Why Walk the Plank?

Dear Up in Smoke Reader,

There’s a perception out there that grilling on aromatic slabs of wood is a recent bit of gimmickry, or maybe a “get-rich-quick” scheme cooked up by a salmon fisherman and a logger over a campfire and beers.


Not only does this technique have an ancient precedent in North America, but it is one of the most fail-safe, flavorful methods we’ve found for cooking fish and other smoke-worthy foods on the grill.

If you haven’t added planking to your grilling repertoire, you don’t know what you’ve been missing. It will reinvigorate your end-of-the-summer barbecues. Below is everything you need to know to get started, including some fascinating historical background and sizzling new recipes from Steven.

By the way, we’d love to hear what you think of the experience. Post your thoughts, questions, or especially, any terrific recipes or photos you’d like to share with us on the Barbecue Board.

Yours in great grilling,

Nancy Loseke
Features Editor
Up in Smoke

Even the most intrepid grillers approach fish with caution. Much can go wrong. Fish has an annoying tendency, for example, to dry out or stick to the grate. Sometimes, delicate fillets break apart when you try to turn them with a spatula. But there’s an ingenious solution to this problem—grilling them on a cedar or other hardwood plank.

First, a little history.

As early as 4000 B.C., native aboriginal tribes in the Pacific Northwest were fastening salmon to split cedar poles (called piquin sticks), securing them with slender cedar pins, and propping them at an angle next to roaring alder wood fires. (For a detailed description of the set-up, see the essay on Tillicum Village on page 456 of BBQ USA . This attraction, on Blake Island in Puget Sound, hosts over 100,000 visitors a year to its exhibits and authentic Pacific Northwest Indian salmon bakes.)

Indians on the East Coast, meanwhile, used a similar method to roast the once-plentiful shad (a succulent but bony fish related to the herring). In this case, they used locally plentiful oak poles or planks, however. Interestingly, this is the model used for the famous political rally and shad bake held each spring in Wakefield, Virginia.

Planked fish baked in an oven was served in hotels in the Pacific Northwest during the latter half of the 19th century. Recipes for this preparation appeared in cookbooks by Eliza Leslie in 1857, and by Fannie Farmer in 1896.

This is where the trail goes cold. Someone, somewhere, in the last 60 years
had the brilliant idea to try plank cooking in a covered grill. We just don’t know for sure who deserves the credit (do you?), but we’re sure glad someone thought of it.

In any case, it’s undeniable that planking is one of the hottest trends in grilling today. Here are some of the reasons:

  1. Planking puts a theatrical spin on the intersection of fire, smoke, and food
  2. It’s an unbeatable technique for grilling fish: Planked fish doesn’t stick to the grill grates; it doesn’t break when you try to turn it…because it doesn’t have to be turned; and clean-up is a cinch
  3. Planking imparts incomparable flavor—especially when you use an aromatic wood, like cedar or alder.

Though the combination of salmon and cedar propelled plank cooking into the spotlight—the cedar’s subtle astringency mixes perfectly with fattier fish. Other candidates for planking from the seafood counter are scallops, shrimp, sea bass, and trout.

Experiment, and you’ll find other foods are suitable for grilling, too. On page 54 in BBQ USA, there’s a recipe for plank-grilled Camembert cheese with pesto sauce.

And Nancy thinks the technique would be great applied to Brie and the Grilled Pineapple Ginger Salsa on page 62.

Again, be sure to post any questions or success stories (pictures optional) to the Barbecue Board There’s already been a lot of discussion about planking. Click here to see one of the threads or search the site for all of them.

Before you get started, there are a few technical things you should know about planking:

    • Suitable woods are cedar (Western red cedar), alder, hickory, maple, mesquite, oak, and fruitwoods like apple, cherry, or peach. Never use softwoods like pine or spruce; they will transfer a resiny taste to your food. Only use untreated planks that are food-safe. (One of the ingredients in making pressure-treated lumber for outdoor use is arsenic, so be careful if buying your planks at a hardware store or lumberyard.)
    • Soak the plank in water for at least 1 hour before. I do this in a baking sheet with raised side, placing a brick or pot full of water on top to keep it submerged. Soaking serves two purposes: it generates a fragrant steam and helps keep the plank from catching fire.
    • Keep a spray bottle or water pistol filled with water at the ready in case the edges of the plank catch fire. Sometimes, rotating the plank with long-handled tongs, such as the Best of Barbecue Ultimate Locking Tongs will extinguish the flames. Never leave the grill unattended while plank cooking.
    • Planks should be large enough to leave at least a 1-inch margin around the food.
    • For extra flavor, put sprigs of fresh herbs, such as rosemary, parsley, dill, or thyme on the plank before topping them with food.
    • Set up your grill for indirect grilling and preheat to 400 degrees; the high heat will help your fish develop a dark, flavorful caramelized crust. At lower temperatures, the planked food will steam rather than roast. Note: be sure to grill using the indirect, not direct method—fire and wood make more fire. Enough said!
    • To test the food for doneness, use an instant read thermometer or insert a metal skewer in the side of the food for several seconds; it should come out hot to the touch. Of course, I’m partial to my Best of Barbecue Instand Read Thermometer. Fish should be cooked to 135 degrees.
    • Transfer the planked food (on the plank) to a heatproof platter and serve it right on the plank. You want people to see and understand this singular method.
    • Yes, the planks can be reused (although at my house, we usually start with a fresh plank every time.) Wash well with water and a stiff bristled brush. Even after the plank is too singed for plank grilling, you can break it into pieces and use it for smoking.
    • Want to raise the general level of elegance? Several companies (including Best of Barbecue) sell square planks for grilling individual portions of seafood. Prepare one per guest and serve it in the well of a large dinner plate.

From now until September 15, receive a 10% discount on Steven Raichlen’s Best of Barbecue Cedar Grilling Planks in two sizes: Order two 7 by 14 inch cedar planks and also receive a can of Steven’s Mediterranean Herb Rub; or buy four 7 by 7 inch cedar planks perfect for individual portions. (The idea for them came to Steven when he had to feed 300 people at a food festival, and wanted a dramatic presentation.) Go to the Barbecue Store and input the code UPNSMOKE003 to claim your discount.

Miso is a key ingredient in Asian-style barbecue sauces. It is made of cultured soybeans, but has a complex salty flavor that puts an exotic spin on everything it touches. Natural foods stores sell a variety of miso; you can probably find it in the produce or ethnic section of your local supermarket. Here, miso is paired with salmon in a recipe that’s been very well-received at BBQ U this year. Remember to soak your planks ahead of time, and you’ve got one of the easiest and best meals of the summer on the table in less than an hour.

Method: Indirect grilling on planks
Advanced preparation: at least 2 hours for soaking the planks
Serves: 6

6 salmon steaks (each about 1 inch thick and 4 to 6 ounces)
2 tablespoons sesame oil or olive oil
Miso Glaze (recipe follows)
Fresh basil or shiso leaves (the latter is a Japanese herb also called perilla or beefsteak leaf), optional

You’ll also need: 6 individual cedar grilling planks, each 7 by 7 inches (see Note), soaked for 2 hours in water to cover, then drained

1. Rinse the salmon steaks under cold running water, then blot them dry with paper towels. Brush sesame or olive oil on one side of each steak. Place one salmon steak, oiled-side down, at a diagonal on each cedar plank.

2. Set up the grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium-high and make the glaze.

3. When ready to cook, spread the glaze mixture evenly over the top of the salmon steaks. Place the salmon steaks on their planks in the center of the hot grate, away from the heat, and cover the grill. Grill the salmon until cooked through and the glaze is golden, 20 to 30 minutes. To test for doneness, insert an instant-read meat thermometer through the side of a salmon steak: The internal temperature should be about 135 degrees F. Another test is to insert a slender metal skewer in the side of the fillet for 20 seconds: It should come out very hot to the touch.

4. Transfer the planks and the salmon steaks to heatproof plates. Garnish each with a sprig of basil or a shiso leaf, if desired, and serve.

Miso Glaze 
Yield: Makes about 1-1/4 cups

1/2 cup white miso (see Note)
1/2 cup mayonnaise (preferably Hellmann’s)
5 to 6 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon white pepper (optional)

Whisk the miso, mayonnaise, sugar, lemon zest, and white pepper (if desired) in a bowl until smooth. (If the miso is particularly stiff, as some brands are, thin it a bit with 1 to 2 tablespoons of warm water, sake, or mirin.)

Note: Individual cedar planks are available from the Barbecue Store . (Don’t forget to claim your 10% discount. See details above.) If using planks from a lumberyard, make sure they are untreated. White miso is available in Asian markets and in the ethnic section of some supermarkets, or you can purchase it online from, phone 888.482.2742.

This is just the kind of meal that makes me want to reread A River Runs Through It and learn how to tie the flies trout find irresistible.

Method: Indirect grilling on a plank
Advance preparation: 2 hours for soaking the plank
Serves: 2

6 to 8 fresh dill sprigs plus extras for garnish
4 tablespoons salted butter, at room temperature
1 trout, about 24 ounces (or 2 16 ounce trout), cleaned
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 lemons, 1 thinly sliced, 1 cut into wedges for serving
2 slices bacon, each cut in half crosswise

You’ll also need: 1 14 by 7 inch cedar plank, soaked in water to cover for 2 hours then drained (see Note)

1. Finely chop 2 or 3 of the dill sprigs, discarding stems, and blend them into the butter. Reserve remaining sprigs of dill.

2. Rinse the trout, inside and out, under cold running water, then blot it dry, inside and out, with paper towels. Make 3 or 4 diagonal slashes to the bone in each side of the trout (this speeds up the cooking and allows for better absorption of the flavors). Generously season the trout inside and out with salt and pepper. Smear half the dill butter on the inside of the trout; half on the outside, placing most of the butter on the top side. Lay trout on the plank. Place several lemon slices inside the cavity. Lay dill sprigs on top of the lemon slices. Lay the bacon pieces on top of the trout running slightly on the diagonal.

3. When ready to cook, set up the grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium-high. Lay the plank with the trout in the center of the grate, away from direct heat, and cover the grill. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes. To test for doneness, insert an instant read meat thermometer in the side of the fish; the temperature should be about 135 degrees.

4. Carefully transfer the plank to a heatproof platter and garnish with remaining sprigs of dill and lemon wedges.

Note: Cedar planks this size are available from the Barbecue Store . (Don’t forget to claim your 10% discount. See details above.) If using a cedar plank from a lumberyard, make sure it is untreated.

Yours in righteous grilling,
Steven Raichlen, Grill Master and Editor-in-Chief
Nancy Loseke, Features Editor

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