CEDAR PLANK GRILL A FISH!
Oily species of fish and smokiness go together like cookies and milk. I can think of no better way to cook a salmon than to grill it on a cedar plank. Salmon is not my favorite fish, so I prefer to use Arctic char or trout instead, but the flavor that cedar imparts is wonderful. This technique works well with halibut, mackerel, cobia, and sturgeon. It can also work well with a tuna steak if you don’t get too carried away. The amount of smoke flavor will vary depending on the level of indirect and direct heat. You can vary it from a subtle hint of smoke, all the way up to a smoky punch in the mouth. You can pair this technique with sweet glazes like honey or bold flavors like coffee, cayenne, or bacon. Here’s how:
Purchase a few cedar planks. I usually see them in packs of 2. They are usually about 5 inches by 12 inches by 1/4 inch thick. They are available at most grocery stores. Sometimes they are near the seafood section or near where they sell barbecue charcoal. If you want a ton of smoke on your fish, you can open them up immediately and get cooking. If you want to manage the smoke a bit, you should soak them in water for 1 to 4 hours. You’ll have to weigh them down with something to sink them under the water, or you can flip them occasionally. When using cedar planks, I usually cook fish with the skin on. They inevitably stick to the plank, and you might as well lose skin rather than meat. If you don’t have skin on the fish, coat the underside of the fish with a little olive oil to help reduce the sticking.
Season the fish however you like. Here is my favorite:
Heat an outdoor grill to medium high heat. Here is where you can vary the smoke. Since the plank shields the fish from the fire, you will basically be baking the fish on the grill, but the plank will burn, so there will be a substantial amount of smoke. You control the amount of smoke by how much you let the plank burn and how much you open and close the grill lid. To have a slight amount of smoke, place the fish in the center of the grill and reduce the heat to low on the center burner(s). Then turn the outer burners to high. Soaked planks will further reduce the smoke.
If you want maximum smoke, go with dry planks. Turn the burners under the planks to high and leave the others a bit lower. In this case, keep a spray bottle of water handy. You want the planks to char, but not get fully engulfed in flames. You will need to put them out occasionally at the end. Grills vary, but high heat will take 3-5 minutes to catch a plank on fire most of the time. Be conscious of safety and don’t let it get out of hand. If you are using dry planks, you shouldn’t walk away from them while they are cooking.
Remember that every time you open the lid, smoke escapes. If you want a lot of smokiness to permeate the fish, try not to look at it as it cooks. If you want less, open the lid several times during the cooking process. Cook times can be unpredictable, but it will be at least 25% longer than the cook time you would expect for grilling without the plank. So, if you normally would grill a piece of fish for 8 minutes, start checking it at 10 minutes. You don’t flip the fish on the plank, so all the cooking takes place on one side. That means that you can push on the top with your finger to test for doneness. The top of the fish cooks last, so as soon as this gets firm to your liking, pull it off. I like to use heavy duty tongs to grasp the plank and drag it onto a sheet pan with a very small amount of water in the bottom. You don’t want so much that your fish gets wet, but enough to put out the fire on the underside of the plank and stop the cooking process. Serve as quickly as possible.