Cooking with Planks
This technique respectfully takes its inspiration from
the Pacific Northwest Native art of plank-grilling, an
ancient tradition of cooking sides of fresh fish –
specifically salmon – on alderwood or cedar. The
classic technique involved splitting open a salmon, binding
it to a piece of driftwood, and cooking it vertically
downwind of a roaring open fire. Thought by many to be
the forerunner of today's barbecue, this method is the
essence of cooking at its most primal, using natural elements
to create food imbued with flavor, touched by fire and
licked with smoke. The Native peoples also developed hot-stone
cooking – heating solid, flat rocks in a fire and
fashioning an earth and stone pit oven in which to sear
fresh fish and seafood.
We like to think of the methods described as a natural
evolution of an original rudimentary cooking style. Plank-grilling
fish and other foods on sections of soaked aromatic woods
set over a grill is surely one of the most sensual culinary
experiences. As the food cooks, almost basting itself in
its own oils and juices, it absorbs fragrant wood smoke
to achieve a layering of flavors not found in any other
form of cooking.
Use whatever untreated, aromatic wood you prefer (or can
readily obtain) for any of the recipes. We do not recommend
using Eastern cedar, pine, poplar, or birch. Unless you
live on the edge of a forest, you'll probably source your
cooking planks at a local lumberyard or building supply
outlet. Make sure to specify construction grade, untreated
wood, no more than 1 inch thick (5/8 inch is best), 8 to
10 inches wide and 10 to 12 inches long. Although we suggest
a specific wood for each recipe (varieties such as cedar,
maple, oak, hickory, alderwood, peachwood and applewood),
the recipes may be reproduced using any of these woods.
Feel free to adopt a mix¬and-match approach. Just make
sure the wood is untreated in any way. When buying cedar
or other woods for planking, ask the store to cut the wood
into 10- to 12-inch lengths. You may wish to purchase several
pieces at once — when you become accustomed to this
method of grilling, you'll want to do it often.
WHERE THERE'S SMOKE
... THERE'S FLAVOR
Anyone who is planning to plank-grill must be prepared
for the amount of smoke that is generated. This aromatic
smoke, naturally produced when a water-soaked plank is set
over a hot grill, imbues the food with a characteristically
intense wood flavor. When you grill on wood planks you are
in effect cooking with aromatic smoke.
You must exercise caution when lifting the grill lid to
baste or check food because planking produces a great deal
more smoke than conventional grilling. Be aware too, that
opening the grill lid too often will lower the temperature,
thereby increasing the cooking time.
This bank also includes planking recipes using a conventional
oven. The plank sits in a roasting pan which is partially
filled with water, juice or apple cider and preheated in
a very hot oven. When you plank-bake in this way you are
in effect cooking with aromatic steam. This method works
so well — providing flavor through the wood steam
and retaining valuable meat juices — that you may
never prepare conventional roasts again.
CAN I REUSE MY PLANKS?
If the planks are not too badly charred from the grill,
you may be able to reuse them once. Planks that have been
used in the oven, however, can often be reused two or three
We cannot overemphasize the vital importance of presoaking
the planks for plank-grilling — you simply can't plank-grill
with dry wood. On an outdoor grill, dry planks can ignite
fully. We recommend soaking wood for about six hours. Even
if you are short of time, soak the wood for at least one
hour before planking. When we designate a 'soaked plank"
at the beginning of each recipe we are referring to either
of these lengths of time. We often soak planks overnight
weighed down with heavy cans or stones to completely submerge
the wood in water.
Presoaking is generally not necessary for oven-planking,
since the wood is usually submerged in a liquid in a roasting
pan. However, you must be careful to monitor the level of
liquid and add more water or juice as necessary (usually
every 15 minutes or so) to keep the plank and the pan from
burning. There are a few oven recipes here that call for
presoaked planks; in these cases the planks are not submerged
in liquid in the oven.
The rule of thumb for cooking with stone is never to use
porous rocks (such as shale). Porous rocks can retain water
and may explode when heated to a high temperature. Look
for solid, completely dry, relatively flat stones with no
cracks. Rocks that are slightly damp or cracked can also
explode dangerously. We do not recommend gathering rocks
at the seaside. While we specify readily available slabs
of granite or marble for our "stone" recipes,
you may use larger solid pieces of these rocks instead.
A thicker rock may take longer to preheat than a 1-inch
slab of granite or marble.
Why use stones? Because for some foods, such as scallops,
oysters, fish fillets and pizza, you want a surface that
doesn't impart flavor and cooks very fast. Look for pieces
of stone — terra-cotta, marble, or granite —
at building supply outlets. You can also buy ceramic pizza
stones at kitchenware outlets. You may even have a suitable
piece of stone or terra-cotta left over from renovating
a kitchen or bathroom. Choose pieces about the same dimensions
as wood planks. Obviously you will be able to reuse them
for quite a while.