In summer months (also known as salmon season here in Seattle), I make this planked salmon about once a week. Before I moved to Seattle in the 1990s, I’d never heard of cooking on a plank, and frankly, it sounded like a strange concept. But then, I’d also never been hiking in the mountains, seen Orca whales in the wild and certainly never laid eyes on a geoduck.
History of Planked Salmon
Most culinary historians I’ve talk to agree that Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest widely used the technique of cooking freshly caught fish on or attached to wood planks set on the edges of open fires. This legacy is one reason it’s popular in the Northwest.
However, if you read up on the history of European cuisine, plank cooking is noted as a Scandinavian technique used by Vikings as far back as 12th Century. It’s plausible that both populations (and others) developed the technique separately. After all, if you’re out fishing in the wild, there’s generally plenty of wood around, and cooking fish on a roaring fire designed to provide heat cold humans isn’t exactly the best means to cook delicate fish. Attaching fish to a plank next to the fire makes sense. Later, putting it over the fire seems like a logical extension. (Genetically, according to my DNA, I’m about 38% Swedish, so perhaps that’s why I gravitate toward this cooking technique.)
To me, a perfect summer day in Seattle starts with an early morning visit to Pike Place Market, the city’s massive historic waterfront market. The crowds don’t move in until around 11 a.m. and by then, I’ve been to Pure Foods Seafood Market, hit Sosio’s Produce, picked up some flowers and I’m back at home.
I’m a Fisherman’s Daughter
As a kid, I didn’t know that you could buy fish at a store. This was back before supermarkets felt compelled to offer everything from deli meat to sushi. Our local supermarket chain in Davison didn’t have a fish counter; the closest they came to seafood were the fish sticks in the frozen food aisle, a product that I never consumed outside of a school lunch.
That’s because my dad was a fisherman. He used to say that they deducted time in heaven that you’d spent fishing on earth, or something like that. Seasons were no obstacle. No matter the weather, we dragged our aluminum fishing boat behind our station wagon from to some lake in search of fish.
In spring, we huddled together under umbrellas in cold, pouring rain. In the summer, we fished until everyone was thoroughly sunburned. Winter brought ice fishing, with the family shivering together, staring at their lines dropped below the hole cut in the ice. For all of that, we had the great reward of fresh-from-the-water fish.
As my brothers got older and developed social lives and jobs, they fished less often. By her late teens, my sister chose never to fish, but instead lay across the stern of the boat in her bikini, trying to get tan. Eventually, we moved to Florida and that left just me and my dad and our two poles at the Rod n’ Reel pier together, chatting and fishing, staring at the warm, green water. My father had some odd power of fish; even when the fish weren’t biting, he always caught something.
So when I go to the market now and I see the parade of all the fish, once exotic and new, I think of those days with my dad, and how I used to look into the water, wondering how all those fish breathed down there.
Yesterday, I picked out a nice hunk of fresh Alaskan salmon and cooked it my favorite way, on a plank of wood over a hot fire. I like a bit of spice with everything, so I tend to put together a mix of Cajun spice and Italian herbs, but you can use whatever you like, even just salt, pepper and a bit of lemon. I also love the Seattle Salmon Rub from World Spice Merchants in Pike Place Market. I paired it with lemon risotto and simple sautéed fiddlehead greens. For the risotto, start with this recipe. At the end, add about 2 teaspoons lemon zest and 1/3 cup of fresh lemon juice plus a tablespoons of butter toward the end cooking. A couple tablespoons chopped parsley is a nice finish.
How to Make Spicy Planked Salmon
If you’ve never cooked planked salmon or any fish on a plank, give it a try, especially if you’re uneasy about grilling fish. This method slows down the cooking of the fish, making it less likely to overcook. The main benefit to cooking on a plank is that it gives the fish a lovely smoked flavor. Most grocery stores carry planks now, or you can order online for less than $2 each [affiliate link].
You can read all about planking fish here, but here’s the short version. Be sure to soak the plank or planks in water for at least an hour before grilling to avoid having them catch on fire. Lightly brush the plank with a bit of oil, put the fish on top, sprinkle on the seasonings. I keep a spray bottle of water handy just in case the edges alight. Keep the lid on for as long as possible. Have a pair of tongs and a metal baking tray handy so that you can easily remove the fish from the grill when it’s done.
In the Northwest, it’s most common to cook cedar planked salmon, and cedar is definitely the most economical as its the most available retail wise. The truth is the wood only imparts a hint of flavor, so I haven’t noticed much difference between cedar and alderwood planks.
My dad died when I was 13. I never got a chance to show him all those fish at Pike Place Market. He would have loved it. An Indian friend told me that she was raised to believe the first bite of any meal is meant for God. Whenever I eat fish, I always think, this first bite is for my dad.
Recipe: Spicy Planked Salmon
- About 1 lb. halibut salmon or any dense white fish
- 1/4 cup of olive oil
- 1 teaspoon mixed Cajun spices
- 1 teaspoons mixed Italian herbs
- Juice of 1/2 lemon about 2 tablespoons
- 3 garlic cloves minced
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
- Ground black
- 2 to 3 slices lemon
- Soak the planks in water for at least one hour. Prepare the coals. When ready, lightly dry the plank. Brush one side of the fish with a generous coat of olive oil; if the fish has the skin attached, oil that side. Place the fish oiled side down onto the platter. Sprinkle the top with Cajun spices, mixed Italian herbs, paprika and garlic over the top of the fish. Juice half the lemon, slice the other half thinly. Evenly sprinkle the fish with oil and lemon juice. Finish off with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Top with the sliced lemon.
- Put the plank on the metal rack over hot coals and cover. How long the fish takes to cook depends on the heat of your grill; at 350 degrees, it should take about eight to 10 minutes per pound. Fish is cooked when it’s hot in the center (about 145 degrees on a thermometer) and flakes easily with a fork at its thickest point. Take care not to overcook the fish. Serve hot, directly off the plank if desired.
Originally published April 20th, 2009; updated 27 May 2023. This page contains affiliate links.