Bright glowing coal, a flickering flame and the satisfying sizzle of meat-for many people, these are the signs a grilling session is in full swing. Folks from the Pacific Northwest, however, will tell you there’s another cue: the smell of charred cedar. Growing up just outside Seattle, I’d spend cool summer evenings sitting on the patio watching my father grill salmon directly on a wooden plank. The smoked cedar would stick to my clothes for days-but it was worth it for the delicious family dinners.
Now that I’m older, I realized that I inherited zero grill skills from my pop. Looking to recreate this nostalgic technique in my own backyard, I asked expert food editor (and resident grill master) James Schend to break it down to the basics:
What Is Plank Grilling?
Plank grilling, also known as planking, is a method in which food is placed on a wooden board that has been set over indirect heat on a grill. It’s the best way to ensure that your dish gets a deep, wood-smoked flavor. Plank grilling totally beats out the standard woodchip routine because the skin of your fish (or chicken or veggies) directly contacts the charred plank. That being said, flavor will vary depending on the type of wood you choose.
How to Choose the Right Plank
Many cooking stores will sell pre-cut wood planks made specially for plank grilling. The alternative is to purchase wood from a lumber store. Ask for an untreated, furniture-grade board that is kiln-dried. Cut to fit your grill with a 1-inch thickness. The flavor is up to you. Cedar, cherry, hickory, pecan, maple, apple and alder work best.
Wait, Won’t the Wood Catch on Fire?
It doesn’t take a veteran griller to realize that wood burns over an open flame. Before you fire up the grill, you’ll need to treat the plank to a long soak in water. This helps prevent the wood from catching on fire while you cook. You’ll still need to watch for occasional flare-ups, so take precaution and keep a water bottle handy while you grill.
How Do I Get Started?
Our Test Kitchen spent many cookouts testing and perfecting the best recipe for plank grilling. Follow along as we walk step by step through the preparation of basic plank-grilled fish, with nuggets of expert advice along the way.
How to Make Plank-Grilled Ginger-Herb Trout
2 grilling planks
2 tablespoons butter, softened
2 tablespoons minced fresh gingerroot
4 teaspoons each minced fresh basil, cilantro and parsley
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
4 trout fillets (6 ounces each)
Step 1: Prepare the planks
Before we begin, examine the planks to make sure they’re splinter-free. See a few pointy sticklers? Don’t panic. Give the wood a quick brush with sandpaper until smooth.
Now it’s tub time for your planks. Soak the boards in water for at least one hour. The best way to soak your planks is to submerge the wood in a baking dish or rimmed sheet pan. Use a heavy can to keep them from floating. Flip occasionally to make sure they’re evenly soaked.
Test Kitchen tip: If you have the time, let the planks soak for 3-4 hours. They’ll last even longer on the grill.
Another Test Kitchen tip: For more flavor, try adding wine or apple juice to the water.
Meanwhile, combine butter, ginger, herbs, honey, lemon peel, salt and pepper in a small bowl. This is what we’ll use to coat the trout.
Step 2: Fire it up
Let’s get grilling. You’ll want to prepare one side of the grill for direct heat and the other side for indirect. If you’re working with charcoal, use a chimney starter to corral your hot coals on one side of the grill. Direct heat means the zone above the coals.
Place your pre-soaked planks on the grill over direct medium heat. (For charcoal, you’ll know it’s reached medium heat if you can comfortably hold your hand 5 inches away from the grill for 5-7 seconds.)
Cover and let the plank heat for 3 minutes. Some light smoke should begin to emerge from the wood. You’ll know it’s ready when the plank begins to blacken
Test Kitchen tip: Slightly charring the planks gives the dish a deeper flavor. Prefer your wood less toasty? Skip this step and begin cooking over indirect heat.
Step 3: Plank grill the fish
Using a pair of long-armed tongs, carefully flip the planks over so the blackened side faces upward. Move the planks to indirect heat.
Spread the ginger-herb spread over the flesh side of the fillets. Then place the fish on the planks, skin side down. Grill, covered, over medium heat for 10-15 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork.
Test Kitchen tip: Resist the urge to flip the fish after you’ve set it on the plank. Close the lid, sit back, and let it cook.
Step 4: Enjoy!
Your tender, smoky fish is ready for its debut. Transfer the planks to a pretty platter and serve. Your guests will be impressed by the plating-but they’ll love the flavor even more. One bite and you’ll want to plank grill all year round.
Test Kitchen tip: When finished, let the planks cool completely. Scrub clean under cold water, scraping off any remaining residue. If you run into a stubborn spot, use sandpaper to remove. Do not use soap. (If you do, your fish could taste sudsy the next time you grill!)
Even More Ways to Love Plank Grilling
Don’t limit yourself to trout. Most sturdy fish are great for plank grilling. Try salmon, bluefish, swordfish or wild striped bass. Looking for more? You can also grill chicken, pork, scallops and veggies on the plank, too.
Time to move on to the next course. Wrap up your meal with one of our top 10 grilled desserts.