How to Grill on Cedar Planks

Ever wonder how pirates enjoyed sizzling pork chops on the open waters between thrilling maritime escapades of “Yeah, well, it’s ours now?” Unfortunately, plank grilling has nothing to do with offering plundered captives safety if they successfully grill a meal above circling sharks. The real deal is much simpler than balancing heat temperatures while an old board beneath your boots barely keeps you from a reluctant saltwater bath. Besides, Spanish galleons sell at a premium these days! Wouldn’t it be better if plank grilling was more, well, accessible?

Good news: it is! Unlike our salty sea fellows and their generous (if slanted) opinions on heirloom management, plank grilling calls for cooking the same meats and vegetables you know and love on, wait for it… wood planks. Remember every single time you’ve ever sat in a restaurant and listened yearningly for the telltale sizzle of entrees coming your way? Well, if you’ve ever done it plank-style, you’ll know the excellent impact that the right presentation can have.

But plank grilling isn’t just about making salmon filets utterly kill it on visual appeal. Not only is there an entire smorgasbord of flavorful grill plank options beyond the classic cedar choice, but there’s an entire science behind squeezing the most out of the art. From delicious wood pairings to appropriate maintenance and sourcing, we’ve sat down with the famed Chef Kenneth Temple to pull back the sail — we mean, veil — on this misunderstood style of grill mastery.

Kenneth's Cedar Plank Salmon on a plate

What is Plank Grilling?

Plank grilling falls neatly under “simple to learn, hard to master.” For the highest-level overview, what you’d do is set up your grill for indirect heat, preheat it to temperature, then plate your meat over a specialty wooden board and put it to work grilling. There are a number of benefits to doing this (and we’re about to cover them), by what not take a quick detour through the more common legendary pairings?

  • Cedar Plank Salmon

    Simon & Garfunkel. Hall & Oates. Jack Black and Kyle Gass. Cedar planks and salmon. All iconic power duos. (And the steamy sizzle of that last one is equally music to our ears.) Cedar plank salmon is where most folks first witnessed plank grilling in action, and it’s a delicious spin on the dish. To give credit where it’s due, we all owe cedar wood smoking (and alder, another great choice) to northwestern Native Americans. For centuries, they tied fresh-caught fish and game to large western red cedar or altar planks around open fires, residually cooking the meat into incredibly tender, delicious, and smoky grub. There, a quick culinary trivia lesson. Think of us when you win that next pub quiz.

    View Plank Smoked Salmon Recipe with Sage Lemon Butter Sauce

  • Outset Cedar Planks with Salmon

Hickory Plank Ribeyes

Hickory plank grilling treats red meat just right. There’s something about a great hunk of grilled cow served on a hunk of singed wood (food-safe, of course) that just bellows to the open range mentality, no? Ignoring, of course, the open range’s resounding lack of trees. Invoke your inner herd-wrangler with a bold, boastful flavor of hickory smoke wafting across the juiciest, meatiest ribeye steak this side of a Western flick. Is it your lucky day? Plunk yourself down to a hickory plank steak and find out.

Cherry Plank Chicken Thighs

From henhouse to hot grill, the entire chicken species collectively has one iconic hobby: being difficult. Chicken loves drying out in a heartbeat in flame-kissed conditions, and cherry wood planks love denying the raucous birds that final vengeance. They keep the meat hydrated with steam, infuse it with a fruity smoky flavor, and often impart a fantastic light mahogany bark fitting for any dish. And to think, they were pterodactyls once! Well, that’s what they get for trying to taking us on our own turf — the ground.

Maple Plank Pork Chops

Pterodactyls Chicken doesn’t have a monopoly on meats overly fond on dehydration. When it comes to grilling pork, it takes a page from its feathered distant cousin and tries to dry out like nobody’s business. Slap that hunk of hog on a maple plank, and you’ll bathe it with balmy steam vapor while complementing its porky palette with sweet, smoky flavor. Best part? You don’t even have to book Canadian travel to get your mitts on maple planks. Wage your private vendetta against your local pig population, right from the comfort of America.

Benefits of Plank Grilling

Merely fighting the plated powers that be, one chunk of cherry wood at a time? Not so! Sizzling and serving a prime piece of grilled meat on a wooden plank isn’t just for show (but it can be, if that’s your thing). From enjoying juicier fish to fewer flaking failures, we see plenty of perks for primal plating over the grill.

  • Fewer Dried Meats

    One of the biggest issues for grilling delicate meats is keeping them juicy while hitting those safe internal temperatures. With ample steam and a degree of separation, and you'll find thermodynamics will start playing much nicer with your meats.

  • Infuse New Flavors

    Did you know that water isn’t the only fluid that steams under heat? Next time you bite into chicken and think, “Wow, if only this tasted more like apple juice, or my favorite beer,” consider that you can soak your planks in those things.

  • Forget the Flip

    If you’ve grilled fish before, you’ll be familiar with the turning point before that dish becomes disaster — the flip, where the sizzle fizzles into a flaky fiasco. Grilling on food-safe wood makes the whole problem walk the plank.

  • Fine Presentation

    …Now, if you really do want to just serve that fish with flourish, few things scream “You folks are real lucky I don’t start demanding tribute” like wood plank grilling. The aesthetic can even cater to all decors, from the rugged to the refined.

Best Woods for Plank Grilling

Cedar plank salmon might command the attention of fish grillers everywhere, but that’s not really where the story ends. For starters: you can plank grill more than rich, pink fish! It gets better: there are seemingly as many grill plank wood varieties as there are cattle in your nearest steak factory — and all of them are prepared to reel back and punch powerful flavor profiles straight into your grub. (Planks, that is. Not cattle. The cattle will have different reasons to throw punches in your outdoor kitchen, and we doubt they’ll be aiming for the food.)

  • Alder Plank Grilling

    Knowing less is more, Alder wood smoke is the wisened old martial arts master of smoke. Its delicate, subtly sweet smoke pairs fantastically with fish, such as bass or salmon. The hint of vanilla grants vegetarian options extra depth without overwhelming their own distinct flavors. Smoke on, smoke off!

    • White fish

    • Vegetables

    • Fruit

  • Cedar Plank Grilling

    Iconically ambitious. Chronically delicious. Noted for its famous spicy, sweet taste, the cedar plank is a classic but tricky option. Note that only one cedar blend is both safe and flavorful: western red cedar. At worst, other varieties are poisonous; at best, they’re flavorless.

    • Salmon

    • Flavorful vegetables

    • Soft, rinded cheeses

  • Hickory Plank Grilling

    As Chef Kenneth Temple says: “Hickory. Hickory, hickory, hickory!” With a flavor comparable to bacon, hickory wood smoke stays classic because it’s rich, darkens smoked meats, and effectively makes everything taste bacon-wrapped. Just don’t overdo the smoke: it can get bitter fast!

    • Beef and lamb

    • Wild game

    • Pork

  • Cherry Plank Grilling

    Cherry wood smoke in a nutshell: take the sweetness of maple, make it as versatile as hickory while as subtle and delicate as alder. Light and sweet, great on practically every meat — and often provides a rich mahogany color. It even blends well with other fruit woods!

    • Poultry

    • Beef and pork

    • Vegetables

  • Maple Plank Grilling

    Maple wood smoke takes one look under your grill hood and asks, “Oh, sure, great grub and all. Here’s a thought: why not infuse it with smooth, syrupy sweetness?” For your vegetarian dishes, poultry, and especially ham, here’s one of your better woods for sweetening the pot.

    • Vegetables

    • Ham and bacon

    • Poultry

  • Red Oak Plank Grilling

    If hickory’s too strong for your tastes, try out Red oak wood smoke! For inspiration, use it for beef briskets, pork ribs, and steaks of all sorts. Note that there are two distinct varieties: southern red oak is the richer choice, while northern red oak is milder by far.

    • Beef and pork

    • White fish

    • Wild game

How to Grill With Cedar Planks

By now, you’re probably wondering if we would ever get around to actually explaining how to actually grill on wood planks. Let’s reward your patience with an exhilarating spin on a seemingly modest art: now you, too, can go about taunting the very laws of thermodynamics, cooking your food straight through an ordinarily combustible surface. Much like attaching any of our best boat grills to your vessel and parading around fire over the open water (now, there’s an idea), we here at BBQGuys believe grilling can be a wonderful form of mad science. We just make our mad science delicious.

Soak Your Planks

Soaking your grill planks isn’t optional, and we know three excellent reasons why. Firstly, a quick science lesson: what might a dry, flat piece of wood might do when resting on a high-heat surface? While waging your war against combustion itself, why not adopt a flavorful solution like juice, wine, or beer? Plus, the steam from the soaked wood will help cook and moisturize your meat while imbuing delicious smoky flavor. For these reasons and more, embrace soaking those thirsty planks — even if you’re otherwise willing to commit treasonous acts of meat mayhem to spite your own guests.

But how long should you soak them for? It really depends on who you ask, but we recommend at least half an hour. That gives your wood time to drink up some of that greatness through its pores, all while embracing a film of liquid tension that will provide the first line of defense against the tyranny of the fire beneath. The wood won’t exactly sponge up the water (otherwise, we’d still be stuck as a civilization trying to work out “the raft”), but all you need is just enough to repel most of those hungry, licking flames.

  • Prepare Indirect Heating

    Unless you’re the type to handle delicate things with a baseball bat, you’re probably aware that cooking fragile food requires extra care. That’s why indirect cooking methods are so vital to the entire “planks, meet fire” situation — let alone gentler food on those planks, such as fish. Indirect heat swaps out the volatility of crackling flames for the calmer heat of what’s effectively a really nice convection oven. Although radiant and conductive heat are reluctant to leave entirely, this wipes out the appealing, blackened lines typical to the grill hood experience. That’s the trade-off you take when you make your grub walk the plank. No sear marks — but no scorch marks, either.

  • Multi Zone Grilling Illustrated

Stage Your Planks

The grilling itself is luckily about as straightforward as it comes. While one side of the grill heats to perfection and the other lazily basks in the warmth, stage your planks with your proteins of choice. Crucially, keep your boards divided by meats and vegetables — grill planks have a long memory, and crossing over food items between cookouts will carry hints of their flavors. (Quick note: in this case, “vegetables” is the full category. Your plank won’t penalize you for mixing mushrooms with onions.)

Notice that we didn’t say “preheat the planks.” Some seem to swear by the practice, but it accomplishes less than you’d think. With that said, here are two exceptions: you’ve stored your planks in the freezer and forgotten to take them out early enough, or you’ve decided to go for that extra charred taste and want to slightly blacken the board before the main course begins. Sure, you can do that, but that calls for watching the planks even more like a hawk and replacing them a lot quicker than otherwise necessary.

Get to Grilling

Once you’ve made it this far, all the major choices have been made and you’re ready to bring it all home. Keep a squirt bottle of water nearby to spritz out flare-ups or any light burning on the edges while you grill on cedar planks (or whichever flavor you picked). Stay glued to your grill as much as possible, and keep that hood down as often as you can. Follow your recipe’s general cook times and, if it doesn’t call for plank grilling, add a few more minutes to account for that new gap between your grub and the grill grates.

We’ll go ahead and say it again: you’re cooking on flammable wood in an environment specifically designed to make fire happen. From a culinary perspective, the result will be a rewarding experience for both griller and guests, but it is a glutton for attention and can certainly act up when ignored. Respect the fire and be prepared to put it in its place if it decides to steal the show. Trust us, it’s worth it — keep a leg to stand on, and plank grilling will hook you. Oh, thought we forgot about the pirate thing, did you?

Maintaining Cedar Planks for Grilling

Before we let you go, there are a few tricks to squeezing the most out of your best wood planks for grilling. For a couple of parting pointers, here’s how you can maintain those grilling planks beyond your next cook — and some common questions answered after, such as what to do with them when they finally blacken too far.

  • Reusing Wood Planks

    You can absolutely reuse wood planks, with a few caveats. For starters, this isn’t your regular wooden cutting board: when you clean the plank, wipe it down with water and water alone. (Let soap near that board’s thirsty pores, and you’ll add a new flavor profile to every forthcoming meal — “antibacterial.”) Any juices will have the same effect; you’ll need to keep your boards separated by meat, unless you like your chicken on the fishy side, or a pork taste hanging around your asparagus.

  • Cleaning Wood Planks

    Clean your planks by scrubbing them down with a scouring pad and plain water before letting them dry completely. If you run into stubborn food debris or lingering char, lightly sand the damaged region until the discoloration is closer to your satisfaction. As far as food safety goes, the high heat in use will kill off bacteria and sanitize the board. But, if you’re willing to hang around the grill a while longer, you could always keep an eye on the planks over a clean, high-heat section of the grill grates.

  • Storing Grilling Planks

    We strongly suggest storing your grill planks in the freezer when out of service. Not only will that keep them safe and sound from use to use, but it’ll vastly help minimize the dangers of developing bacteria between culinary adventures. Invigorating conversation, compelling memories with new friends, and exotic flavor experimentations are the sorts of cultural growth we want you to experience — not, you know, salmonella.

Cedar Plank Salmon with Creole sauce

Cedar Plank Grilling FAQ

  • What Can I Cook on Wood Planks?

    While cedar plank salmon grilling is the most common combination, followed by other fish in general, wood plan grilling works for nearly any protein or vegetable. But bear in mind that you shouldn’t swap protein categories — keep the boards separated. Grilling fish on a plank? Now that’s your fish plank. Whipping up plank grilled vegetables? Don’t cook pork on that board later.

  • Where Can I Buy Wood Planks?

    Enjoy the wondrous marvels of shopping for wood planks at many seafood aisles, specialty kitchen locales, and online stores. (Hey, wait a minute — we’re an online store!) You’ll occasionally see some food-grade wood planks available at hardware stores, but we don’t recommend this: not only will the selection be pretty sparse, but most certified manufacturers won’t want any grillers mixing up their products with the guys who outfit fence renovations. Why not? Well, you’ll want to keep reading…

    View Wood Planks

  • Can I Use Scrap or Building Wood Instead?

    Don’t use construction wood for plank grilling under any circumstances, unless you’re a big fan of substances and additives that will wreak relative mayhem over open fire. Best case scenario, your food will come out tasting strange; worst case, you start jeopardizing your guests’ safety. Good rule of thumb here: if “assembling a deck” or “building a bookcase” falls under the purview of the wood you want to use, get different wood.

  • Won't the Wood Plank Catch Fire?

    Minimize burning your wood planks by consistently doing three things: using indirect cooking, soaking your boards beforehand, and grilling for an appropriate length of time. With that said, it’s not infrequent that the edges of your board will singe or catch a light flame near the end of your cooking session. Think of your cast iron cookware — you just happen to be seasoning your grill planks with a blackened rim!

  • What If My Wood Plank Chars Through?

    If most of your wood plank has been compromised by the high heat, we’ll be the first to congratulate you on your new wood chunks. Break the board apart before your next grill session, then memorialize your plank pal with a Viking funeral pyre fit for any charred champion while you break in the next one! As tiny smoke Valkyries descend to whisk away the fragments of your beloved board, know that it will soon rest in Valhalla — where it shall live a glorious afterlife full of smoked meat, mead, and roaring tales of proteins conquered.