’s not our place to tell you that commercially available liquid smokes are bad for you.
But there are two main scientific studies to be aware of – one with white blood cells, and the other with DNA.
Originally, liquid smokes were tested on bacteria, to see if the smokes mutated the bacteria’s DNA.
Nada. Nothing. Good day to be bacteria.
Then a similar experiment was conducted on human white blood cells by a team from MIT.
Bad day to be a human white blood cell. The more liquid smoke was added, the more the DNA mutation rate shot up. It went higher than it did when exposed to liquid cigarette smoke.
But let’s not panic. Just because liquid smokes mutate the DNA of those cells in a petri dish, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they do the same inside our bodies.
So let’s talk about P53.
P53 is a chemical enzyme that activates a repair response in your DNA. If any substance produces a lot of P53 activity, the integrity of your DNA may be in danger.
In 2013, a team from Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center tested liquid smokes on human DNA. The P53 got off the charts busy. It’s worth mentioning that it also went into a frenzy when tested with both black and green teas and coffee.
So we can’t say for certain that in the body, liquid smokes are bad for you. But they do some pretty savage things to isolated white blood cells and make your DNA repairman work overtime.
How can I add flavor to my smoke?
If you’re cooking on a wood-burning grill or smoker, so you have real, in the moment smoke, you can add flavors six ways from Thanksgiving.
As well as all the preparations you can add to the ingredient being smoked, like dry rubs, wet rubs, marinades, brines, and herbal or citric ingredients applied to or under the skin of proteins, you can add flavored notes to the smoke itself in two main ways.
First, choose your wood carefully – there’s a whole palette of wood smoke flavors, from oak smoke (with its characteristic peaty scent, familiar from more expensive whiskies) to applewood or cherrywood smokes, each of which gives its own fruity tangs to whatever you’re smoking.
Secondly, if you have a smoker, you can add natural flavoring ingredients into the chamber, so that the smoke you produce can pick up the flavor as it travels from the fuel source to the food. Especially with wetter smokes, this allows the ingredient, usually the protein, to open up under moist heat, and for the flavors to penetrate the fibers of the proteins.
If you’re using liquid smoke, it doesn’t have to be the be-all and end-all of your smoky flavor game. There’s nothing to stop you from adding the liquid smoke to other flavoring ingredients if you’re making a rub or a brine.
If you want to up the smoky nature of the flavor, think about things like chipotle or ancho powders, where the chillis have been roasted or smoked before being turned into powder, or elements like smoked paprika, which is similar but has a different flavor profile.
How do I get BBQ Flavor?
Pitmasters all over the US just folded their arms and asked “What’s BBQ flavor?”
BBQ is a skill, a talent, a virtuoso art form, and grillmasters and pitmasters everywhere bring their own definitions to what ‘BBQ flavor’ is. What you’re looking for is the flavor of not wanting to stop.
The flavor of proteins and sides that have had love, care, and a sackful of secret ingredients lavished on them. What those secret ingredients are is every grillmaster’s privilege – but that includes you too.
Find a flavor you like and break it down into its components. Then build it back up again – is there a rub there? A glaze? Has it been injected with a flavored brine to aid its juiciness?
Start small and work up. Master the steps and flavorings that give you a taste you love. Cumin? Apple cider vinegar? Chili? You name it, put it in, but do it with care, in a way that will enhance your eventual eating experience.
If you’re looking for BBQ flavor and you’re prepared to wood smoke, choose your woods and any additional flavors wisely. This is one of the most authentic ways to get the smoke ring in your proteins that pitmasters often look for as a mark of quality BBQ.
If you’re staying away from smokes – gas or liquid – what you’re looking for to achieve authentic-tasting BBQ is moistness, usually slow cooking, rich combinations of flavors that excite all the palate – sweet, smoky (try smoked paprika, smoked tea, etc if you don’t want to add the likes of liquid smoke), salty and juicy.
Above all, watch your temperature control, because dry BBQ will not have the BBQ flavor you’re looking for. Rich, complex, layered flavors that compliment both each other and your protein will get you close to authentic BBQ flavor – even without any kind of smoke.
Can liquid smoke go bad?
Arguably, everything can go bad. Liquid smokes though tend to have an expiration date some two years ahead of when they were bottled, so unless there’s been a worldwide grilling slump – of the sort that might be caused by a pandemic virus, say – that leaves shelf after shelf of liquid smoke unpurchased in the stores, you’re unlikely to run past the expiration date.
Even if you did, it’s not entirely clear how especially bad liquid smokes go.
What might well happen instead of the liquid smokes becoming offensive or extra-troublesome to digest is that, like perfumes, the active smoky aroma and flavor might potentially separate from the carrying liquid, and when opened, it might evaporate into the air, rather than sticking around to infuse your food.
So there’s little proven danger of liquid smokes going bad, but a reasonable certainty that if they hang around long after their expiration, they go pointless.