Cedar plank grilling is a simple way to get great smoky flavor without the expense of purchasing a smoker or other expensive equipment. Cedar plank cooking is versatile and can be used with any meat, and also many fruits, vegetables, and even cheeses. Planks can be used in the oven, on a backyard grill, and over an open campfire. It can impart complex flavors with just a few basic ingredients, and can be used to cook an entire meal.
What is planking?
Planking is cooking food on a flat, thin piece of hardwood. This allows for some of the woods natural flavors to be infused into the meat, as well as adding a light smoking effect. Wood planks for cooking can be purchased commercially, already cut and sanded and ready to use. Additionally, some people purchase untreated wood and make their own planks, depending on the size needed.
The most popular wood used to make these wood planks is cedar, as it imparts a unique flavor to the food. Other woods, such as apple, maple, oak and hickory, may be selected based on the meat you wish to use, specific recipes, or different flavors you wish to experiment with.
Selecting the Perfect Plank
Planks come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and thicknesses. The most commonly used sizes available for purchase are 15 x 7 inches, or 5 ½ x 13 inches, and are generally 3/8 of an inch thick. Smaller and thinner planks are available as well and are usually used for “baking” foods over more indirect heat, or cooking more delicate foods by laying them on top of another plank. Larger and thicker planks are generally used for slow-cooking whole cuts of meat, such as ribs and roasts. Some planks are cut with the grain of the wood, and some are cut across.
These simple distinctions can vary how much flavor and moisture reaches the meat while cooking. Other planks are cut at an angle with the bark still attached for even more flavor distinction and a unique presentation. Another aspect to consider when choosing a plank is the type of hardwood you are planning to use. Most people begin with cedar, as it is the most common and easiest to use of the available options.
Choosing a Menu
The most common recipe used for cedar plank grilling is a simple cut of salmon, laid on a sprinkling of coarse sea salt and topped with fresh lemon slices and herbs. Serving sides that are cooked using the same method adds a certain continuity and if timed well, can also be cooked served on the same plank as the fish. Asparagus, other seasonal vegetables, and potatoes are good choices as they hold up well to grilling, and complement the fish well. Avoid leafy greens or vegetables with a high water content such as summer squashes, as they will wilt or leak during cooking.
Appetizers of grilled brie with fruit and nut toppings, butterflied shrimp, or stuffed mushrooms, can also be cooked in this manner. A grill-baked pie, grilled peaches, or stuffed apples will round out the evening with a tasty dessert. Pairing cheese and wine with your fish can turn a backyard cook-out into an elegant al fresco dinner party. The possibilities are endless.
Oven, grill, or open fire?
As the cedar plank is so versatile, it can be used in a variety of cooking methods. The primary considerations are whether you want to use a direct heat source, such as cooking right over a fire, or an indirect source like an oven or being off-set on the grill. If storm clouds roll into your outdoor evening, many recipes can be cooked indoors in your kitchen oven without compromising taste, with just a few modifications.
Outdoor grilling is the preferred method most of the time. The good news is that the grill allows you to cook with either a direct or indirect heat source. Which one you choose depends on what flavors you wish to bring out. Slow cooking with an indirect source will primarily cook with steam from the soaked wood, leading to fish that has more natural wood flavor and is tender. Direct heat quickly chars the bottom of the plank, cooks quickly, and adds hints of smoke, while leaving you with a piece of fish that is firmer. It’s entirely up to you and your preferences.
Soaking the Plank
Cedar grilling planks must be thoroughly saturated prior to cooking, to avoid over-charring and to prevent catching fire or burning. Most plank manufacturers recommend soaking for anywhere from 30 minutes to 6 hours, but soaking overnight will work too. Soaking time also depends on the type of wood and thickness of the plank. Be sure to find a container large enough to fit the entire plank, and weight it down with something heavy, such as a bowl or coffee mug filled with water, to ensure that all of the plank is submerged.
Some people choose to soak their planks in different liquids to add even more flavor and aroma to the food. Adding fresh lemon or lime to the water can impart citrus flavor into your food, and
apple or grape juice adds a sweetness to your meat. Some even recommend soaking planks in wine for a more full-bodied flavor. Others will pre-soak planks and then wrap them tightly in plastic and freeze them, so they are readily available for use whenever they wish.
Anytime you place a piece of wood near a heat source, you run the risk of it catching on fire. For your safety there are a few things you need to be certain you have nearby. A spray bottle with water allows you to quickly put out a fire on a plank. Also, be certain that you have what you need to handle scorching hot wood, such as a large metal spatula and heavy tongs.
Toasting the Plank
A plank also needs to be briefly toasted before use. Preheat your grill, and make sure it’s clean to avoid getting the cooking surface dirty. You’ll place your plank smooth side down, and close the grill to keep the heat in. Toast the plank this way for 2-5 minutes, then open the grill and flip the plank, so the rough side is down, and toast again. This process pre-heats the wood and begins to bring out the flavor. You’re now ready to add your meat or fish and begin cooking.
Cooking with Cedar Planks
As we already discussed, there are two primary methods of cooking, direct heat and indirect heat. The easiest and most common method is using indirect heat. Cooking on the cool side of the grill, with the lid closed, cooks the food more evenly, allows for more flavor infusion, and makes it much less likely for your plank to catch fire. If this is your first time cooking with a plank, it’s probably best to start with this method.
It’s also important at this stage to think about cooking times, and to add food to the grill or plank accordingly. Roasting potatoes in a covered grill will take much longer to cook than a thin piece of fish. Add the food that needs the longest first, then the next, ending with the quickest cooking food. If you’re news at this, cook the different foods on individual planks so that you can remove each one when it’s done. As you become more skilled at timing, you can add portioned sides directly to individual plate-sized planks for a stunning presentation.
One of the best things about cooking on cedar planks is the novelty of eating the food straight off the hot plank. If eating outdoors, the plank can be used as a plate, or if you’d prefer, it can be
placed on another plate. Side dishes can also be cooked directly on the plank or placed on it just before serving, either way it will help keep the food warm. Alternatively, you can remove the food from the plank and plate it as normal. If cooking a large piece of meat, it can be used as a centerpiece for the meal and can double as a cutting board.
Planks that have been used before and are already charred can impart further flavor to the food, but caring for them properly has its complications. You want to be certain that it is properly cleaned to prevent bacterial growth in the wood, though some people feel that if you properly prepare and toast the plank, it will kill any bacteria.
Scrub planks well in hot water, to remove any traces of food stuck to it. Sandpaper may also be used to help renew the surface. Do not use soap, as it may be absorbed into the wood and leach out when heated again. Some people microwave the plank to kill any potential bacteria, or even soaked in wine or bourbon to kill bacteria while also imbuing new flavors to the wood. Whatever you choose, planks should always be stored in the freezer between uses, and used for the same type of meat in the future. You wouldn’t want to add any salmon flavor to a piece of chicken.
As you’ve hopefully learned, the variety of options available to grill with cedar planks are endless and able to be modified to suit your tastes. There are hundreds of recipes available in cookbooks as well as the internet. You should be able to use this information to put together a fabulous meal and show off your grilling prowess!