The first time I attempted to grill salmon over cedar wood, I overcooked the fish and set the plank on fire. (First item in the list of Things Not to Do During Your Dinner Party: accidentally ignite highly flammable objects.) This was the same evening I served mediocre pie and a weirdly sweet (but somehow still offensively salty) green beans dish to people I call good friends. (These friends are unfailingly polite, thankfully. I dearly appreciate their silence on the matter that evening.)
I’ve got the grill figured out now (indirect heat, aha!), and this is officially my new favorite way to prepare salmon. The cedar plank imparts a mellow, smoky-woodsy flavor, and the technique allows for gentler, even cooking (kind of a steam-grill-bake combo), making the most of salmon’s rich, silky texture.
Before I even got to that point, though, there was still the hurdle of figuring out what kind of fish to throw on the grill. Trying to buy sustainable seafood can be headache-inducing: overfishing, oil spills and other man-made disasters change the landscape (er, waterscape?) all the time, making it tricky for consumers to stay on top of things. Coho or King? Pacific or Atlantic? Wild-caught or farmed? Fortunately, the Monterey Bay Aquarium (a leader in marine conservation) has a searchable and up-to-date guide that simplifies the trip to the market. They even have a free app for smartphones and a sushi guide, both of which are super handy.
One more consideration before we leave the store: wild-caught salmon has considerably more health benefits. The omega-3 oils (and vibrant pinky-red color) of wild salmon come mostly from krill that they consume in the wild; farmed salmon are usually fed corn or soy, and don’t have the beneficial oils of their wild counterparts. Or the color, since farmed salmon is often dyed a darker, more eye-appealing shade of pink. Dyed. Seriously.
So. Now that we’ve got the fish and we’ve got the cooking method, I have a simple yogurt-dill sauce to share. A sparkly little accessory for salmon’s little black dress, if you will. (I don’t know if that image works very well, now that I think of it. I’m suddenly picturing a lady salmon in heels and a sheath dress. Or a ball gown made out of salmon fillets. Let’s never mind that, shall we?)
Dill and salmon are a classic pairing; dill’s brightness is a natural complement to the rich flavor and texture of the fish. The feathery herb is often used in its native Russia, and pops up often in Scandinavian and Eastern European cuisines, in which herring and other preserved fish prevail.
My grandmother Catherine often served chilled, poached salmon with a sprightly, creamy dill sauce for a simple summer brunch or supper. (I’d like to credit whomever came up with the idea, but all I have is my grandmother’s handwritten recipe card, and the trail goes cold after that.) In Catherine’s sauce, the tang of lemon juice and the distinct “green” sweetness of dill brighten a lush yogurt and mayonnaise base. It’s swoon-worthy, this dressing, and also wonderful on a baked potato or as a dip for crudité. (I’d eat that sauce on cereal was my mother’s recent assertion, and it’s only a mild exaggeration.)
Spread the velvety sauce all over overcooked fish and you can almost pretend your salmon was flawlessly prepared, and that nothing caught fire all evening. So thanks, yogurt-dill sauce, for that saving grace. Oh, and Caleb and Katie: I owe you lovely people another dinner.
- 1 1/2 lb salmon fillet, wild caught
- cedar plank
- salt and pepper
- yogurt dill sauce (recipe follows)
- lemon slices (optional)
In a clean kitchen sink, submerge and soak the cedar plank for 1-2 hours.
Remove any pinbones, if necessary, and season the fish with salt and pepper. Let salmon come to room temperature (10-15 minutes) while the grill preheats.
For gas grills: preheat grill on high, covered, for 10 minutes. Turn down to medium-high heat and turn off one burner (the middle one if you have three) for indirect heat. Place salmon (skin-side down) on the soaked plank and put over the off burner. Grill, covered, about 15-20 minutes, or until the salmon’s internal temperature reaches 135-140 degrees.
For charcoal grills: Preheat the charcoal until it’s ashy-grey. Remove the grill grate and snowplow the briquets to either side, leaving a blank space in the middle. Return the grate and place salmon (skin-side down) on the soaked plank and put in the center of the grill, away from the direct heat. Grill, covered, about 15-20 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 135-140 degrees.
For campfires: Loosely tent the soaked plank with heavy-duty tin foil. Place on portable campfire grate (or the built-in, heavy firepit grate, if there is one) away from the direct heat of the fire. Check after 15 minutes; Grill until internal temperature reaches 135-140 degrees. Burn the plank.
Serve with lemon slices and yogurt dill sauce.
- 1/3 C plain yogurt (preferably Greek-style)
- 1/3 C mayonnaise
- 2 T dried parsley
- 1 tsp grated shallots
- 1 tsp minced garlic
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- 1/4 tsp dried dill
- 1/8 tsp salt
Mix all ingredients and let rest to allow the flavors to merge. Adjust the salt and lemon juice to your taste. (Note that fresh herbs can be substituted; one tsp of dried herbs equals about a tablespoon of fresh.)