What do South Carolina’s oyster roasts have in common with Colombia’s arepas and Japan’s teppan yaki feasts? All are cooked on a flat piece of metal analogous to a griddle, often over an open fire. In fact, nearly every cooking culture on Planet Barbecue has a historical relationship with this simple form of food preparation, none more than Spain.
In Spain, the term plancha (literally, “plate”) refers both to the device itself and the style of cooking. It is an essential piece of equipment in tapas bars, where prawns, small squid and octopus, pork cutlets, padrón peppers, and a variety of other foods are cooked within full view of patrons. Even celebrity chefs like Alain Ducasse have championed à la plancha preparations, such as Sea Bass with Baby Artichokes.
The one Steven designed (find it here) sits directly on top of the grill grate and works with gas, charcoal, wood, or even pellet grills. It maximizes the food’s contact with the cooking surface. Now you’ll be able to grill eggs or pancakes for breakfast or brunch, delicate proteins like fish fillets and shellfish, chicken paillards, thin steaks or chops, crusty “smashed” burgers, flatbreads, and fruits and vegetables. You can even prepare Instagram-worthy garlic bread or Texas toast without fear of ruinous flare-ups.
Peter Kaminsky, the co-author with South American chef Francis Mallmann of Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentinean Way (Workman)—one of our favorite grilling books—calls this primeval but dramatic way of cooking “Maillardian.” The term refers to searing, the process first described scientifically by the French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard in the early 20th century. When a food is exposed to high heat, the sugars and amino acids on its exterior caramelize, creating new and appetizing colors and flavors. (Mallmann actually grills on an Argentinean flattop called a chapa, which is similar to a plancha but that has legs to elevate the cooking surface over the fire.)
Because you are working on a hot, solid surface, foods cook relatively quickly—usually in 20 minutes or less. This is an advantage when you’re aiming for a rare interior. Examples include thin beefsteaks, lamb chops, or tuna. You can also char vegetables, like asparagus or peppers, while retaining their tender-crisp characteristics. Ditto for fruit. A plancha is also great for cooking fattier foods, like duck breast or foie gras, without exciting the flames.
Using a plancha, you can even take food to what Mallmann calls, “the uncertain edge of burnt.” With practice, you can find that bitter-sweet spot just before food’s color goes from deeply browned to black, when the sugars consummate their union with the heat.
Here are tips for using and caring for a plancha:
• Place your plancha (lightly oiled with vegetable oil) directly on the grill grate, then preheat your grill to the desired temperature. Note: To prevent food from sticking, make sure the plancha is really hot before you begin cooking.
• Sprinkle a few drops of water on the plancha. They should dance and evaporate almost immediately if it’s reached searing temperatures.
• Make sure the food is dry before you arrange it on the plancha. Use paper towels to dry marinated meat, seafood, or vegetables. Serve sauces on the side.
• Periodically re-season your plancha as you would any cast iron.
• At the end of the cook, pour a little water on the still-hot plancha to deglaze and clean it. Once it cools completely, you can immerse it in water and mild dish soap. (Use a paste of coarse salt on any stubborn cooked-on food.) Dry thoroughly before storing—we like to put the plancha in a low oven for an hour—to prevent rust.
• Do not leave the plancha on your grill grate or moisture in the air will degrade it.
To learn more about seasoning and maintaining your plancha, check out Steven’s additional tips here.
Want to try grilling on a plancha for yourself? Use these recipes to get started:
Cowboy Rib Eye a la Plancha with Crispy Brioche Salad and Grilled Dates