Grilling fish. It’s hard. I mean that. I always say that grilling is easy and it is, but a flaky fish fillet just doesn’t sit well on the standard grill grate. It goes on easy enough, but when it comes time to flip it, the whole fillet falls apart and the fire ends up being the only thing that is going to enjoy your investment. Many types of fish are just too delicate to grill under normal conditions.
Long ago, the indigenous peoples of the American northwest came up with the perfect solution for cooking the salmon that was so plentiful. They laid out the fillets on thin cedar boards or planks soaked in seawater and placed the planks directly on the fire. The wood smoldered and smoked as the salmon cooked. This method of cooking re-emerged in the Northwest and with the growth in popularity of outdoor cooking has spread around the world. Now, wood grilling planks can be found almost everywhere.
What most people don’t realize is that you can do so much more with a plank than grill salmon.
While this grilling method is perfect for any delicate item like fish or seafood, it provides a platform for most any food that is small or might fall apart on the grill. It is also an ideal method for indirect grilling. Foods roast over the heat, pick up the flavors of the wood and the smoke but are not directly exposed to the flame. While it won’t produce grill marks, this method allows foods to cook evenly and safely.
Quick Tip: Always wash wood planks to remove any dust. Also, examine them for loose splinters that might get into foods.
As I said, grilling planks are widely available and in general, there isn’t a lot of difference between them. They are available in a wide range of wood “flavors” and sizes. Size is important. Make sure that the plank is large enough to accommodate the food being placed on it. The plank should be one-half to one inch larger on all sides. Food shouldn’t hang over the sides or it will burn. As for the flavor of the wood, there are guidelines for matching wood with food, but the best recommendation is to use the wood you enjoy the most. I recommend experimenting to find the type that best suits the food. Don’t worry though, no wood is going to dramatically overpower the food being prepared.
Planks can be expensive when considering that they can only be used once. Spending five dollars a plank might seem high. It is best to buy them in packs of six to a dozen to reduce the per-unit cost. Of course, many people ask why they can’t just buy a board at a lumber yard. Most building grade wood is treated to preserve the shape, color, and to reduce wear over time. The chemicals used to treat this wood are toxic if ingested. It is possible to find untreated wood, however. If you can be certain that wood is raw and untreated it can be used for plank grilling. It should be cut to shape and sanded smooth before using.
Quick Tip: Add a tablespoon of vinegar and dissolved salt to the water planks soak in to draw out their flavors.Using Planks
Before using a wood plank it must be soaked in water for no less than one hour. Ideally, it should be two to four hours. This allows the wood to absorb as much moisture as possible and keep it from catching fire on the grill. In general, the risk of a plank catching fire is low, but if the food being placed on it has an oil-based marinade or sauce and the wood is dry, the board can burn. This will not be a salvageable situation. Once the plank is thoroughly soaked, remove it from the water and pat dry with paper towels. Now the food can be placed on the plank and the plank put on the preheated grill. In most cases, the plank should sit directly over the fire, whether charcoal or gas. The plank can take the heat. The only instance where indirect grilling should be used with plank grilling is for low and slow roasting or slow smoking. As an example, when grilling a large fillet of salmon, the direct cooking method is preferred. However, if you are smoke roasting the salmon for a long period of time, like several hours at temperatures around 250 degrees F, then indirect is the better method. This will allow the salmon to cook more slowly and prevent the board from drying out and cracking.
Once the food has reached the desired level of doneness, remove the entire plank. It is best to use fire safe gloves to do this. The bottom of the plank may be charred, so place the plank with the food on a sheet of aluminum foil so that it doesn’t leave ash and burnt wood on everything. Now it can be placed on a hot pad or trivet and served directly off the board. Planks make for a great presentation and are sure to impress the guests.
For a complete list of ideas, see my list of Plank Grilling Recipes.