It’s easy to get frustrated with grilling seafood. The heat is hard to control, and the shrimp, fish or scallops come out rubbery. Or, you’ve over-amped on the smoke. Chefs around Seattle discovered a solution from the Northwest American Indians: Grill it on wooden planks. Your average non-Indian will respond, “Yeah, right, and the wood catches fire and you have ash.”  Well, not exactly.

It’s easy to get frustrated with grilling seafood. The heat is hard to control, and the shrimp, fish or scallops come out rubbery. Or, you’ve over-amped on the smoke.

Or you’ve cooked directly over the flames and get black outside, raw inside.

Chefs around Seattle discovered a solution from the Northwest American Indians: Grill it on wooden planks. Your average non-Indian will respond, “Yeah, right, and the wood catches fire and you have ash.”

Give the Indians credit. They figured this out centuries ago. You soak the plank in water for two hours. At best, it smokes.

The result is not what you’d think. The wood most often is cedar, maple or alder. Heated, it imparts a smoky aroma, but not as powerful as wood chips. It’s subtle, and that’s perfect for delicate seafood.

Plus, the plank insulates the seafood from the fire. This adds some to the cooking time, but it prevents overcooking.

The classic combo is wild salmon and cedar. This returns the fish to its roots, the sweet-smelling cedar forests of  Washington and Oregon.

Plank grilling was unheard of two years ago. Then Bobby Flay of the Food Network chanced upon it. It was an instant hit, starting in restaurants and expanding to backyard cooks.

If you order planked seafood in a restaurant, chances are it was oven-cooked at 400 degrees. That’s the beauty of the plank. It doesn’t need charcoal to impart a flavor.

Planks (they’re never called slabs or boards) have become common. At first, you had to craft your own, making sure your wood contained no pesticides or preservatives. If you buy wood at a lumber store, tell them what you’re doing with it.

The planks are 7.5-by-15-inches and an inch thick. They should be planed but not sanded. This will cook two fillets. The 6-inch ones are for individual servings.

Some cooks buy bundles of cedar shims at hardware stores. If they are untreated, they should work.

The safest plan is to buy them in stores selling kitchen or grilling gear. Planks have become a separate profit center for sellers of barbecue gear.

Pre-heating the plank is important. This helps make them non-stick.

Don’t put the plank over direct fire. Cook opposite to your gas jets or pile your charcoal in a corner of your grill and cook on the opposite side of the rack. You do not need to turn food cooked on planks.

Grilling planks most often are used in covered grills, but you can experiment with uncovered.  Keep a water-spray bottle handy, a required accessory for any grilling project. The plank may catch fire on the edges.

Here’s the planking drill:

- Soak the plank in water for two hours.

- Prepare the fire or heat your oven to 400 degrees.

- Wipe the water off the plank and oil one side. The oil will add flavor, so choose wisely. The favorite neutral oil is canola. Olive, peanut and nut oils impart different flavors. Some chefs use oil infused with garlic, thyme or dill.

- Pre-heat the plank on the grill rack, oil-side down. When you smell smoke, it’s ready.

- Turn over the heated plank. Slide the seafood onto it, skin side down.

- Cover and cook fish 7 minutes per inch of thickness. Shrimp and scallops will cook in about 5-8 minutes. Check often for doneness. The fish is done when it flakes with a fork. Shellfish is done when it turns bright white.

Notes: If using an oven, place the plank on a cookie sheet to catch drippings. The plank may be washed and reused a second time. Planks may be soaked in beer or wine for added flavor. Cut up expired planks and use next time as grilling chips.

PLANKED SEAFOOD GLAZE
(for 16 ounces of seafood)

1/4 cup fennel sprigs, dill greens or diced scallions
Dash of sea salt
Dash of freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon dijon mustard

Mix the above. Baste seafood before grilling.

PLANK SOURCES, MAKERS

Target.com
Amazon.com
Meijer
Discountgrillingplanks.com
Mainegrillingwoods.com

Notes: As grilling planks become more popular, more stores are offering them. Check in the store’s grill section. For a “gourmet” plank infused with various flavors including garlic, teriyaki, lemon and peper and margarita, check out http://smokindiablo.com

Kingsford, the charcoal people, makes a popular larger plank, two for $10.85.

THE ORIGINAL PLANK

Indians obviously lacked chain saws and board planers. Their grilling planks were rough-hewn slices of trees, bark included. You can make these yourself from a cut-down tree and modern tools. Apple and hickory are preferred. A fresh-cut plank will impart a stronger flavor than a dried one.

A close approximation of an original cooking plank comes from http://www.mainegrillingwoods.com/

These folks cut oval cedar slabs with the bark on and freeze in plastic bags for delivery. The planks are then packed in insulated shipping containers and delivered within 48 hours. An eight-pack is $40 with free shipping.

SMOKING WOODS

The best woods for planks and chips are from trees that retain their moisture after cutting. This makes fresh-cut trees preferred. The heartwood of hardwood make the best flavor.

Hickory is the classic smoker of the American South. Texans send bags of mesquite chips North, but they prefer apple, white oak and beechwood for their own cookers.

Wild cherry, sugar maple, red oak, ash and Eastern Alder are other choices. Do not use pine or other high-sap softwoods for chips or planks. These impart an off taste and will build build up creosote in your grill. They transfer high levels of phosphorus.

Wood chips are for charcoal and gas grills and provide a quick infusion of smoke, usually lasting 10 minutes or less. They are burned directly on charcoal or in smoker boxes on gas and electric grills.

Chunks are for charcoal grills only and may be used as a primary fuel source or as a smoker in single, water-soaked pieces. Chunks smoke longer than chips.

Planks work with gas or charcoal or in the oven. They provide the lightest-flavored smoking.

SMOKING PLANK, CHIP FLAVORS

Alder: delicate, for fish, poultry and pork, a plank favorite.
Apple: slightly sweet, fruity, for beef, poultry and ham.
Cherry: Slightly sweet, an all-purpose favorite.
Other fruitwoods: Slightly sweet, for most meats.
Hickory: Strong flavor hinting of bacon, the American favorite, all-purpose and a must for pork and ribs and cured-meat smoking.
Maple: One of the mildest of smokers, used for poultry, cheese and vegetables.
Mesquite: The Texan junk weed that they sell to Yankees, robust flavor tending towards turpentine, all-purpose.
Walnut: The strongest of the smokers, used with lighter chips to moderate intense flavor that borders on the bitter, do not use for planks.

The Repository