Chef John Howie Answers How To Choose The Perfect Wood For Plank Cooking

Chef John HowieA lot of beginners are confused by the sheer variety of wood available for plank cooking in the market. Cedar, Alder, Black Cherry, Sugar Maple, Hickory, Mesquite etc. — each with their own unique oils and aroma.

Since the food you cook on a plank will be in direct contact with the wood and picking up its flavor, finding the right plank for the right food is of utmost importance.

Over time, as you begin to experiment with different wood varieties, you will find some food-and-wood combos that are most suitable to your tastes. Until then, use these guidelines on how to choose planks to get you started:



Wood planks come in various geometric shapes like squares, ovals, circles and rectangles. If you intend to serve food on the plank at the table, there are individual portion-sized ones for your guests, and even some that have the tree bark attached on the side to add rusticity to the visual presentation.

As a general rule of thumb, go with the most common and all-purpose size – a 13”x7” rectangle. You’ll rarely go wrong with this one.

Ballpark thickness measure runs as follows:

• For large-sized foods (pork roasts, prime rubs etc.): use planks that are 1” in thickness or more, looking at a cooking time of 1-2 hours.

• For medium-sized foods (chicken, steaks, chops etc.): they typically need a cooking time of less than one hour, so you can use a ¾” plank.

• For small-sized foods (vegetables, desserts and quick foods like burgers and hot dogs): a ¼” thickness will be enough for a cooking time of 20-30 minutes.

DIY-ers with a good lumbering hand can cut their own planks, as long as they make sure to use untreated wood. Give it a proper sanding before using, to avoid getting injured from splinters.

Do not buy wood from a lumber yard and try to cut it yourself. That wood is meant to build houses and is usually treated with chemicals to make it fire and insect resistant. Look for blue-ish smoke; wet woods produce a grey-ish smoke. Also, do not use smoky softwoods like pine.



All types of wood have their own peculiar scents that transfer to the food as it is cooking. Some wood flavors are subtle while others have a lot more depth and complexity. The following pairings are tried and tested to maintain a good taste balance:

• Chicken or Pork: Medium woods like Pecan, Maple and Apple.

• Fish: Gentle-flavored woods like Cedar and Alder.

• Beef and Game Meats: Heavy wood flavors like Oak and Hickory.

Buy a variety of woods and start experimenting on your own, because food-wood pairings can be pretty subjective. The only rule here is to maintain equilibrium by using the wood oils to enhance food flavor instead of overpowering it.

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