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Guide to Grilling: Planking

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[Photographs: Joshua Bousel]

For all that I've grilled (150-plus recipes and counting), there's always plenty of uncharted territory. One of those areas: planking. There aren't usually many planking recipes in cookbooks, save the ubiquitous planked salmon.

It wasn't until I started seeing Mike Lang over at Another Pint Please plank everything from pork to vegetables to cheese, that my interest in this grilling technique perked. Mike referenced the unassuming 25 Essentials: Techniques for Planking as a handy guide. Between that book and Mike's blog, I've finally found my footing in the world of planking, and am loving the results.

So What Is Planking?

Put simply, planking is cooking food directly on a piece of hardwood. When cooking this way, the surface of the food touching the wood picks up some of the plank's natural flavors. Although there's some debate on the origins of planking, it's been documented that Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest pinned their salmon to large wood boards, then slow cooked them—planking.

Since then, the method has been carried down and modified for the home cook, with the grill being primary means of planking, but also adapted for use in the oven as well. (Planks for the oven are usually thicker, larger, and more expensive then those made for the grill.)

Choosing a Plank

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Coming in an array of shapes and sizes, the first thing to consider is to pick out a plank best suited for what's being cooked on it. The most common size is a rectangle roughly 13 x 7 inches, which tends to be pretty all-purpose, but squares, ovals, and individual serving sizes are also available for matching plank to food.

If you can't find what you're looking for, or want to save a few bucks, cutting your own planks is an option. Just be sure to use an untreated hardwood and give it a good sanding before using to avoid those nasty splinters. Personally, I've been loving the natural look of the planks Afire provided me, which are cut on the bias with the bark still attached and give an extra boost to the presentation factor of the plank.

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Size is just one important factor to consider, with type of wood weighing in pretty equally. Since some of the essence of the wood will be transferred to the food being planked, it's good to know the depth of flavor each wood carries and choose one that might best complement the flavor of the food.

Each wood has its own uniqueness, so it's worth picking up a variety and playing around to see how each imparts a different flavor. Taste here can be incredibly subjective.

Preparing a Plank

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Plank preparation is key: It must be soaked in water for at least 30 minutes prior to grilling to avoid over-charring or catching fire. Rimmed sheet pans are perfect for soaking planks—just place a plank in the pan, add enough water to completely cover it, then weigh the plank down to keep it submerged (try using a medium-sized pot for this). I prefer to soak my planks for a minimum of an hour, flipping halfway through to ensure they're evenly and thoroughly soaked.

I've read using other liquids to soak the plank—like apple juice or wine—add both a little flavor and aroma to the food being cooked on the plank.

Grilling with a Plank

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Although there are many ways to grill with planks, so far, I've only found use for two methods. The most common is a complete indirect cooking.

For this, a two-zone indirect fire is built, then the food arranged on a plank and placed on the cool side of the grill and covered. The longer the food cooks, the more time it has to get saturated with the wood's flavor, so I usually opt for medium heat to extend the cooking time with a full indirect cook.

The second method I've been using: start with a two-zone indirect fire and place an empty plank over the hot side of the grill. Let it go until it just starts to blacken and smoke, then flip the plank, place the food on the charred side, and move it to the cool side of the grill, cover, and cook. Starting on a scorched and smoking plank gives a deeper wood flavor compared to the pure indirect method. It's also great for quicker cooking fish fillets planked on lighter woods to make sure they pick up flavor.

Along with these methods, it's possible to grill on a plank over direct fire, which might kill the plank beyond reuse, but also produce more smoke and potentially more wood flavor. Another option is searing prior to planking, which would be preferable for something like steak that would just not be right without a well developed crust.

No matter what method you choose, it's always a good idea to have a squirt bottle with water handy to smolder the plank if it catches fire. Or just add some extra moisture if any area of the plank seems to blacken too quickly.

Reusing Planks

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As long as there's still wood left, and the plank hasn't been charred through, there's no problem reusing the plank. To clean a plank, start by scrubbing it down with water and a scouring pad without soap—you don't want soap soaking into the plank and staying there. If there's some excess char or food that just won't dislodge, then it's time to bust out a piece of fine sandpaper and go at it until the plank is clean.

Once it's washed, it's important to let it completely dry out before storing it away to prevent molding.

You'll enjoy playing with the new flavors from planking. I'll be sharing more planking recipes in the upcoming weeks. Until then, light a fire, grab a plank, and get grilling!

About the author: Joshua Bousel brings you new, tasty condiment each Wednesday and a recipe for weekend grilling every Friday. He also writes about grilling and barbecue on his blog The Meatwave whenever he can be pulled away from his grill.

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