Grilling planks are a method of cooking from the Pacific Northwest of the United States and/or Southwest Canada. I had my first taste of food cooked on planks in 1996 while touring with my wife in Washington State. I enjoyed oysters cooked on alder wood planks. The oysters had a mildly smokey flavor and were very tasty.
I needed to know more, but it would take years before the plank style cooking method spread far beyond that region. Grilling planks are seen everywhere now, culinary shops, hardware stores; so the question becomes, are they worth having some in your grilling arsenal?
The real history of cooking planks has less to do with our modern take on the subject and more to do with practical life for the native people. There were always communal fires in a native community. When cooking food for feasts or large meals, they split log sections [using locally available wood such as cedar or alder] placed them around or over the fire and nailed food to the plank. The food would roast more than smoke, although the smoke from the fire and charring of the logs would impart a smokey flavor to the food. The resulting flavors of the meat, wood and smoke melded into a much written about taste sensation.
Over the years, the method was brought to the public by restaurants, then, in recent years, to the home cook via the precut planks. The precut planks have changed some since their first introduction.
Type of Planks for Grilling
The basic planks sold today are 12 – 15 inches x 7 and about a 1/4 inch thick. If you look hard enough you will find them in a variety of sizes – from the 15×7 to 13×7, 12×5, 5×7, 4×4 and well, you get the idea. The shapes and sizes vary depending on the manufacturer but the most commonly sold shape is the rectangle.
There are a few online companies that will sell and ship cross cut sections of the various wood types that look like a wedge of a tree section. These cross section styles tend to be thicker, 1 or 2 inches and most will have the bark still attached.
The most common woods used are alder, cedar, maple, hickory, cherry and apple, sold in sets or individually. The sets are packaged in two ways – as a sampling of the various wood types or several of the same type of wood. I would recommend starting with a sampler and experimenting with the various types of wood to see how the smoke affects the food cooked on it.
The Plank Grilling Process
Plank grilling is what I call very hot smoking.
Cold smoking is a process where the food is infused with smoke in a temperature between 85 – 100 degrees F and is often combined with salting, curing or wind drying to reduce bacteria contamination. Cold smoking takes days or weeks to accomplish.
Hot smoking occurs at 225 to say 275 degrees. This is what most Americans consider barbecue. The meat is slow roasted with charcoal over the span of hours to create a very tender meat. Some BBQ aficionados define hot smoking as the only true smoking process but state that it requires a lower temperature environment of 165 to 185. To these people, Smoking done at the 225-275 range is defined as smoke roasting.
The plank grilling method is executed in a much hotter environment, typically above 350 degrees. This higher heat is necessary to make the wood smoke. Hence my definition of very hot smoking.
The cooking process is fairly simple, before using them the first time, soak the planks in water for 1-6 hours.
Why soak it first?
The commercially cut planks are processed like lumber and continue to dry out during the production and sales path on the way to your home. To make sure the plank smokes and doesn’t burn, you need to soak it in water. This simulates the green wood planks used by the Native peoples.
After it has been soaked, you char the planks on both sides over a hot fire. This pre-use charring helps impart smoke from the minute the food touches the plank.
In the usage instructions, some companies will tell you to cook the food using indirect heat, meaning not directly over the coals or fire. The plank cooking method is by definition indirect cooking and I have found that they perform best when used directly over the coals or flame. However, you may find it necessary to temporarily move the plank if it catches fire.
The food is cooked using a combination of radiant and direct heat. While wood is a bad conductor of energy, it will transfer heat directly to the food to aid in cooking. It is the charred, burning underbelly of the plank that imparts the flavor as smoke curls around and over the food.
To reuse the planks you can wash them in mild soapy water and rinse them off. Generally I just rinse them off and scrap off any stuck on food, of which there is typically very little. If you cooked on one side, just flip it over and use the other side. The hot fire will kill any “nasties” hiding in the wood.
If you are concerned about possible problems with charred bits of wood being on the food during future uses, simply put a piece of oiled parchment paper or a green leaf between the food and the plank. You just need to make sure the parchment or leaf is cut to stay within the boundary of the board.
The planks can be used until they fall apart, at which time they can become smoking chips for a future grilling event. How long they last depends on your choice of fuel, charcoal or propane, and the cooking time. Charcoal generates more heat and will deplete the planks quicker.
In the photos below, taken with the assistance of my terracotta helper frogs, you can see the surface of a previously used plank. You also see a cross section of the plank to demonstrate how much wood is left after a few uses, even though the surface looks quite charred.
When reusing the planks you can choose to soak them again, but it is not necessary.
The food that works best with the planks are those which cook for a short to medium amount of time, 10 to 40 minutes. Longer than that and you can impart either too much smoke flavor or risk the board being consumed.
Most instructions direct you to close the lid of the grill while cooking on the planks. You will need to keep an eye on the process and be ready to move a plank or extinguish a fire should it flare up. The thicker planks won’t catch fire as readily but still must be watched.
As they cook more quickly, I find that shrimp and oysters cooked very well with the lid open. I originally left the lid open because I knew both would cook quickly and wanted to watch the meat closely during the tests.
I learned not to leave the shells on the shrimp when cooking on the planks. I left the shells on initially because I normally grill shrimp with shells on, but found the plank grilled version lacked flavor and the shells stuck to the flesh. Cooking shrimp out of the shell allowed them to absorb the smokey flavor more effectively.
I have used grilling planks with many foods: fish fillets, kabobs (chicken and beef), chicken breasts, shrimp and oysters. The kabobs and meats cooked on the planks were juicy, tender and had a pleasant smokey flavor.
Be aware that chicken skin will darken in a way that is not visually appealing to some. I tended to use skinless chicken pieces on planks.
I have also cooked eggplant on the planks and made Baba Ganoush with the smokey pulp – man was that good! Remember to pierce the eggplant flesh with a knife prior to cooking or you may have an explosive mess on the inside of the grill. The knife cuts also allow the smoke to flavor the eggplant pulp as it cooks.
The board manufacturers tell us to match certain woods with foods to best compliment the flavors:
Alder has a light flavor that works well with fish and chicken. It is the traditional wood for smoking salmon.
Apple is very mild in flavor and is supposed to give food a sweetness. I found it a little too subtle. This is good with poultry, pork and fresh water fish.
Cedar is sweet, smoky-spicy and aromatic. The spicy-smoke that cedar imparts is great for almost anything, fish, beef, pork, chicken.
Cherry has a sweet, mild flavor that goes great with virtually everything. This is one of the most popular woods for smoking.
Hickory adds a strong flavor, so be careful. It’s great with beef and lamb.
Maple has a sweet flavor that is excellent with poultry and ham, but can be very subtle and should be used with cooler fires.
Oak is strong but not too much and is a very good for beef or lamb. Oak is probably the most versatile of the hard woods.
Some suggest that to add additional flavor elements, soak your planks in wine. The effects would be best with maple, apple and oak.
But be your own judge, try matching different woods with different foods and take note of which flavor combinations worked best.
Some people suggest serving the food at the table directly on the plank. Remember that the underside has been charred black and will be hot. Using them as serving trays/plates, you could very easily make a mess.
I knew from experience when cooking on a propane grill that plank grilling smoke added value because propane does not add any flavor in and of itself. I heartily recommend it for all gas grills.
Having switched to charcoal as my grill fuel choice, I knew that you got smokey flavor from using charcoal and more if you use soaked wood chips, the question at hand was whether the planks added value.
In fact, the planks did offer a nice subtle smokey flavor. I wasn’t able to discern too much difference between the various woods but it could be that standing around the fire and smoke of the grill diminished my taste ability a bit due to over saturation of my olfactory senses.
The more distinct woods like alder, cedar, cherry and hickory bring more to the table than maple, oak or apple and those more distinct woods are the types I recommend.