Our spiritual connection to the fish of this region has sustained us for millennia. Sockeye or King salmon, with a hint of smoke, sweet and savory, honors the fish’s journey and nourishes our souls. We have countless ways to prepare our bounty, and this is one of my favorites.
For the Grill:
Cedar planks – these normally come in 2-4 packs, varied in size and found in your grocery store, typically in the meat department or in the kitchen utensil aisle. You can also buy them online. If you can only find small surface area planks and you have a larger fillet you can use two planks for cooking.
For the basting liquid:
1 stick unsalted butter (not sweet cream)
2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce or tamari sauce (preferably mild or dark soy – avoid sweet soy sauces like Kikkoman or Yoshidas)
1 heaping teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
3 to 4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons finely minced shallots
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ to 1 lemon juiced
For the fish:
Wild caught whole salmon, late spring and early summer, preferably sockeye (red) salmon or King salmon, filleted, but no need to scale.
Prep the cedar planks: Soak the planks in cold water for at least an hour. I immerse the planks in a clean sink and put a bowl full of water on top to keep the plank/s immersed fully. You can’t over soak the planks so if salmon prep takes longer that is okay.
Make the basting liquid: Combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan. Simmer over low heat for 10-12 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and slightly cool – the basting liquid should not be cool enough to set but spreadable for the fish.
Prep the Salmon: Gently rinse salmon fillets in cold water –pat dry with paper towel, handle with care! Remove belly bones and membrane if present using a sharp fillet knife, preserving as much belly meat as possible – the belly has the highest fat content and most decent flavor. Gently run your fingers about 2/3 up each fillet toward the top of the salmon and down the length to locate the pin bones. Pull the pin bones with a tweezer, gently and deliberately being careful not to damage the surrounding meat. This is optional – if you leave the bones in, a mention to guests will help them be prepared while they enjoy their meal. Rinse the prepared fillets again with cold water, blot dry with paper towel and lay on a cookie sheet.
Set aside at least ¼ of basting liquid. Brush the fillets liberally with the remaining basting liquid. A basting brush will transfer the sauce and bits of the garlic and shallot across the fillet. The baste will set and congeal on the fillet since it is cool.
Preheat the grill to 500 F
Place the planks on the clean, preheated grill and close the top. After 10-12 minutes you may hear the planks popping. Flip the planks and season the other side of the plank/s – about another 8-10 minutes.
Place the fillets directly on the pre-seasoned planks, lower the heat to 375 F and cover the grill. A spray water bottle is good to have on hand. The thickness and density of planks vary, and some may ignite in this process. A spritz from the spray bottle knocks down flames quickly.
Grill the fish, covered for 15-20 minutes depending on the thickness of the filets. At 10 -12 minutes baste the filets with the reserved liquid. Check at 15 minutes – if you see white emerging from the grain of the salmon (fat converting to albumen) the heat may have been too much, and you can pull and tent with foil to rest. Thicker filets are okay to leave longer if fat is emerging but lower heat slightly. If you don’t see the fat emerging cook through to a tender touch – a slight give but not firm. Remove on the planks and place on a serving platter. The lingering aroma of the planks adds to the experience.
Todd’s cook’s notes
Seasoning the planks: The directions on most of the cedar planks calls for pre-soaking and placing the salmon filet directly on the plank before placing on the grill for cooking. Following the manufacturer’s directions has never provided the scent of cedar in the salmon I expect, in fact I found, if the directions are followed, I wonder why you would use a plank in the first place as the flavor is not noticeably different from directly grilling a filet on the grill. After much exploration, the perfect balance comes from placing the planks alone on a preheated grill to start them smoking Indirect heat on a propane grill works extremely well – an open flame or charcoal grill works too but there must not be a direct flame below the planks.
Some other flavoring options:
I’ve explored, and enjoyed, some variations that include adding lemon slices, and/or onion slices to the fillets through the grilling process – it was delicious, but I always remember my mom’s words – “Don’t take away from the beauty of the salmon flavor…More is not always better!”