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Barbecuing on a Wooden Board
By Rick Browne, Ph.B.
Grillin' University Professor at Large
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Okay, so you want to impress your next barbecue party? Wanna watch their mouths drop open and stay there when you serve up your barbecue dinner? Then grab a board and head to the grill—we’re plankin’ tonight.
Wood plank cooking—a technique that was probably stolen from the Native American way of cooking salmon and other fish—has suddenly become very popular with barbecuers from coast to coast. It is not only a dramatic way to cook but it keeps the food moist, adds a wonderful flavor, and is just a fun way to present dinner to your guests. Not only does the wood add a seasoned and unique taste and fragrance to the food, but it imbues a smoky flavor, is fast, and the food stays juicy right up until it’s put on plates.
First you need a plank (wooden board). The best wood to use is western cedar, with alder, hickory, maple, cherry, pecan and oak also popular. AVOID pine or other resinous woods, as the sap is acrid and bitter and will impart those tastes to the food. In California and other wine-producing areas of the country, people have been using oak staves from discarded wine barrels when available. Wood that has contained red wine offers up the best chance of any flavor being imparted to the food.
If you don’t want to visit a barbecue store, supermarket or don’t like to shop on the web, all is not lost. Just visit your local lumber yard ask for “construction grade, untreated wood” and have them cut planks 8”x12” or so (to easily fit on your grill) that are 1/2”-5/8” inch thick.
If you do like to surf the Internet there are several companies that sell wood planks for cooking. My favorite is Tasty Timbers, (tastytimbers.com). That site not only offers planks in three sizes (18”x7”x1” – 13”x7”x1” – and 9”x7”x1”), but also gives you information how to use them, and shares some fun and delicious recipes.
Their planks are inexpensive and are the “use once and throw away” kind, but there are several other companies who sell reusable planks, a process I DO NOT RECOMMEND. I’m concerned that the pores in the wood are a perfect bacteria breeding ground, and I find it difficult to believe that you can sanitize planks after cooking on the surface of the wood.
Wherever you get your plank make sure it’s “untreated” wood. Wood that’s treated has been soaked in chemicals, which don’t go well with food, and may in fact be poisonous.
WHAT TO COOK?
Okay, you’ve got the right kind of plank...now what do you cook? The answer: just about anything you can grill. But remember, the plank imparts a fairly heavy smoky taste so you don’t want to cook delicate foods on it that will be overpowered by the smoky flavor. Best bets are salmon or other firm fleshed fish, shrimp, clams & oysters, lobster, pork (tenderloin, chops and ribs), beef ribs or steaks, lamb, or chicken and turkey breasts or legs.
Since the plank can catch fire, or at least smolders heavily during cooking I don’t recommend items that require long cooking times (brisket, large roasts, etc.) since the food you’re cooking may well burn up along with the plank. Stick to filets, steaks, chops, tenderloins or other smaller cuts of meat, poultry and fish.