Reaching New Heights with Cedar Plank Grilling

Cedar Plank Salmon. Photo by Anastasia Murphy
Cedar Plank Salmon. Photo by Anastasia Murphy

Amplify flavor and intensity with this simple, yet satisfying, grilling technique.

An entrancing, savory aroma lures guests into the backyard of a friend’s house as the summer sun begins to set. The familiar smells of grayed charcoal, marinades caramelizing on meats, and burned bits are ever enticing, but there’s one scent that can’t quite be pinned down: a smoky, woodsy aroma. As the grill master lifts the lid of the barbecue to expose planks of cedar wood loaded with thick cuts of salmon and other seasonal delights, the source of the comforting aroma becomes clear. It’s understood immediately that tonight’s “simple barbecue” will be much more delicious than the host had advertised.

Cedar plank cooking, a North American tradition, goes back many generations. Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest would — and still do—make use of the abundance of western red cedar and the blessings of fresh salmon by cooking fish on cedar planks over the fire. Fast forward to the present, and backyard barbecue heroes are keeping the tradition alive. Cedar plank cooking entails simply adding layers of flavor and aroma by cooking food directly on a chunk of non-treated cedar wood, typically with indirect heat.

Out of all the cedar planks that are purchased for cooking, one could bet they would be introduced to filets of salmon and generally be right. Not only is salmon the most traditional plank pairing, but it’s incredibly well suited to this particular technique. A firm, fatty fish with flavors that pair perfectly with smoke will always win, but don’t feel limited to just salmon. Other dense and sturdy fish, like scallops, swordfish, mahi-mahi, and sturgeon, all perform well on cedar, especially when brushed with a bit of extra virgin olive oil or melted butter and seasoned. Brushing with butter or oil not only supports easy removal of the fish from the plank but also absorption of woodsy flavors. Grilled summer vegetables are even more delicious when cooked on cedar planks. For instance, a chunk of zucchini, slices of onions, spears of asparagus, and fresh bell peppers can easily rival (or perfectly accompany) prized catch from the fishmonger.

While most meats benefit greatly from the Maillard reaction — that is, the process of caramelization — many cooks wouldn’t imagine cooking a steak or a pork chop on a piece of wood versus directly on the grill. However, the importance of caramelization doesn’t necessarily mean a thick cut of steak or a brined pork chop couldn’t be grilled first, then finished on cedar. Imagine a ribeye grilled to perfection, finishing the cooking process, slowing its sizzle, and picking up flavor on a cedar plank. A double-cut pork chop marked over glowing embers could be taken to the next level if it were finished on a cedar plank soaked in apple juice. Fish, meats, vegetables, and even some cheeses all have their place on the plank. 

In my days of curating outdoor culinary experiences, I cook mostly with live fire and have been spoiled with the ever-present flavor and aroma of wood smoke in just about everything I cook. When I find myself limited to a gas grill, yet still want the rich and woodsy aromas of my familiar fires, I reach for cedar cooking planks or cedar wraps. You needn’t be an experienced chef or have an abundance of cedar to reap the rewards of cedar plank cooking. Cedar planks, and other woods like alder, spruce, and cherry can easily be found in most butcher shops, as well as specialty grocers. With plank cooking becoming more and more popular, it isn’t uncommon to see packs of planks on the shelves in larger grocery stores, especially in the summer. Look for thick planks with more surface area and avoid any pieces of wood that look cracked or split. Cedar wraps are a little less common to come by, but can easily be found online. Thin cedar wraps secured with a bit of kitchen twine can bring the same effect to food with a bit of added protection. Bundles of asparagus, bell peppers, and red onion turn into smoky, rich parcels that will instantly take the place of grilled skewers. For apartment dwellers, it’s important to know that plank cooking can be applied to baking or broiling, even in the most limited capacities.

Sockeye salmon flesh is a bright pink, orange, or even red color thanks to their diet. Photo by Anastasia Murphy
Sockeye salmon flesh is a bright pink, orange, or even red color thanks to their diet. Photo by Anastasia Murphy
This color is all natural! Sockeye salmon flesh is a bright pink, orange, or even red color thanks to their diet. In the wild, this fish consumes carotenoids called astaxanthin, an antioxidant that produces in the fish this saturated color. As mom always said, you are what you eat.

To see success with wood plank cooking, here are a few tips and guidelines to know:

• Always soak the planks in water before using. It’s no secret that dry wood easily catches fire. I like to soak my planks on a rimmed baking sheet by the sink with cups or bowls weighing down the planks to keep them submerged. Shoot for a three- or four-hour soak, but less will be sufficient in a pinch.

• Brush the plank with extra virgin olive oil or melted butter before placing the protein. If cooking vegetables, toss them in extra virgin olive oil or melted butter before arranging them in one even layer on the plank.

• Cook over indirect heat. If using charcoal, move coals to the opposite side of the planks. If your grill is gas, use the plank on the un-lit section.

• Try lightly charring the planks before use for added flavor. Like anything, practice makes perfect, so give these recipes a try and prepare to be wowed.