This easy technique is an easy way to add flavor to grilled salmon and other favorites.

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If you're looking for a new grill technique to impress your friends and family this season, look no further than plank grilling. Yes, putting a piece of wood on a grill may seem counterintuitive at first (get that fire extinguisher on stand-by!), but this technique has plenty of benefits and greatly expands your range of culinary grilling possibilities. Plus, it makes for a grand presentation when entertaining, but it's easy enough to do for any weeknight dinner.

salmon fillets cooking on cedar planks on grill
Credit: rez-art / Getty Images

What Is Plank Grilling?

This technique is exactly what it sounds like: You use a wooden plank as a base on which to grill your food. "They impart a subtle woodsy flavor with just a kiss of smoke when you use them on the grill," according to Rose Olson, communication specialist at Wildwood Grilling, a company that specializes in grilling planks and other tools. The most common types of woods used for grilling include cedar, cherry, hickory, maple, red oak, and alder. Although they behave the same on the grill, they impart different flavors into your food, Olson notes; for example, cedar boasts a "spicy and fragrant smoke flavor," which is often paired with salmon, vegetables, tofu, pork, and even soft cheeses (with a rind). Hickory, on the other hand, is "popular in smoking for its strong and bold flavor," she adds, so it's typically paired with bacon, wild game, beef, and lamb.

What Are the Benefits of Plank Grilling?

In addition to imparting a pleasant woodsy fragrance to your meal, plank grilling is beneficial because the planks "act as a barrier to the harsh, direct heat of cooking," says Olson. This can be especially helpful when preparing thinner or delicate ingredients that might otherwise fall through the grates, she notes. This heat barrier is also helpful when it comes to ingredients that are prone to drying out, such as chicken breasts or pork; "with a hot grill, the plank is able to keep these cuts super moist and flavorful, yet still allow you to achieve a crispy crust on the outside," she says.

Aside from contributing flavor, grilling planks are also a great option because they help keep your grill clean, reducing the need to scrape the grates later on. Additionally, from a nutritional standpoint, using cedar planks imparts a wonderful flavor to your food without the need for high-fat marinades and oils, notes Thomas Sedita, founder and CEO of Primal Grilling, which sells cedar grilling planks and other tools.

Another great aspect of plank grilling is the versatility; you can really use this technique to cook just about anything. Although ingredients like salmon are more commonly prepared this way, you can cook vegetables, more delicate fish, and even shellfish on planks. "The flavors meld perfectly and the gentle cooking process achieved maintains the integrity of these more delicate proteins," says Olson. Most importantly, you just want to "have fun experimenting with it," says Sedita.

Where to Buy Wood Planks for Grilling

Although you can find wood at your local hardware store, these are not considered food-safe and are often treated with chemicals or additives, according to Olson. You want to look for planks that are untreated, all natural, and sustainably sourced. The best option is to buy wood specifically sold as grilling planks, and you want to ensure the planks have been finished smoothly (so as to avoid any food splinters), recommends Sedita. Lastly, opt for products made in the U.S. or North America.

How to Use Wood Grilling Plants

First, you will want to soak your planks in order to minimize burning, so this requires some planning ahead. Experts suggest different timing here, so feel free to experiment on your own and see if you notice differences in flavor or flare-ups based on soaking timing, different types of wood, and different recipes. According to Sedita, wooden planks can soak up water at different rates, since "it's a natural piece of lumber and some areas are more porous than others." For his company's planks, he recommends soaking for two hours, but admits he has gotten away with just 30 minutes. In general, you want to give the planks enough time for "the wood to soak up enough water to produce a nice smoke that is needed to impart the flavor into your food without the board catching fire," he says. If you're really short on time, Olson notes that for her company's planks, you can get away with simply rinsing them thoroughly before adding your ingredients and grilling. After some testing, her company found that "planks that were soaked in hot water for 15 minutes imparted the most flavor" and that "it doesn't have to be a big arduous task of making sure the planks are soaked to perfection." Moral of the story? There's no one set rule here; just be sure to check the plank's label or instruction guide to find out if there's any company-specific recommendations.

In addition to soaking, you'll want to have a spray bottle full of water nearby, so you can easily spray flare-ups, suggests Olson. And to help reduce flare-ups from the get-go, it's best to completely cover the plank with your ingredients; not only does this minimize burning, but it maximizes the surface area of wood-to-food contact, ensuring you get the best bang for your buck flavor-wise, she says.

Can You Reuse Them?

Experts also have different opinions when it comes to reusing planks. Some companies, like Olson's, recommend discarding planks after each use (they come in packs of two or five planks). This is due to food safety concerns, as well as from a flavor standpoint (re-using the plank a second or third time "never tastes quite as good as the first," she says). Others, such as Sedita, say it's normal for him to get three uses out of one plank (his company's packs of five planks even come with "a natural burlap storage bag to keep your charred planks from dirtying your home). But this re-use comes with experience and expertise, as it's "all about adjusting your fire temperature to bring just enough heat to start smoking the planks, but without setting them aflame or burning them too fast" to the point at which they're unusable later. Again, it's always best to check the label or guide that comes with your product and follow those instructions.

When it's time to toss your planks, there are a few options for disposal. First, you can simply let them burn (if you're using a charcoal grill or have an outdoor fire going), Olson suggests. Alternatively, the planks can either be broken up and added to your compost bin, or, if the wood is still in good enough shape, you can repurpose planks into smaller wood pieces and utilize them like smoking chips, she adds.

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