Here’s an ancient, indigenous cooking method that’s been swept up in the quest for the latest, hottest, most flavorful grilling methods possible. Early records show that Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest used to pin whole salmon to wood boards, then cook them slowly over a fire. Now modern chefs are rediscovering the benefits plank grilling can have for texture and flavor. It’s an easy-prep method that reduces the possibility of sticking or scorching. And of course, there’s the fun and drama of making a straight-from-the-grill tableside presentation of the finished dish.
Flavor on fire
Anything that does well with low and slow cooking, from delicate fish to imported brie, is a great candidate for this technique. “Plank grilling elevates most meat dishes with the infusion of wood and smoke flavors,” says Dina Guillen, author of Plank Grilling: 75 Recipes for Infusing Food. She’s also a proponent of planking pizza on the grill, which she says replicates the taste of a wood-burning oven.
Chef John Howie owns five Puget Sound-area restaurants and is an expert on plank cooking. The author of The Cedar Plank Cookbook, he tells his story this way: “In the late 1990s, I started experimenting with cooking planks. I was intrigued by this method of cooking as it gave us a tie to the Northwest Native Americans and was a simple, yet flavorful and healthy way to cook. Chef Garrett Cho and I worked on perfecting a great salmon recipe…which quickly became one of our bestselling entrées.
What is it?
Let’s define some terms before heading off to the grill. A “plank” is usually just a thin slice of untreated hardwood that is pre-soaked, placed directly on the grill, and used to hold food and distribute heat evenly. One highly popular wood-food combination is cedar planks and salmon, which forms a flavor combination made in grilling heaven. But don’t overlook other possibilities, such as maple wood with chicken, apple wood with pork, or hickory wood with beef.
There are even more flavor possibilities as you select the soaking medium for your plank. Instead of water, consider tea, beer, wine or fruit juice. And if there’s no grill handy, never mind—the oven can work, too. Another fun option is wood paper, such as cedar or alder wraps, which create juicier, moister protein without any direct flame.
However you plank it, you’ll be able to add an on-trend item with little up-front equipment costs to your menu, since planks are relatively inexpensive and can be used more than once. As a bonus, diners will enjoy having a unique spin on a traditional cooking method for your most on-trend and creative dishes.
Recipes to Eat off Wooden Planks (a.k.a. The Bon Appetit #PlankChallenge), including Cedar-Planked Shrimp With Chipotle-Pumpkin Seed Salsa and Grilled Corvina
BBQ Planked Salmon recipe by Elizabeth Karmel, author of Taming the Flame: Secrets for Hot-and-Quick Grilling and Low-and-Slow BBQ, in Food & Wine magazine
These aren’t planked?
Try preparing any of these salmon dishes