After a hot, dry October, fall finally arrived in Southern California this past week and I smelled wood smoke in the air for the first time on my nightly walk. The aroma instantly brings to mind cozy nights at home in front of a crackling fire with a mug of hot cocoa warming your hands. But even though the season for hearth fires is short here in the southwest, I enjoy the pleasures of wood smoke year-round in my kitchen.
I have been crushing on liquid smoke for a while now. Just a few drops of this versatile seasoning lends a rich, earthy flavor to sweets and savories alike. From the now-defunct smoky black beans at El Pollo Loco (bring them back!) to the swoon-worthy Smoked Chocolate Chips from Hot Cakes, I have long had a fondness for the fume. Since most of us don’t own or want to fuss with a smoker, liquid smoke makes a delicious and convenient alternative.
There are many different types and brands of liquid smoke on the market, but my current favorite is Cedar House Natural Hickory Liquid Smoke. I have added it to black and baked beans, sprinkled it on pizza and eggs, and mixed it into hot chocolate and ice cream (try it with salted caramel). You can also add a dash or two to melted chocolate and pour it into molds for your own smoky chocolate bar. Top with a toasted marshmallow and sandwich between two graham crackers and you’ll be singing Kumbaya in no time. Campfire Girls, eat your hearts out!
By far, my favorite way to enjoy liquid smoke is in buttery popcorn tossed with freshly-grated Parmesan cheese. Any way you like it—alder, hickory, mesquite—experiment and have fun. You just might discover an indispensable addition to your culinary repertoire…and that’s not blowing smoke!
3 Tbsp. canola or coconut oil*
½ cup popcorn kernels
3-4 Tbsp. butter or Earth Balance spread†
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese†
salt and pepper
Pour the oil in a 4-quart stock pot and heat over a medium flame for about a minute. Add the popcorn kernels and shake the pot slightly to coat them with oil. Cover pot with a lid, leaving a small opening at the edge to vent the steam. When the kernels begin to pop, move the pot gently back and forth over the flame in a continuous motion until the popping slows down to several seconds between pops. Immediately take the pan off the stove, remove the lid, and empty the popped corn into a large bowl.
Melt the butter in a small pan on the stove or in a microwave. Add a few drops of liquid smoke to the melted butter and stir to blend. (I like a lot of liquid smoke and give the bottle a few good shakes into the butter, but you may want to start with a small amount and add more to your taste.) Pour the melted butter evenly over the popcorn and toss until popcorn is thoroughly coated. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese and add salt and pepper to taste, then toss again to mix well. Grab a large stack of napkins and enjoy!
*I prefer the crispiness of popcorn popped in oil, but you can make yours in an air popper or other popcorn maker, if you prefer. Just follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
†You can veganize this recipe by replacing the butter with Earth Balance and the Parmesan cheese with ¼ to ½ cup of nutritional yeast. Earth Balance is sold at most supermarkets. Nutritional yeast can be found at many natural foods stores and vitamin shops.