You may hear some outdoor cookers argue that grilling on wood planks (aka planking) is a fairly recent fad that isn’t much more than a gimmick. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. If you haven’t tried using wood planks on your grill, you absolutely should.
Cooking food directly on hardwood planks is an easy way to cook fish, meat, and veggies on your grill and impart a delicious, smoky flavor. Fish is the most common item to grill on wood planks, but nearly any protein or vegetable can be cooked on them.
In this article, we’ll break down exactly how far back grilling on wood planks goes and the tips you need to know to do it right.
Dating back to 4000 B.C., native tribes in the Pacific Northwest were fire-roasting salmon that was attached to split Western Red Cedar poles (called piquin sticks) with slender cedar pins. These poles were then propped at an angle next to the large alder wood fires.
Meanwhile, American Indians along the East Coast were using a similar method to fire-roast shad (a bony, succulent but fish related to the herring). Although, these groups used locally plentiful oak poles or planks versus cedar.
Fast forward to the late 19th century and fish baked on cedar planks in an oven was served in several hotels throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Since then, using wood planks has evolved and grilling on wood planks using traditional grills began. Though historians are still trying to pinpoint exactly when this particular method started.
There are some important tips you need to know to ensure you are grilling on wood planks properly and, more importantly, that you end up with a delicious final result. Let’s take a look:
You can find pre-cut wood planks at many cooking stores, some supermarkets, or through online grilling-wood wholesalers. Make sure to only use food-safe untreated planks. If you try and buy planks at a lumberyard or hardware store, they will often be pressure-treated for outdoor use and contain harmful chemicals like arsenic.
Source: Gourmet Grillmaster
The best types of wood for grilling (and smoking) are going to be a variety of hardwoods. You never want to use softwoods like spruce or pine because they will emit a strong resin taste on your food and burn too quickly. Ideally, when it comes to the specific type of hardwood, you want to use one that compliments what you are cooking:
*Some heavier, fattier fish (like Salmon) can also pair well with stronger woods like hickory.
The thicker the plank the better. Ideally, you want to use planks that are at least a half-inch thick. Also, the planks you use should be large enough to still leave 1-inch of wood around your food.
It’s important to check both sides of the plank for any splinters before using it. You don’t want to have any wood splinters end up in your food. If you see one, just use some sandpaper and lightly brush the plank smooth in that spot.
Before your plank goes on the grill, make sure to soak it in water for a minimum of 1 hour before cooking. Soaking prevents planks from catching fire. You want to maintain a slow smolder while it’s on the grill, not definitive flames. Pre-soaking the plank also generates a little bit of nice steam during cooking.
You can soak it in a baking sheet with a raised side and place something heavy on top of the plank to keep it submerged. Make sure to flip the plank occasionally to ensure it is evenly soaked.
You can even add wine or fruit juice to the water for an extra boost of flavor.
When grilling on wood planks, you always want to keep a spray bottle filled with water close by in case the edges of the plank start to catch fire. Sometimes, using long-handled tongs to rotate the plank will help extinguish any flames also.
* Make sure to never leave the grill unattended when using wood planks.
Set your grill up in a two-zone setup where one side is indirect heat and the other is direct heat. Preheat the grill to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Then you’ll be placing the planks with your food on the indirect heat side.
This temperature will roast the food and allow a brown, flavorful crust to develop on your food. Lower temperatures will just steam the planked food rather than roasting it.
Starting on a wood plank that has been pre-charred and is still smoking gives a deeper wood flavor. You do this by placing the plank over the direct side of the grill and heating it for about 2 minutes on either side, enough for it to start to blacken and lightly smoke.
Once it’s slightly charred, place the food on the charred side and move it to the indirect heat side of the grill.
Keep in mind that pre-charring the planks will remove almost all of the pre-soaked moisture. So, use the spray bottle to moisten the planks again once you start cooking.
If you are going to be grilling fish with the skin on, brush the skin with cooking oil before adding it to the plank. It also doesn’t hurt to brush a little bit of oil on the food-side of the plank as well. This will keep the fish from sticking to the plank at all.
If you want to experiment with extra flavor, put sprigs of fresh herbs on the plank before topping them with the food. Things like rosemary, dill, parsley, or thyme work very well.
Usually, items take a little longer to cook on a plank than they do directly on the grill grates. This is because wood conducts heat slower than metal. So, you want to cook to temperature versus relying on a “set” time.
For example, fish should be cooked to 135 degrees Fahrenheit. So, make sure you have a good instant-read thermometer on hand.
Most meaty, heartier fish are great for grilling on wood planks. Try salmon, bass, bluefish, swordfish, or trout. But planking is not reserved only for fish. You can also grill scallops, lobster, shrimp, beef, chicken, pork, vegetables, and even cheese on a plank.
Have fun and experiment with planking different things.
Planks can often be used two to three times before they become too charred. (Unless you pre-car the planks often). After using the plank, wash it well with water and a stiff-bristled brush and then store it in a clean, dry place. Do not use soap, as this can change the flavor of the wood.
If there's some heavy char or food that you are having trouble getting off, you can use a piece of fine sandpaper to sand it clean.
Also, the wood can sometimes take on a little bit of the flavor of what you cooked on it. So, for example, it’s often a good idea to stick with fish on a plank you cooked fish on before.
If a plank has become too charred and brittle for any more grilling, you can easily break it into pieces and use it for smoking.
Grilling on wood planks is a fun and easy way to add some variety to your grill game. It prevents delicate foods from falling apart on the grill, adds some great flavor to a variety of different seafood, meats, and vegetables, and makes for super easy cleanup.
Have you tried grilling on wood planks? What is your favorite thing to cook on planks? Tell us all about it below in the comment box. We want to hear from you!
If you want to follow a great step-by-step for grilling on wood planks, check out our tell-all Championship Backyard BBQ class on Sweet Heat Cedar Plank Salmon Bites!
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*Feature image courtesy of Weber Grills