art, science, culture
Wood Planks for Cooking Salmon:
Cedar vs. Alder
Ever since I first noticed cedar planks being marketed as a “natural” and “traditional” method for cooking salmon, I wondered about the practice. First, I had never come across any suggestion that Northwest Coast Native/First Nation people used this method. Canadian anthropologist Hillary Stewart’s seminal book Cedar, which documents the literally hundreds of ways that cedar was used, from building materials to clothing to ways of cooking never mentions this idea.
Then, there was the question of putting cedar into a hot environment. I use cedar almost every day as kindling; it is unparalleled for this purpose, quickly catching fire and burning hot and fast. I wondered how one could keep it from igniting while on a grill or in the oven.
And there is the question of the aromatic oils in the wood. By some accounts they are toxic and should not be part of food. Even breathing the smoke is to be avoided according to some.
Still, people use planks to cook salmon (and other meats as well as vegetables) for four reasons:
First, there is the belief that it is a traditional way to prepare salmon.
Second, it adds a smokey flavor and unique aroma.
Third, it makes for a nice presentation of the food (fancy restaurants like to use them).
Fourth, it is supposed to maintain moisture, cook evenly and not require turning.
One could, of course, use any piece of wood. And indeed, many kinds are used, from hickory to cherry and apple to alder and cedar. Cedar is by far the most popular probably because it is the most available. On an online search I counted 40 different cedar plank products advertised. Prices range from $1 to as much as $12 per plank. Advertised alder planks came in second, with 32 products.
Most commercially available planks are intended to be used once and discarded. They are first soaked in water (or juice or wine or liquor) for 1 to 3 hours (some people recommend soaking it all night). This prevents the plank from bursting into flames. The salmon is placed on one side, the plank placed in an oven or on the grill (often raised above the grate), with the grill cover closed to hold heat and moisture. A meat thermometer is the best way to decide when it is done (reaching a minimum of 135 degrees in the middle). It might take 15 to 20 minutes.
Many people try to get a second (or even third or fourth) cooking out of the plank by cleaning it after each use.This is done by
cleaning the charred side, scraping or planing away the blackened wood,
cleaning the food side, using plain water plus a scouring pad (no soap, it can leave an undesirable flavor), and
putting it in oven at low temperature to dry.
When you want to use it again, soak plank in water or other liquid for 1-3 hours, and your ready.
Some people cut and chip the used plank and add it to the coals the next time the grill is used. This can add a smoky flavor to the food, and kind of reuse/recycling.
So, which is better, cedar or alder? Alder was the preferred wood for smoking fish by most Native American/First Nation people. One of my most used plant reference books, Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar and Mackinnon, summarizes plant use by indigenous peoples. They state red alder is “”considered to be the best possible fuel for smoking salmon and other fish”. If cedar was used, the salmon was boiled in tightly woven cedar baskets (where hot stones from the fire were inserted to bring the water to a boil). Or it was used to dry fish because, when seasoned, it burns hot with very little smoke.
Recent research has indicated that green alder leaves are high in antioxidents, and could be used to make a medicinal tea.
My neighbors, Joe and Joy Baisch, both experienced commercial cooks, make their own alder planks for cooking. The facts that cedar is considered toxic, was not used by indigenous people in this way, and its demand is really just a creation of product marketing caused them to look for an alternative. They chose green alder, a tree which is as available as cedar. They make some of the best planked salmon I have ever tasted.
I suggest those of you who like to cook with planks and are familiar with only cedar because it is so readily available, give alder a try. And if you ever have the chance to use green (freshly cut) alder planks don’t hesitate, they are the best.
Go to the comments page to share your experiences with planks and questions you may have.
DLK, Oct. 2018
Salmon As Food
What is the best tasting salmon?
Some people swear that Copper River sockeye is the best. Others would argue for wild kings or Chinook, maybe even one of the rare “white” kings of Alaska. Still others might say that wild ocean caught Coho is the best ... or kokanee from Kootenay Lake in British Columbia. A few might even argue for “organic” farmed salmon from Ireland or Kuterra from north Vancouver Island. There is no general agreement, nor even criteria for deciding what the best tasting salmon is.
Here are ten pretty good answers to this question.
The best tasting salmon is one you catch yourself.
The best tasting salmon is wild, not farmed.
The best tasting salmon is not too raw, not overdone, but cooked just right.
The best tasting salmon is the first fish of the season.
The best tasting salmon is cooked right by a river over an open wood fire.
The best tasting salmon is smoked the traditional way by a Native American.
The best tasting salmon is one which you eat with family and friends.
The best tasting salmon is cooked only with a little butter and touch of lemon, nothing else.
The best tasting salmon was the very first one you caught as a child fishing with your Dad or Mom.
The best tasting salmon would have been that world record King which somehow got away.
What do you think? Use the form below to agree with one of the above answers or provide your opinion.
And, send in your food related questions about salmon. We'll try to find the answers.
Joe Baisch of Elk Meadows Bed and Breakfast and Beyond with one of his premium green alder planks.