Where There's Smoke, There's Flavor Planked salmon has long been a regular menu item in the Pacific Northwest, and its popularity has now spread to the lower states. There's no easier way to impress guests than to grill fish on a wooden plank, which yields a delightful, smoky sweetness.

Where There's Smoke, There's Flavor

The classic is salmon cooked over an outdoor fire on a cedar plank. Scroll down for recipes. David S. Deutsch hide caption

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David S. Deutsch

The classic is salmon cooked over an outdoor fire on a cedar plank. Scroll down for recipes.

David S. Deutsch

The sweetness of the plums and grapes is a nice contrast to the salty Prosciutto in this plank-grilled dish. David S. Deutsch hide caption

toggle caption
David S. Deutsch

The sweetness of the plums and grapes is a nice contrast to the salty Prosciutto in this plank-grilled dish.

David S. Deutsch

Planking Tips

  • Before cooking, soak the plank for at least an hour to keep it from burning and to keep the food moist. Some cooks add salt, wine or fruit juice to the soaking water. The plank will need to be weighted down as it soaks. Cans may leave black rings on the plank so try a heavy bowl.
  • When the grill is hot, brush the pre-soaked plank with oil.
  • If the plank is new, place it on the grill, close the lid and heat for two minutes. Then turn it, close the lid and heat for another minute or two. This light toasting of the plank will deepen the flavor and help avoid warping.
  • If you're using a charcoal grill, place the plank over the fire when the coals are coated in gray ash. For a gas grill, preheat to high then turn down to medium when you're ready to cook.
  • Place fish on the plank and cover the grill. Wood conducts heat slowly so plank-cooked foods usually take longer to cook than other grilled foods. Remember the fish will continue to cook after it is removed from the heat.
  • It is unlikely the plank will catch fire, but keep a bottle of water around just in case.
  • After removing the fish, place the plank in a container of water.
  • Planks can generally be reused up to three times. Charred planks can be reused if the plank is not completely blistered. If it's unusable, break it up and use it as smoking chips.

About the Author

Bonny Wolf is contributing editor to Kitchen Window and a commentator on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. Her book of food essays, Talking with My Mouth Full, will be published by St. Martin's Press in November. You can find more information at her Web site, www.bonnywolf.com.

It probably never occurred to Native Americans hundreds of years ago to grill figs wrapped in Prosciutto (with a balsamic glaze). Or lamb fajitas. Or pork tenderloin with mango salsa.

These are, however, some of the contemporary recipes that use the traditional American Indian technique of planking.

Long before European settlers came ashore, Indian tribes throughout the country were roasting fish on aromatic planks of wood -- salmon in the Pacific Northwest, shad on the East Coast, whitefish in the Central Plains. They would split the fish, secure it skin-side down to a wood plank and place the plank vertically, facing the fire but outside the fire ring, to slowly cook.

Planking has been in and out of fashion in the centuries since then. Planked steak, for example, was "one of the more spectacular dishes produced in this country until World War II," writes James Beard. Planked salmon with a white sauce was a favorite of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The classic is salmon cooked over an outdoor fire on a cedar plank. The American Indian technique has been adapted for use in a backyard barbecue, so you don't have to bring in river stones to surround a campfire.

It is an incredibly easy way to impress guests. The wooden plank is soaked in water and toasted on the grill. The fish is placed on top of the plank, and the grill covered. The fish doesn't even have to be turned. The result is meat that absorbs a smoky, sweetness from the wood and stays extremely moist.

Planked fish and other foods can be roasted in the oven, but it is on the grill where the magic happens. And the whole neighborhood will thank you for the aromatic night air.

Planked salmon has been a regular menu item in the Pacific Northwest for years, and its popularity has now spread to the lower states.

Many kitchenware and grilling stores carry cooking planks in a variety of woods -- cedar, alder, maple, hickory, oak, mesquite and apple. While each wood has its own distinct flavor, cedar is the most commonly used.

Planks are 1/2- to 1 inch thick, 12 to 14 inches long and about 6 inches wide. They also are available on the Internet. You can make your own plank with wood from a lumberyard, but it must be untreated wood. Avoid any resinous woods such as pine and birch.

Contemporary planking has gone far beyond the fish and game cooked by Native Americans. There are a number of cookbooks on how to cook anything on a plank, from appetizers to desserts. Plums wrapped in Prosciutto, all kinds of pizza, vegetable side dishes and even dessert can be cooked on a wooden plank. Imagine a banana split made with smoky, caramelized bananas.

Planked fish can be as simple or as complicated as you like. There are prepared rubs and long lists of ingredients. Just keep in mind that the wood is the primary spice, just as it has been for centuries.

Simple Salmon

For a quick and easy planked salmon, lay a salmon fillet, skin side down, on a pre-soaked, toasted plank and season with olive oil, lemon juice, white wine, salt and pepper. For a little extra flavor, lay the salmon on a bed of fresh herbs. Place the plank on the grill, close the cover and cook until the fish flakes easily.

Cedar Planked Salmon

David S. Deutsch
Salmon on a plank
David S. Deutsch

This recipe is adapted from the instructions that came with a four-pack of Chinook Cedar Grilling Planks from Seattle.

Makes 6 servings

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon soy sauce

3 tablespoons bourbon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1 tablespoon brown sugar

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

2 pounds salmon fillet

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

Combine all ingredients but salmon and lemon juice. Whisk and set aside.

Place fillet in shallow dish, pour marinade over and turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit 20 minutes. Retain marinade.

Place salmon, skin side down, on pre-soaked, preheated plank. Place on grill and cover. Cook 10 to 15 minutes, or until done.

Simmer marinade in a small saucepan until reduced by half. Remove from heat and add lemon juice. Drizzle over salmon before serving.

Roasted Grapes and Prosciutto-Wrapped Plums

David S. Deutsch
Grilled plum wrapped in Prosciutto
David S. Deutsch

The sweetness of the plums and grapes is a nice contrast to the salty Prosciutto in this recipe from the booklet, "Sensational Smoke," from Nature's Cuisine grilling planks. Use firm, ripe plums. Ripe nectarines, peaches or melon wedges may be substituted for plums. An alder plank is recommended, although any plank will work.

Makes 18 appetizer pieces

3 ripe plums, pitted and quartered

12 thinly sliced pieces of Prosciutto

6 small clusters of seedless red grapes, washed and patted dry

Heat grill to high and preheat plank.

Wrap each wedge of plum with a slice of Prosciutto. Place wrapped plums and grape clusters on hot plank. Cover and grill for 8 to 10 minutes, or until fruit is hot and Prosciutto is crisp. Serve warm with a selection of cheeses and breads.

Fire-Roasted Ginger Apples

As the first apples come to market, this dish can be a good late-summer, early-fall dessert. This recipe is adapted from Nature's Cuisine's "Sensational Smoke." If reusing a plank to grill apples after plank-roasting fish or meat on a charcoal grill, add coals to the grill and allow plank to burn off any remaining cooking juices.

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons butter, softened

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 tablespoons crystallized ginger, chopped

2 tablespoons ground almonds

2 large, firm, sweet apples, halved lengthwise and cored

Thick, caramel ice-cream topping, warmed

Vanilla or cinnamon ice cream, if desired

Heat grill to medium-low using indirect heat.

Pulverize almonds by hand or in a food processor.

Mix butter, sugar, ginger and almonds with a fork until well blended. Spoon filling into center of each apple half. Place apples, stuffed side up, on hot plank. Cover grill and cook until tender, 20 to 40 minutes. Serve apples warm, drizzled with caramel sauce that's been heated in the microwave, and a scoop of ice cream, if desired.