Grilling Fish On A Cedar Plank

art of plankingFish is incredibly delicate, so it can be difficult to cook, and for this reason, many of us avoid this healthy fare, and opt for something more simple. Most folks don’t realize it, but cooking a salmon steak can be just as easy as cooking a hot dog if you do it the right way. One of the best methods for guaranteed flavor, and fillets that aren’t dried out or overcooked, is to use your grill. When done properly, the finished product is tough to match thanks to the tender texture, and smoky flavor you can achieve. However; when you go about it the wrong way, the results can be disastrous. To avoid pieces that get stuck, or cooking to a crispy, flavorless jerky, follow the instructions below, and look like a pro. It doesn’t matter if you are preparing salmon, sole, tuna or mahi mahi because any type of fish can be cooked with a similar technique.

What Is It

A cedar grilling plank is nothing more than regular wood, cut down to size. Natives in the North West have used them as a tool for preparing salmon and other fish for ages, and because of the wonderful results, it is also popular today. Sourced straight from the forest, this ordinary board will help you use the same ancient technique to prepare your seafood. Depending upon where you get it, the thickness and size will vary to accommodate more or less food, but the cooking method will be pretty much the same.

When using this technique it’s more like smoking than it is like grilling because the fish will be indirectly heated with the lid on as moisture steams out of the wood. The fillet will never touch the metal grate, and there will be no lines on your finished product, but the result will be amazingly delicious, restaurant quality food. Placing the board on dry would be a bad idea, and it does need to be fully saturated prior to cooking. Once on the grill, the soaked wood will steam in flavor and smoke your fish to perfection. The added flavor resulting from the natural wood further enhances the grilled taste usually achieved when barbecuing, and the indirect heat allows the fish to cook at the perfect speed for maximum flavor, without compromising tenderness.

To Soak Or Not To Soak

If you have several hours or a day to plan, you can certainly soak your own boards with little trouble, but for anyone that is bad at planning, or pressed for time, a pre-soaked plank might be the way to go. These come with the water already added, so all you need to do, is rip open the package and head to the grill. A dry board will need to be submerged in water for two or more hours, but using one already prepared can save you this time, and eliminate the main hassle from this cooking technique.

Preparing Your Plank

If not using one that’s pre-soaked, you will have to do it yourself. This can be advantageous for anyone that wants to experiment with other flavors, but it will take 2-6 hours at a minimum, and most would agree that best results are achieved when the wood soaks overnight. When prepping your own, you can stray from straight water, and mix it up with flavored liquids like beer, wine, fruit juice, herbal tea and more.

  1. To get your plank ready, first cut down to size if desired.
  2. Fill your kitchen sink, baking pan or bucket with water or other ingredients for flavor.
  3. Place one or more boards into the water.
  4. Use a soup can or something heavy to weigh them down, and keep them under water.
  5. Allow to sit for several hours.
  6. Once fully saturated, and you are ready to cook, pull the plank(s) from the water.
  7. Take them straight to the grill and preheat by cooking with the lid closed for one minute on each side.
  8. As an option, rub with sea salt, garlic or olive oil to add flavor before you head outside.
  9. To prepare extras for later use, just get a big freezer bag and pop them inside after soaking. Freeze until later, and then a quick ten minute bath in warm water will get them ready for action.

Cooking Instructions

In the demonstration below we will show how easy it is to make mouth watering fish right in your own backyard. Salmon is a popular fish to plank, and you could use the same technique, but we opted for Mahi Mahi in this case. If you do choose seafood with skin on it, just make sure to place your pieces with the skin side down. With this technique, you will not flip or rotate the meat, but it will cook all the way through. You can check by temperature if you are concerned about doneness, but look and feel are usually good indicators too. Anything in the 140 range will be considered well done, and something in the range of 120 will be rare in comparison. It should take anywhere from 12-25 minutes to finish cooking, and you should leave the lid closed for as much of the time as possible.

Stuff You’ll Need

  • Fish – We used mahi mahi.
  • Seasoning – We use salt, pepper and garlic.
  • Marinade – Optional. We chose a garlic ginger sauce formulated for fish.
  • Cedar Plank
  • Grill – Charcoal is best in our opinion, but any will do.
  • Water to soak the wood. – You can also use other flavored liquids.

Basic Steps

  1. Prep the plank.
  2. Fire up the grill.
  3. Season you fish.
  4. Pre-heat the wood.
  5. Place your fish.
  6. Cook for 12-25 minutes.
  7. Remove and serve.

Those are the basic steps, for detailed instructions with pictures, scroll down to keep reading.

STEP 1: how to grill fish on a cedar plankStep 1: We chose Mahi Mahi pieces as our fish of choice. Each little chunk is a bit smaller than a standard fillet, and everything combined was about enough to feed a family of 4-5. The fish was prepared by first adding a sprinkling of salt, pepper and garlic. It was then completely covered in a garlic ginger marinade. We allowed it to sit for about 30 minutes, and because it will cook right in the juice, longer marinade time is probably not necessary. For the plank, we opted for a pre-soaked board, so it was ready to go as soon as we took it out of the wrapper. You could easily substitute any other fish, and any other seasoning. Also, the size of each piece doesn’t matter either, so grill up some little nuggets like we did, or stick to one large fillet if that’s what you prefer.STEP 2: how to grill fish on a cedar plankStep 2: To get your board ready, you will want to preheat it. This will warm it up to improve cooking, but it will also enhance the smoky flavor, and cause the wood to resist warping. Simply preheat your grill, toss it on, and you will be good to go. For gas grills, use a medium setting, and for others, try to maintain a temperature of about 350-400 degrees. Once heated, add the wood right onto the grate and then close the lid for about a minute. After the time is up, flip it over and do the same to the other side. Some crackling is normal, and it will let you know that it is warming up like you want it to. Over heating can dry the wood, and release too much moisture, so be sure not to pre-heat for too long. When done properly, the dark coloration of the wet wood will lighten as it becomes less saturated on the outer layers. Some grill marks on the wood is normal, and nothing to worry about.
STEP 3: how to grill fish on a cedar plankStep 3: Once the grill is hot, and your plank is ready, it’s time to add on the raw fish. You don’t want any portion hanging over the edge, and if cooking small pieces like we did, you don’t really want them touching. As you position your food, make sure nothing overlaps, and there is a bit of space between each chunk. The plank can be positioned right over the coals or burner, or it can be off to the side for more indirect heating. If not directly over fire, the meat will cook more slowly, so the flavors will be more intense. It’s difficult to tell from the photos, but ours was sort of half on and half off. Once in position with food on top, quickly close the lid and leave it shut. This style of grilling is not like traditional methods, and is more like smoking or steaming. Without retaining the heat and moisture inside the closed chamber, your finished food will not be as tender or flavorful.STEP 4: how to grill fish on a cedar plankStep 4: After about five minutes, open the lid to take a look. Make sure there are no flare ups, and lightly spray with water if there is. It’s normal for the wood to char, and some bubbling moisture would be considered OK as well. You will not need to rotate the board or touch any individual piece. There will be no flipping or turning from start to finish. If everything looks fine inside, replace the lid and continue to cook. Water from the board will evaporate and mix with the intense heat trapped inside your BBQ, and the combination will gently smoke your fish until it’s done perfectly.STEP 5: how to grill fish on a cedar plankStep 5: After about 12 minutes, you should check again. It may take more time depending upon the cut you are cooking, but when it starts to look like the picture above, your fish will be ready to eat. You can use a spatula to test for firmness, or you can take the temperature of one the the thicker portions if you want to make sure. Once it begins to have a mouth watering appearance like ours above, it will be time to remove it, and dig in. You’ll notice that despite the lack of flipping and turning, all sides are golden brown, and cooked to perfection. We like our fish a little well done, so if you prefer a more raw texture, take them off before it looks like this. For us, the caramelized and slightly crispy outside pairs nicely with the tender and juicy interior.

After Cooking

Once finished, you will need to remove your food, and then serve it. The easiest way to take it off, is to leave it right on the wood. Get a large platter or tray, and then use a spatula to transfer the board from the grill  to your tray. Be careful because the wood will be hot, and parts may still be smoldering. Use a spray bottle if necessary, but be careful not to wet the fish. Once on the tray, transport inside, and serve portions right on the board, or plate them for a more sophisticated presentation.

What If It’s Salmon

For whatever reason, it’s probably the most common fish that gets cooked this way, but you can pretty much grill any seafood with the same technique. It even works for chicken, beef, vegetables and other stuff too. The only variation from the method above would be placement and seasoning, but cooking technique would be basically the same. Salmon steaks will often have the skin still on, so remember to season both sides, and then place the skin side down when grilling. When finished, you can use a spatula to sort of peel the salmon up to serve it, while leaving the skin still on the wood.

Instead of a wet marinade like we used above, most people with go with a more dry approach with salmon. A light sprinkling of salt and pepper may be all that you need, but you can certainly kick it up a notch by adding other herbs and spices too. You can even spread out fruit slices or vegetables to act as a bed for the fish, and it will add moisture and flavor to the end result. Because salmon is often quite thick, it may finish cooking without cooking enough on the outside to suit your tastes. If this is the case, just pop it in the broiler for the finishing touches. The resulting fillets are just so moist, so tender and so deliciously fragrant, all infused with that delicate sweet and smoky aroma.

Reuse The Plank

Most can be used at least twice, and you can usually get three or four uses from a single board if you try, and you cook off the flame. If it’s not too charred on the bottom, just wash it to clean off any food, and then dry and store for later use. Once it becomes useless, you can recycle the wood for use in your BBQ or fireplace, and if broken into smaller pieces it can even be used as mulch. If you do decide to toss the plank after cooking, make sure it is totally extinguished prior to throwing it in the garbage.  If you submerge it in water, or hold it under the faucet, you can be pretty confident it won’t cause trouble.

Other Options

If you don’t care about the smoky taste caused by the wood, but you just want to stop fish from sticking and improve results when grilling delicate foods, you may want to check out our BBQ Grilling Mats. They are basically a non-stick sheet that you can place over the metal grate to give yourself a large flat surface to cook on. Nothing will ever stick to it, and it will retain juices and marinades right next to the food, so increased flavor, and improved results are easy to achieve. It can be used over and over again, so you won’t have to replace it like you do with wood. Just hand wash, or place it in the dishwasher for cleaning. They come in a a large thin sheet, but they can be cut to size for smaller grills, or used in tandem for larger operations. They are great for grilling seafood, and you actually still get grill marks through the material. Because they turn your barbecue into a big skillet, you can also cook weird stuff like eggs, pancakes and stir fry, and have it take on a robust, off-the-grill taste.

Often considered impossible, or only for professionals, cooking fish on a cedar plank is actually quite easy. It’s almost impossible to ruin the results, and the incredible flavor is unmatched by any other cooking method. Don’t head out to a restaurant the next time you’re craving a gourmet fish dinner. Use the same technique that’s been used for generations to ensure tender meat and bold flavor. It will still look fancy and impossible to friends and family, so impress them with your new found knowledge, or just treat yourself to the best tasting fish you’ve had in a while.

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