Party on the Plank

I have a new favorite way to eat wild salmon - but it's far from a new technique. Borrowing an ancient page from the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, I've embarked upon plank cookery, which means cooking supper on slabs of wood over fire.

Grill-planked salmon
Grill-planked salmon

The idea is that aromatic wood, such as cedar, alder, oak (or maybe even hickory), when soaked and placed over lowish, indirect heat, infuses your food with the flavors of the wood and resulting smoke. Think of it like aromatherapy for dinner.

So being a plank virgin, I dutifully followed the rules: Use untreated wood suitable for cooking, soak it for at least an hour, slap the fish skin side down onto the plank, season with salt and pepper (and a few sprigs of thyme for kicks) cook over low, indirect heat and cover.

Twenty minutes later, the salmon developed a reddish-brown crust on the edges and inside the flesh was opaque, ready to eat. Slightly bacony in flavor, but far from overpowering, an argument you'll hear from planking skeptics . Best of all, the flesh had lost some moisture (or perhaps absorbed it?) reducing its richness, a salmon characteristic that sometimes gives me pause.

Maybe it was the fact that the skin was doing all the lubricating work, maybe I just like salmon roasted rather than seared - who knows. It was love at first bite, and I'm planking again as soon as possible.

As for the wood: It can be pricey, if you're not careful. My first foray involved a two-pack at Whole Foods for $10.99, which seems like a lot of cash for some wood used only once or twice. At Williams-Sonoma, the price per plank goes down slightly (4 for $14.95) , but the best deals I found were online.

At Yakima, Washington-based Barbecue Wood, you can order planks in packs of 12, which immediately brings down the price. The company also offers "factory seconds" of 12-packs that start at $10.95 (poke around, as the list of options is long), or if you want to experiment with different wood flavors, consider one of the variety packs. Note the difference in plank sizes (A 4 x 9 or 4 x 12 is fine for a fillet, but a whole fish would require at least an 8 x 16 slab).

If you're feeling wasteful about throwing out a charred plank, consider chopping it up into smaller chunks and adding it to your next fire for added flavor.

Now it's time to hear from you. Got a plank secret to share? A plank fave, perhaps? Join the conversation in the comments area below.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 9, 2006; 9:59 AM ET Flames
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two things. buy an untreated cedar board at a lowes or home depot. they'll cut it. get 8 one foot planks for about 11 bucks.

second. make a tent out of aluminum foil. soak plank or an hour...brush a bit of olive oil on the plank. make sure bottom of plank is laying on bed of foil. keeps more flavor.

Posted by: jack | June 9, 2006 10:42 AM

A buddy of mine sells these planks (with everything else needed on his website. I get factory seconds for free, so I cook this way all the time. Of course, I live in Washington State, and in the northwest corner to boot. You can't get much more northwest than my place. But I digress. Make sure and soak the planks well. (I do overnight, and have a suirt bottle ready as the wood may catch fire. It takes a bit of getting used to, to get the heat just right, to smoke the wood, without catching it on fire. But you will be rewarded once you do figure it out. Also, the thinker the planks, the better.

Posted by: Mic Sager | June 9, 2006 4:38 PM

At our beach condo we are not allowed to BBQ with an open flame. So I have a George Foreman electric BBQ which cook like a hot-plate - but with ridges to simulate a BBQ. Since I don't have indirect heat capability I was wondering if plank cooking would work?

Posted by: Rich | June 9, 2006 7:07 PM

You can really save on cedar planks by going to a hardware or roofing store and buying untreated cedar shingles.

Posted by: fred press | June 13, 2006 11:42 AM

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