Introduction: How to Cook Campfire Planked Fish
I found a simple recipe for cooking a fish on a piece of wood propped up near a fire. It seemed ideal for my blog, so I jotted down the recipe:
- Meat (large fillets of fish, or whole cleaned fish)
- Bacon fat, or whole strips of bacon
- Lemon juice
- Seasoning (salt & pepper)
- Tack meat skin-side down to flat board
- Prop up board with meat attached near hot coals
- Brush meat with bacon fat as it broils
- Drip lemon juice and seasoning as meat begins to brown
- Fish is ready to eat when meat is flaky
Source: 500 Wild Game & Fish Recipes, 1985 Wisconsin Sportsman, Inc.
But I realized that this recipe demands testing before posting, if only for an authentic photo. And in testing I discovered that it's not entirely simple, and there are a few things I'll do differently next time.
First, here's how I did it:
Step 1: Start a Fire
I favor an "upside-down" fire. Begin with two or three large logs as the foundation of your fire. Lay smaller branches atop the logs, placing them cross-wise to the larger logs. The top layer should be even smaller sticks, perhaps finger-thick pieces.
Now, place some tinder on top of your three-tier fire layout and prepare a bunch of kindling, sticks about pencil thickness or less. The white puff in the center of the above photo is a cotton ball soaked in melted vaseline, making an excellent firestarter. Over the firestarter is a small pyramid of fine, dry bark and very thin (matchstick-size) pieces of wood.
Light the tinder or firestarter and carefully tend the flame, adding more kindling as the fire grows.
Once the fire is stable, with most of the kindling consumed and the flame beginning to embrace the lower tiers of the fire layout, you can go to Step 2.
Step 2: Prepare the Planked Fish
Obtain a piece of wood on which to attach your fish. I used one I bought at Fred Meyer. It's made by TrueFire Gourmet, and it's about 8 inches wide and 14 inches high, about 1/4-inch thick, made of cedar. I paid about $5 for two of them. But next time I'll try a piece of cedar fencing. I've got some planks that I salvaged from a summer project. They're about 3/4" thick, which should be fine, and I don't think they're treated with any sort of preservative. Cedar is naturally resistant to rot.
You certainly shouldn't feel constrained to buy special planks for grilling, and cedar is not necessarily the only or best sort of wood to use. Any sort of wood for which you'd use for a campfire should be fine. It needn't be a smooth plank either. A piece of a split log should work just as well.
The instructions that came with the TrueFire cedar grilling plank directed me to soak the plank for at least two hours. Other recommendations that I found indicate that the board can be soaked for longer, even overnight, and it needn't be plain water. You could use salt water, broth, beer, wine...anything with flavor.
Or, you can not soak the plank at all, which is what I did for this project. But be prepared to extinguish flames by having a cup of water nearby. When the plank catches fire, dribble water directly on the plank.
I whittled a few pegs out of wood and used them to tack my fillet to the board.
For additional flavor I planned to drape a thick piece of bacon over the fish. I also prepared a lemon for squeezing during the baking process. By this time I was ready for the final step.
Step 3: Bake the Fish
Place the plank near the fire and tend carefully, dribbling water over the plank when it catches fire, and moving the plank to take advantage of wind direction or fire temperature. I held my hand between the fish and the fire, and I could only stand the heat for about 5 seconds or so. This seemed to be the proper location for the plank, and I had to frequently change position as the fire consumed itself.
I flipped the plank vertically to even out the bake. I had to extinguish flames a couple of times. And I squeezed an entire lemon, cut into quarters, over the fish as it baked.
Note: The fish is pegged securely to the plank, and it does not need to be turned over. It will cook through without having to remove from the plank and re-peg.
And I made a critical error...I left the fire untended for about 10 minutes. I had an urgent household chore to take care of. When I returned, the bottom third of my planked fish had been entirely consumed by the fire.
Nonetheless, the fish tasted great. Wonderful smoky flavor, tangy lemon. A light sprinkle of salt and pepper perfected the dish.
Step 4: Next Time...
I'll definitely try this again, with the following changes:
- Instead of a commercially manufactured cedar plank, I'll try a piece of cedar fencing bought from the lumber yard.
- I will tend my planked fish more carefully to avoid burning it all up!
- I'll peg the top and bottom of the fish, as well as the bacon, so I can flip it easily, or even lean it sideways.
- I might consider soaking the plank and putting it directly over the hot coals, as if I were grilling it.