The Grill Beast’s Plank Grilling Primer

Cooking on wooden planks infuses a natural smokiness and flavor from the oils in the wood, and presoaked planks release steam which keeps food moist and delicious!

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A Brief History of Plank Cooking

Cooking with red hot fire is a primal activity.  It’s inspiring, and to understand the roots of each technique brings a deeper appreciation for how we prepare our food.  Plank cooking originated with the Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest.  When salmon was running, it was speared or clubbed, and prepared for cooking. The tribal women cleaned it and tied it by vines to a large piece of natural wood (usually alder or cedar). The wooden “planks” were placed around a big open fire, and the fish absorbed the delicious smoky flavor as it cooked over indirect heat.  Sometimes, the planks were actually suspended over flames, and magic happened.  

In the early 1890’s, hotel restaurants in the Northwest began serving food cooked on wooden planks.  Finally, in 1910, plank cooking was introduced to the cooking school circuit; it was first taught at the Boston Cooking School.  The first published planking recipe was written by Fannie Farmer in 1911, and it included chicken and Duchess potatoes.  Plank cooking is a now a current trend, and for a good reason; after so many centuries, it’s still a fantastic way to prepare succulent food.  


Why Cook on Planks?

Cooking on wooden planks infuses a natural smokiness and flavor from the oils in the wood, and presoaked planks release steam which keeps food moist and delicious!  Planks also keep food, like flaky fish, from falling apart during cooking, and the succulent juices stay on the plank to infuse extra flavor.  Planks also act as a heat shield, so your food cooks evenly and doesn’t burn.  When you add up all these benefits, and you have an unbeatable combination.  


Which Wood Is Best?

Much of the lumber in the hardware store is pretreated with chemicals, and it will release toxic fumes when burned.  That’s why it is important to use wooden planks that are made especially for grilling. You should also choose planks that pair well with the food you are cooking.  Here is a quick guide to wood flavor characteristics and pairing suggestions.

Alder:  Light, mild, sweet, and musky.  Highly recommended for cooking fish; can also be used for poultry, pork, or vegetables

Cedar:  Slightly stronger flavor than Alder, aromatic and spicy with a mild smokiness.  Us with fish (such as salmon), fruits, and vegetables.

Maple:  Sweet, buttery flavor with a mild smoke.  Try it with pork, poultry, fruits and cheeses.

Hickory:  Sweet and strong, with a hardy bacon flavor.  Highly recommended for pork, but good with beef, poultry, and fish.

Oak:  Mild smoke with a nutty flavor and no bitter aftertaste.  Highly recommended for beef, but also great for fish, pork, poultry, and fish.

Cherry:  Mild, sweet and fruity.  Works well with poultry, pork, fruit, vegetables, and cheeses.


How Are Planks Prepared for Cooking?

Wood planks should be soaked in water for at least one hour before cooking.  You can soak them in the sink if you’re using warm water, or in a casserole pan if you choose wine, beer, or fruit juices for soaking.  When I’m using several planks for a meal, I often use a 5 gallon bucket for soaking -- not the most attractive vessel, but it works great!  Submerge the plank in the soaking liquid and place a bowl or other heavy object on it to hold it down.

While the plank is soaking, prepare the food that you wish to cook.  When you’re ready to grill, preheat the grill to medium high heat.  Remove the plank from the soaking liquid, dry it off slightly, and place it on the grill grates over direct heat.  Let the plank toast for two minutes, flip it over, and let it toast for 2 additional minutes.  Heating both sides will keep the plank from buckling, and it also starts the smoking process.


How Is Food Cooked on Planks?

Once the plank is seasoned, place your food on it.  It’s fine to fill up most of the plank’s space, but leave an inch or so around the exterior.  

Recipes that have a relatively quick cook time --  approximately 30 minutes or less -- can be done over direct medium heat.  If a recipe calls for longer cooking times, you will use a combination of direct and indirect heat.  Make sure you read the recipe carefully before you start the cooking process, though, because depending on sauces or marinades being used, the type of heat suggest may be different.


Does the Thickness of the Plank Matter?

Yes, that is a big consideration.  If your recipe calls for a short cooking time, a thinner plank is ideal.  It will heat up more quickly, but it will also char more quickly.  Choose a thicker plank if the cook time is over 45 minutes.  Again, refer to your recipe for the best choice in plank thickness.


Now You Try It!

Planking is a beautiful gift from Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest. The salmon recipe below imparts a subtle smokiness in the salmon, reminiscent of the origin of this centuries old method.  Adding the delicious tangy sauce brings a modern touch that will make this salmon one of your favorites!


Cedar Planked Salmon Fillets with Mustard, Lemon, and Dill

Cedar Planked Salmon Fillets

What You’ll Need

1½ to 2 pounds center cut wild caught Alaskan salmon fillet -- skin on and pin bones removed
¼ cup melted butter
salt and fresh ground black pepper
⅓ cup mayonnaise
¼  cup coarse grained Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
3 tablespoons fresh dill -- chopped
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
1 long cedar plank -- large enough to accommodate the fish (or four smaller planks)


Let’s Do It!

Prepare the plank for grilling by soaking it in water for 60 minutes. Make sure plank is fully immersed (you can put a bowl on it to hold it underwater).  Turn the plank at least once while it’s soaking.

Set up the grill for two zone cooking and preheat to medium high.  Remove the plank from the water and dry it off with a paper towel.  Place the plank on the grill grates over medium high direct heat for 2 minutes.  The plank will start to crackle.  Turn the plank over, and heat it for another 2 minutes.  Move the plank to indirect heat.  Close the lid and let the grill preheat back up to medium high heat.

Meanwhile, check the salmon one more time for pin bones, and if any remain, remove them.  Cut the salmon into serving size portions, but don’t cut all the way through the skin. This will help all pieces cook more evenly.  Brush the salmon all over with melted butter.  Salt and pepper both sides.  Mix mayonnaise, mustard, honey, lemon juice, lemon zest, and dill in a bowl.  

When the grill is preheated, place the salmon on the plank, skin side down, and cover it with the sauce.  Close the grill and let the salmon cook over indirect heat for 15-20 minutes.  When done, the internal temperature should reach 145℉, so check it with a instant read thermometer to be sure.