Planking On It

Planking On ItHeat up the Backyard Barbecue with Plank Cooking, an Indirect Grilling Method that Produces Moist, Smoky, Flavorful Foods 

By Jennifer Walker-Journey

Dozens of hungry patrons gathered at Criolla’s in Grayton Beach one recent Friday evening to feast on a special Australian dinner prepared by the restaurant’s new executive chef – and resident Aussie – Shayne Vaughan. As guests slurped ginger beer broth and nibbled lamb loin in the modestly decorated dining room, cooks moved about the kitchen wrapping Barramundi fillets in thin sheets of cedar and setting them on the grill.

The featured fish entree, which ranked fifth among the seven courses that night, was Vaughan's twist on plank grilling, a method of cooking on a wooden slab that enhances the food’s flavor with characteristic smokiness. Plank grilling – or planking – dates back to the early days of the American Indians, but recently has been revived by chefs worldwide.

“In the last 18 months more people are trying it,” Vaughan said. He credits chefs such as the Food Network’s Bobby Flay with popularizing the trend among restaurants.

Betsy Surcouf, general manager of Williams-Sonoma at Destin Commons, says she has seen firsthand the rising interest of plank grilling among her customers.

“Planking has inspired a lot of backyard chefs, too,” she said. The method involves placing fish, meat or most any other food atop a wooden plank and then putting the plank on a grill or in an oven. Unlike traditional grilling, planks add a barrier between the fire and the food that slows the cooking process and gives food a rich, smoky flavor.

“It’s just a tasty and interesting way to cook,” Vaughan said. “And, honestly, it’s very simple, very user-friendly once you get through the prep.”

Plank Talk
There’s nothing fancy about planks. You can use almost any variety of wood from a lumberyard, but you’ll want to be sure it has not been treated. Treated wood may be poisonous if cooked upon, so it may be best to play it safe and purchase your planks from a specialty store, such as Williams-Sonoma or Fresh Market, both in Destin. Some fish markets and grocery stores also sell planks. Prices generally range from about $15 for a four-pack to as much as $30 each for thicker pieces.

Planks come in a variety of species. Cedar is the most common grilling wood. Pecan, alder and hickory also are good choices. When planking in an oven, it is best to use a portion of wood of at least one inch in depth. The planks will burn a little in the cooking process, so you should not expect them to last more than once or twice. If the plank can be used more than once, Surcouf suggests cleaning it with warm water and a firm dish brush. However, no soap should be used, as it may hamper the flavor. 

Before using, planks should be soaked in water, wine or fruit juice for at least 30 minutes and up to several hours. Soaking the wood keeps it from burning and allows the food to steam during the cooking process. Once the food has been prepped, and the plank soaked, brush a small amount of olive oil over one side of the plank, place the food on the oiled side and set the plank on the grill or in the oven.

“Then keep an eye on it,” Surcouf warned. “The wood will burn and will char on the edges, but you don’t want it to catch on fire.” Many plank-grillers have seen their planks go up in flames, but don’t let that discourage you. Just spritz with water until the flames subside. Do expect to see some charring on the plank, Surcouf says. With the grill lid down, the smoke from the burning wood and steam from the soaked plank gently cook the meat, resulting in a moist and aromatic result.

Food for Thought
Fish may be one of the most popular plank-grilled foods, but don’t limit yourself, says Criolla’s Vaughan.

“I’d try an old classic like bacon-wrapped scallops, on the plank,” he says. “That would be phenomenal.”

Other options include shellfish such as lobster and shrimp. Pork and steak tend to work best with harder woods like alder or hickory, as those types burn slower, allowing more time to cook the meat.

Even fruits and vegetables can be planked.

“You can really get creative,” Surcouf said. “I’ve made desserts on the plank, like cinnamon-stuffed apples with crème fraîche. And peaches are wonderful grilled on the plank.”

Vaughan says home cooks should not be intimidated by planking, but rather to experiment with different foods cooked on wood.

“I could even see some brunch items on the plank, like salmon or even eggs,” he says. “You can just develop some of your own unique ideas. Put a different spin on it. There really should be no mystique about it.” 


Planked Salmon with Pinot Noir-Berry Sauce

Recipe Courtesy Williams-Sonoma

1 cup Pinot Noir
1 small shallot, minced
2¼ cups blackberries, chopped
2 tablespoons veal demi-glace
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 16  cubes
¼ teaspoon salt, plus more, to taste
2 teaspoons sugar
4 salmon fillets, each 8 ounces, with skin
¼ cup olive oil
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Soak a cedar plank in water for 2 to 4 hours.

In a small pot over medium heat, combine the wine, shallot and 1½ cups of the blackberries. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated, 15 to 20 minutes. Press the berry mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl and return the liquid to the pot. Set over low heat and whisk in the demi-glace, then slowly add the butter, whisking continuously until incorporated into the sauce. Stir in the ¼ teaspoon salt, sugar and the remaining ¾ cup blackberries. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the berries soften, 5 to 7 minutes. Pour the sauce into a small bowl and set over, but not touching, simmering water in a saucepan; keep the sauce warm.

Prepare a medium fire in a grill. Have a spray bottle of water ready to extinguish flare-ups. Brush the salmon on both sides with the olive oil and season with salt
and pepper.

Place the plank on the grill and close the lid. Heat until the plank begins to smoke and crackle. Place the salmon, skin side down, on the plank. Close the lid and grill until the salmon is cooked through, 10 to 12 minutes.

Transfer the plank with the salmon to a heatproof platter or carefully transfer the salmon directly to a warmed platter. Spoon the berry sauce over the salmon and garnish with parsley.