Planking Secrets

Spring 2008 CSANews Issue 66  |  Posted date : May 24, 2008.Back to list

For several years now, I've loved to barbecue cedar-planked salmon.  Cedar-planked salmon offers delicious smoky flavours that harmonize extremely well with a big, fat Chardonnay that has been barrel-fermented and aged.

To prepare this dish, soak a cedar plank in water for about an hour.  Sprinkle it with rock or kosher salt.  Preheat and clean the grill.  Lay the plank on the grill and let it heat for about five minutes.  Next, season the salmon with salt and pepper, and then lay it, skin side down, on the salt.  Close the cover and smoke the fish for about 15 minutes.

Planking is a fun and easy culinary technique.  Planked foods offer an array of smoky flavours, depending on the wood used, and therefore harmonize nicely with a wide range of wines.  Choosing the appropriate wine depends on the item being planked and the variety of wood used.

I recently discovered a fabulous Canadian cookbook entitled Planking Secrets - How to Grill with Wooden Planks for Unbeatable Barbecue Flavor, written by Ron Shewchuk.  Shewchuk is also the bestselling author of Barbecue Secrets.

In his cookbook, Shewchuk points out that planking adds great flavour to foods, without all the mess, and helps to cook foods gently.  The charred plank topped with food also looks spectacular on the table and keeps meals low in fat.

While you can obtain precut planks in supermarkets, butcher shops and kitchen stores, I prefer to head to the nearest lumberyard and have a large, untreated cedar board cut into several planks.  When choosing planks, stay away from soft woods such as pine, spruce and fir, as they are too "resiny" and impart an unpleasant taste to the resulting food.

Shewchuk says that planking can be done on both charcoal and gas grills.  The beginner should experiment with the cedar plank, as it causes fewer flare-ups.  The ideal-sized plank, he says, is seven inches wide by 12 inches long and between 1/4 and 5/8-inches thick.  The plank must fit on your barbecue grill.

Shewchuk says that you should keep a few items on hand when planking, such as a fire extinguisher, spray bottle filled with water, tongs, spatula, a couple of cookie sheets, stainless-steel serving dish, meat thermometer, silicone basting brush and a drip pan.  The drip pan is useful when planking large fatty cuts, Shewchuk says.

Some of the best planks for barbecuing include cedar, apple, apricot or peach wood, alder, cherry, hickory, maple, oak and mesquite.  Each type of wood offers fabulous flavours to various ingredients.

And there's far more to plank than just flesh.  How about Plank-Baked Stuffed Potatoes?  Or Maple-Planked Butternut Squash Puree?  A range of fish, besides salmon, can be planked as well, such as bass, swordfish, trout, sea bass and whitefish.  Heavier meats that benefit from planking include hamburgers, chicken, beef and lamb.  In Planking Secrets, Shewchuk provides recipes for planking all sorts of foods, including cheese and fruit.

When pairing wine with your planked food, be sure to consider both the flavours imparted by the wood and the sauce being used.  Planking offers additional flavour and complexity to the food, thus demanding a wine, white or red, with some weight.  Stick to whites and reds with decant alcohol, about 13 to 14 per cent.  The higher the alcohol, the more viscosity or weight in the wine.

The greater the smoky flavour and added astringency from the plank, the more complexity you'll want in the wine.  Maple planks give food a smooth, sweet smell and work nicely with Riesling and Gewurztraminer.  If the dish has added sweetness in the sauce, choose these wines in their off-dry versions.

Cedar and alder planks complement salmon and pair well with barrel-fermented and/or aged Chardonnay.

Cherry adds lots of fruity, sweet and smoky flavour to poultry, lamb and game.  Reds with forward fruit character and soft tannin are an excellent match, such as Merlot, Shiraz and Zinfandel.

Oak planks are distinctive, providing a strong, dry, slightly astringent flavour.  Oak planks work best with beef and pair nicely with austere red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon.

When it's clean-up time, remember that planks cannot be reused, and are best tossed in the fireplace, Shewchuk says.

Here are a couple of Shewchuk's recipes with my matching wine notes to get you planking...

Cedar-Planked Salmon with Whiskey-Maple Glaze

Serves 6 to 8
1 cedar cooking plank, soaked overnight or for at least 1 hour
1/2 cup        125 mL    Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey
1 cup        250 mL    real maple syrup
1 tsp.         5 mL        crushed hot red chilies
1 tbsp.     15 mL        butter at room temperature
1 whole, boned fillet of wild salmon (about 3 lb/1.5 kg), skin on
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp.         5 mL        granulated onion (or onion powder)
2 lemons, halved
parsley sprigs for garnish
1 tbsp.     15 mL        finely chopped flat-leaf Italian parsley

Make the sauce by combining the whisky and maple syrup.  In a small saucepan, bring the mixture to a low boil and reduce by about half, until you have a thick syrup that coats the back of a spoon.  Add the chilies and butter and stir until just combined.  Set aside and keep warm on the stovetop.

Season the skinless side of the salmon with salt, pepper and granulated onion.  Let the salmon sit for 10 to 15 minutes at room temperature, until the rub is moistened.

While the salmon is sitting, preheat the grill on medium-high for 5 to 10 minutes or until the chamber temperature rises above 500 F (260 C).  Rinse the plank and place it on the cooking grate.  Cover the grill and heat the plank for 4 or 5 minutes, or until it starts to throw off a bit of smoke and crackles lightly.  Reduce the heat to medium-low.  Season the plank with kosher salt and place the salmon, skin side down, on the plank.

Cover the grill and cook for 15 to 20 minutes or until the fish has an internal temperature of 135 F (57 C).  Check periodically to make sure that the plank doesn't catch fire, and spray the burning edges with water if it does, making sure to close the lid afterwards.

When the salmon is done, squeeze half of the lemon along its length and carefully transfer to a platter.  Garnish with parsley sprigs and the remaining lemon cut into slices.  Bring the salmon to the table.  Drizzle with a spoonful of the sauce over each portion as you serve, and sprinkle with a little chopped parsley.

Suggested Wine:  Semi-Sweet Riesling

A Riesling with some sweetness will harmonize with the sweetness from the maple in the sauce.  The sweetness also adds some weight to the wine, thus giving it enough body to stand up to the cedar-planked flavour and fatty texture of salmon.

Beer-Can Chicken on a Plank

Serves 4 to 6
1 plank (hickory, oak and mesquite work well here, but cedar will also do), soaked overnight or for at least 1 hour
1 large, whole, free-range chicken (5 to 6 lb/2.2 to 2.7 kg)
3 tbsp.     45 mL        Championship Barbecue Rub (see recipe below)
1 12-oz    355 mL    can beer

Trim the excess fat from the bird.  Wash it under cold running water and pat it dry .  Sprinkle 1/3 of the rub inside the bird, and 1/3 on the outside.  Drink half of the beer and put the remaining rub in the can. (I'm not sure what this does, but that's what the recipe calls for.)

Preheat the grill on medium-high for 5 to 10 minutes or until the chamber temperature rises above 500 F (260 C).  Rinse the plank and place it on the cooking grate.  Cover the grate and heat the plank for 4 to 5 minutes, or until it starts to throw off a bit of smoke and crackles lightly.  Reduce the heat to low.
Shove the can inside the cavity of the chicken, taking care not to spill the beer.  Sit the chicken in the middle of the plank with its legs tucked in close to the can.  Cover the grill and cook for 1/2 to 2 hours or until the internal temperature at the thigh joint is 160 F (71 C).  Remove the chicken and transfer it, still with the beer can, onto a carving or serving platter.  Let it rest for 5 minutes, then carve it right off the can, as it were, and serve.

Championship Barbecue Rub

Makes 3 cups
1 cup        250 mL    white sugar
1/4 cup        50 mL        celery salt
1/4 cup        50 mL        garlic salt
1/4 cup        50 mL        onion salt
1/4 cup        50 mL        seasoning salt
1/3 cup    75 mL        chili powder
1/3 cup    75 mL        black pepper
1/3 cup    75 mL        paprika

To this basic rub, add as much heat as you want by using cayenne pepper, hot paprika or ground chipotles.  Then add two or three signature spices to suit whatever you're cooking, or to your personal taste, such as powdered thyme, oregano, cumin, sage, powdered ginger, etc.  Add only 1 to 3 tsp. (5 to 15 mL) of each signature seasoning so as not to overpower the rub.  Mix well, seal in an airtight container and store in a cool, dry place.

Suggested Wine:  Australian Shiraz

An Australian shiraz falls into the category of being a red wine with forward fruity character with soft tannin and astringency.  Because the wine is not overbearing with tannin, it can be paired with any dish highlighting gentle heat and spice.  The wine's soft tannin also does not interfere with the sweetness from the dry rub.


The longer you soak the plank, the more likely it is to warp on the grill.  This can affect the final presentation of your dish.

Place a clean brick on the plank when it first hits the grill to keep it from warping.

Sprinkle a layer of kosher salt on the plank before adding the food.  This helps to keep the food from sticking to the plank.

For larger cuts of meat, use multiple planks and lay them across the grill.

Use sauce sparingly when planking meat.  Use it to glaze only.  Too much sauce can overtake the subtle smoky flavours induced from planking.

*Planking Secrets by Ron Shewchuk (Whitecap Books, Vancouver), is available in bookstores throughout North America.,  ISBN # 1-55285-761-1