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If you’ve been to a seafood restaurant, you’ve likely seen “Cedar Plank Grilled Salmon” or something similar on the menu.
Dishes prepared on a plank, which can be made from essentially any variety of wood, pick up natural flavors from the wood and impart smoky and earthy flavors into the food prepared on them.
Although this method of cooking is almost always done on a charcoal BBQ grill or over an open fire, you can find planks that can be used in a home oven.
Although seafood is most commonly used for this cooking method (we’ve got a recipe for salmon in our “Seafoods of the West Coast” article), it’s great for all kinds of protein, even veggies and countless other foods.
Anything that can be cooked on the grill can benefit from being cooked on a wooden slab to give food even more flavor. This grilling method also gives even heat distribution, as the wood works like a heat conductor.
Varieties of Planks
All planks should be some variety of untreated wood. If you’re not using something that was explicitly sold to you for grilling, make sure to check that it really is untreated.
You don’t want chemical-tainted varnish flavors wrecking your maple-glazed salmon. If there’s a pesky tree in your front yard that needs to come down or you’re chopping some firewood, you could absolutely cut a one yourself.
You can essentially use any type of wood when selecting a plank. Since the primary benefit of grilling with one is the added layer of flavor they impart into food, you should look for a type of wood that has a distinct and appetizing smell.
Common choices include cedar, maple, alder, hickory, and mesquite, along with several others.
Typically, the boards are cut down to 13×7-inch rectangles that are usually about a half-inch thick, but you can find them in a variety of shapes and sizes to suit your needs.
When choosing, consider what food you’re going to be grilling on and fit it best to size, leaving yourself a little room. Keep in mind that the board itself can make a fun and beautiful alternative to a plate.
8 Western Cedar LONG Grilling Planks available on Amazon
We recommend this 8 Pack of Organic Western Red Cedar Planks. At 1/2 inch thick, they last longer and their smooth texture allows for better contact with the food than many other brands.
Rather than doing an entire fillet of fish on one large one, try doing smaller cuts on individual-sized planks. Just let it cool a bit after grilling and pass it right on to your guests! They can also make gorgeous platters. Brie cheese and bread can be warmed right on the plank, then just add a little fruit and nuts and you have the perfect appetizer.
How to Grill with a Plank
Before you head to the grill with that perfect piece of cedar, there are some steps you need to take to make sure your food is prepared correctly and the wood doesn’t burn to a crisp.
Start by rinsing the wooden slab well and scrubbing it with a sponge to remove any foreign bodies. Do not use soap to clean it, otherwise the pork chop you plan to grill will have some sudsy undertones.
Next, soak it for at least a half hour, but the longer the soaking time, the better. In fact, you may even consider soaking it over night before use. Typically, they’re just soaked in water, but there are some really fun ways to take advantage of how absorbent wood is and impart more flavors into your food.
To shake up the traditional cedar-planked salmon, water and lemon juice or white wine soaking liquid would be wonderful. Beef and red wine go particularly well together, but are usually only paired in dishes like stews or pot roasts.
Grilling beef kebabs on a red wine-soaked hickory would give the dish some serious richness without needing a sauce.
Preheating the wood is not necessary, although it will speed up the cooking process. If you do decide to preheat it, place it on the grill when preheating the grill and leave it for about ten minutes.
Make sure to be careful when assembling food on the hot board.
The standard method for grilling on top of wood uses indirect heat. Heat one side of your grill and cook the food on the other side of the grill. The more time your food has to cook, the more flavor it’s going to pick up from the wood.
For meat that doesn’t need to be on the rarer side, cook over medium heat to extend the cooking process a little further.
If you do plan to cook good steaks or meat like lamb, try searing them in a cast iron skillet before grilling. These cuts of meat do best with a crust and you won’t be able to achieve that on wood.
To give your food an especially smoky flavor, char the wood over direct high heat a bit then assemble the food on the charred side.
This is a great way to cook ribs and other dishes that are best cooked low and slow. When grilling, keep a squirt bottle nearby so you can easily put out small fires that may start without destroying your meal.
Although less conventional, you can also use your plank in the oven or even in the crockpot. It won’t smoke like it does on the grill, but you’ll still get all the wonderful wood flavors.
Make sure that you’ve thoroughly soaked the board, set it on a baking sheet, and roast food on top of it as you normally would. A roasted spatchcocked chicken is an excellent way to use a plank in the oven.
What to Grill with a Plank
When deciding what you’re going to grill, consider what type of wood you’re working with. Poultry is best grilled on medium-scented woods, like alder, apple, birch, beechnut, cedar, maple, oak, and pecan.
Pork and poultry can be grilled on most of the same woods, but pork is especially good on apple, cherry, and hickory. Fish should be grilled on more gently scented woods, like alder, beechnut, cedar, oak, and pecan.
For beef, look for something that will impart strong flavors, like hickory, mesquite, and walnut.
Variety pack of mixed wood planks available on Amazon
This variety pack includes a mixture of Cedar, Alder, Hickory, Cherry, Maple, and Red Oak and allows you to try various flavors of wood. At 1/2 inch thick, these should also allow for multiple uses.
If you’re soaking in something other than water, really let the natural flavors and soaking liquid do the talking. Don’t overwhelm the meat with too much seasoning or you’ll have trouble picking up on the subtly of the wood’s flavors.
If you’re using a wood that has a strong flavor, play to its strengths. For example, a smoked paprika would be great for pork grilled on hickory.
It’s easy to limit your plank to just meat, fish, and poultry, but there is so much more that can be prepared on it! Take advantage of the grill for preparing appetizers when your oven is already on double-duty preparing the main course.
Think grill-smoked cheeses, charred peaches, and roasted garlic.
You can even do veggies, either alongside the meat (just make sure they aren’t touching) or all on their own. Don’t stop there, though: you can create an entirely planked meal and even grill your dessert!
Pies, like apple and pumpkin, are perfect for the grill, or you can keep it simple with grilled fruit and homemade ice cream.
Maintaining the Wood
Many consider planks to be disposable, but there’s no reason you can’t reuse yours if there’s still uncharred board left to use and you care for it properly.
Each time you cook with it, the wood will pick up the flavors from the soaking liquid and the dish you cooked on it. Think of it like seasoning a cast iron skillet.
After you’re done grilling, scrub it with a rough sponge and hot water. Again, don’t use soap, or you’ll be imparting some not-so-tasty flavors into the wood. Let it dry completely in open air after washing.
If the wood gets scorched or discolored in spots, sand the damaged area until it’s removed. If the spot is really bad, you may need to sand the whole board to make it even again. This can take a lot of elbow grease and time, but you can save yourself the trouble by thoroughly soaking before using it.
Although your board is made sanitary between uses by cooking it over high heat, if you’re concerned about cooking fish on it one day and beef on it the next, get a few different planks and designate them for different meat and vegetables.
Once your plank is finally completely charred, don’t throw it away! Crumble it up and top it over coals and you’ve got great smoking chips.
About Chelsea Miller
Chelsea Miller, born and raised in Portland, Oregon, graduated from the University of Oregon where she discovered both her love of football and cooking great food. She's the founder of the food blog "A Duck's Oven" and began writing for Foodal in 2014.