Summer grilling: Cedar Plank Salmon
Salmon has quite a reputation. Ask anyone and they'll likely have very strong feelings about it, love it or hate it. Most Americans have doubtless had plenty of salmon in their lives, and likely the bulk of it has been low-quality fish that is way overcooked. This was my experience with salmon as a youth––when I did finally start eating fish in high school, I was able to participate in the nearly-weekly salmon grilling that my dad did. Unfortunately, as good of a cook as he was, the salmon was often just that––lower-quality fish cooked too hard. For that reason, I didn't really like or seek out salmon for a long while. I still avoid ordering it at most everyday-type restaurants, because it is a fish that most people have little idea how to approach.
In the years since, I have learned to absolutely LOVE salmon. Not just any salmon, of course, but salmon that is of excellent quality and cooked masterfully. A sommelier friend of mine once called salmon "the ribeye of the sea" because of its melty, oily character when cooked perfectly. Despite the restaurant industry largely shunning the fish, some chefs, like Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin, are still giving the humble salmon a glorious, proper treatment at the most storied temples of fine dining. And of course, a piece of salmon belly nigiri at a sushi omakase will always be one of my most-anticipated bites.
For me, there are three keys to exquisite salmon: getting the best fish possible and knowing the different types; cooking it perfectly; and choosing a fantastic marinade.
I find that most are aware that there are different types of salmon, but few know how each type differs. Here's a bit of a breakdown of what you can usually find at your local store:
1) King salmon, also called "Chinook" salmon, are Pacific salmon that are almost always caught wild. The fish are large, with a good amount of almost-creamy fat and have what many believe to be the best flavor. Because they are caught wild and prized, king salmon tend to be pricey. My favorite king salmon, and probably my favorite salmon in the world, is Ora King, which comes from New Zealand and is sustainably and humanely farmed in open pools on the ocean. Called "the wagyu of the ocean" by some, Ora King boasts exquisitely clean, flavorful texture and succulent marbling. You can find Ora King sometimes in local markets, or online through retailers like Fulton Fish Market.
2) Silver salmon, or "Coho" salmon, are also a wild Pacific variety. Because they swim further to spawn than their counterparts, the flesh tends to be firmer and less fatty than the king salmon, making it a less forgiving fish with which to cook. Coho is the salmon I cook with the least, since it's the most difficult to keep moist and has less fat than I like.
3) Sockeye salmon are smaller fish with dark, intensely-flavored flesh, and a fat content somewhere between king and Coho. Sockeye is also a wild Pacific Ocean fish, and a particular specialty of the Pacific Northwest (though all of these Pacific varieties can be found in abundance). For a stronger salmon flavor that holds up well to smoking, sockeye is a good choice.
4) Atlantic salmon is a catch-all term for salmon farmed in the waters of the Atlantic ocean. There is really only one species of this salmon, and almost all Atlantic salmon is farmed. Your generic salmon at the sad fish counter at the store where you'd never buy fish is Atlantic, but Atlantic salmon also has some superstars in its ranks that rival its expensive Pacific counterparts. In the Faroe Islands, a far-north Atlantic archipelago, they produce some of the most pristine, well-marbled salmon around, which to my mind rivals even Ora King; we get this salmon at our local food co-op. Scottish salmon also has an excellent reputation for clean, balanced flavor. Despite producing hordes of low-quality fish, if you know what to look for, Atlantic salmon can be just as fantastic as wild-caught Pacific salmon.
You may see other things that look like salmon, such as steelhead trout, in your market, and while these are also good fish, they're not technically salmon.
The thing that I find is that most people have no idea how to cook salmon. The FDA may come after me for this, but if you get fish of excellent quality, you do NOT have to cook it to the nines in order to make the food safe to eat. The best salmon is salmon that is just right on the precipice of being cooked through, so the fish flakes effortlessly, the flakes are large, and the flesh is magnificently tender and juicy. If you get those small, dry flakes that are a bit chewy, the fish has been cooked too long.
I have two favorite ways to cook salmon to ensure perfection, and both involve ambient rather than direct heat. Direct heat will make at least one part of the fish dry, even if the rest is excellent, while ambient heat ensures even cooking where moisture is maintained.
The first method is to cook in the oven at 375 for about 12–15 minutes, depending on the size and variety of the fish, until you can only just cut a flake from the center with a fork. The second, which is the subject of this post, is grilling the salmon on a cedar plank. Beyond infusing the salmon with a delightful, resinous but subtle smoke, the soaked cedar plank, which blocks the direct heat, is the perfect way to maintain the moisture of the salmon while also getting some of that "grill" flavor.
To prepare this magnificent thing, you'll first want to marinate the salmon for a while. You can certainly go with the classic olive oil/salt/pepper/lemon treatment, but I find the most mouthwatering salmon has been marinated or sat in a rub for some time before cooking. My favorite marinades are either chimichurri (surprise!) or some variation of sweet and salty, usually something with soy, honey, ginger, sesame, and/or chili. Many say remove the skin before cooking on the plank––I don't find it makes much of a difference, although crispy salmon skin separated from the fillet and broiled is a real treat.
You'll want to soak the cedar plank in water for an hour or two before you start cooking. This keeps the fish moist and also (mostly) prevents the plank from catching fire. I like to have a spray bottle handy to take care of any unexpected flare-ups from the plank.
Preheat the grill and then reduce to medium-high. Best temp for cedar plank salmon is somewhere just north of 400 degrees. Keep the lid closed as much as possible so that moisture and ambient heat can't escape. After about 15 minutes, you'll have the most perfect salmon you can imagine; just make sure to keep an eye on the interior, and pull it as soon as that big flake comes off easily.
My favorite part of a salmon fillet is the fatty belly at the thin end of the cut. Absolutely decadent.
Salmon is truly one of the great delicacies of the world, and so misunderstood! I encourage both of my loyal readers to try this "barely cooked" method with ambient heat, selecting the best fish you can find. You will NOT be disappointed! Go snag a cedar plank, and find some perfect cuts of wild king, Ora king, Faroe Islands, or Scottish salmon. Pair with fresh grilled veggies for a healthy summer meal.
Wine to cook by: Salmon sits in the space right between white and red wine, and either can be a good pairing depending on your preparation and the flavor profile of the dish. With creamier sauces, go for a fuller-bodied white, still with healthy acidity. With all things spicy, zesty, or Asian-inspired, whites like a Gewürztraminer are an excellent choice. And sometimes, a pinot noir is perfect with salmon, particularly when cooked on a smoky cedar plank. Give a bunch of flavors a try, and a bunch of wines to pair. I make salmon at least once weekly, so experiments abound!