If you’ve visited the Pacific Northwest, chances are you’ve enjoyed one of the most distinctive American ways to grill fish: on a cedar or alder plank. The process satisfies and gratifies on quite a few levels.
First, the wood imparts a unique flavor all its own—a spicy, wine-like flavor in the case of cedar; a woodier, smokier flavor in the case of alder. It also tends to absorb any strong fishy flavors, a plus when serving stronger-flavored fish like salmon or bluefish, to people who are iffy about seafood. The plank keeps the fish from drying out and from sticking to the grill grate (a perennial problem). Last, it also eliminates the need to turn the fish over (a task which bedevils even experienced pit masters).
The technique originated, it appears, with the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest who roasted local salmon in special cedar holders over blazing embers.
But there’s evidence that planking was also practiced in colonial times: George Washington hosted shad cook-outs at Mount Vernon, and an annual Shad Planking festival is still held each April in Sussex County. And 18th cookbooks describe cooking fish on planks in the oven. (Some food historians claim cooking food on hardwoods originated in Scandinavia.)
Inspired, chefs adopted the method, but didn’t limit the planked food to fish. In fact, any food that can be cooked low and slow and that doesn’t depend on searing can be cooked on planks. I have been experimenting with this technique for decades, and have published many recipes featuring not only fin fish like salmon and trout, but shellfish, meats like chicken and pork, as well as vegetables, tofu, fruit, and more. (See below.)
In fact, I recently introduced cedar grilling planks to my line of barbecue products. These planks—each package contains two 5.5- by 11.5-inch boards—will be your ticket to infusing your grilled food with flavorful wood smoke. They can be used with charcoal, gas, or pellet grills.
Personally, I like to singe the plank over the flames before arranging the food on it. But if you’re interested in reusing the plank, soak it in water (salted, if desired) or a flavorful liquid, like beer, wine, or fruit juice for an hour before grilling to discourage scorching. (A bag of ice or a heavy ceramic dish will keep the plank submerged. Do not use canned goods as the bottoms can leave black marks on the plank.)
- Keep a spray bottle of water near the grill to extinguish any unexpected flare-ups on the plank as your food cooks.
- Wood conducts heat more slowly than metal grill grates, so planked foods may take longer to cook.
- Have a heat-proof surface at the ready—a place where you can set your planked food after removing it from the grill. An overturned rimmed sheet pan is one option. The planks might harbor glowing embers when removed from the grill.
- To discourage sticking, brush the plank with vegetable oil before arranging food on it.
- If you intend to reuse a plank—depending on how it’s been treated, planks can be reused one to two times—scrub it with plain water. Do not use soap.
- For the most dramatic presentation, serve food directly on the plank.