I have read your column with great enthusiasm and interest over the last 10 years. I usually find it to be educational and helpful, and I had assumed well researched. Your planking story was a huge disappointment because you have many facts wrong and your research was lacking.
Oh, yeah? Well, I may be wrong, but so are you! My column has run for about eight years, not 10.
Seriously, I do welcome comments of all sorts from my readers. Yours is not the only reproof I received following my skeptical column about cooking salmon on a cedar plank. I said the wood added little or no flavor beyond that of its smoke when it chars, and I questioned whether the early Northwest Indians really did cook on planks, lacking as they did steel saws and lumber mills.
Here are some comments from readers who took me to task.
From the chairman of a university anthropology department: "Aboriginals . . . on the Northwest coast were making stone axes, mauls, adzes and wedges there by 4400 B.C. The mauls and wedges were used to split straight-grained cedar logs into planks, which they used for building houses and boats as well as (presumably) planking salmon. So while they didn't have lumber mills with band saws they were nevertheless able to make lots of cedar planks. Now I'll just have to try it [planking] myself."
From a chef: "I attended a multi-day seminar at the Smithsonian on fish and seafood. A wonderful presentation was given by a Native American from the Pacific Northwest about the 3-day salmon festival that is still held in various places by different tribes. . . .
"As for the salmon, it is prepared the same way it has been for millennia: Make a big fire, butterfly the salmon and make a cedar slat frame that can be held in the ground, vertically around the fire . . . . The women . . . move the apparatus to the correct heat, where you can hold your palm up to the fire for 5 seconds. The searing holds the juices inside and the salmon, when done, literally bursts with juices and flavor when it is punctured.
"You only steamed and smoked your fish. To do it correctly requires indirect heat (half of your grill). Cedar shingles work better and can be purchased at Home Depot ready to go (untreated bundle). Soak them, layer with sliced onions and lemon and top with dill, salt and pepper and put into a 450-degree or hotter grill. Roast at high temperature for 20 minutes or until done. If it has not created a crunchy crust, you cooked it at too low a temperature."
Well, sorry, folks, but I still must wonder whether the good flavor of planked salmon, done either way, isn't due to the high-temperature searing, rather than to the infusion of any unique "cedar chemicals" into the fish. The following Q&A, I believe, reinforces my position.
When purchasing cedar some years ago to line a closet shelf, I found that regular cedar (such as you probably bought at Home Depot) is not the same as "aromatic cedar." I had to go to a specialty lumber store in the Washington, D.C., area to find the aromatic kind. I wonder if the early Northwest Indians had an even more aromatic type of cedar that they used to plank their fish?
No, oddly enough it's the other way around; the Indians' wood was substantially less aromatic.
The USDA Forest Service's Tree List catalogues nine species whose common names include the word "cedar," only a few of which belong to the true cedar genus Cedrus. The aromatic Eastern Redcedar, actually a juniper tree, Juniperus virginiana, has the property of repelling clothes moths and has long been used in cedar chests and closet linings. But it doesn't grow west of the Rockies.
It is the Western Redcedar, Thuja plicata, also known as the Giant Arborvitae, native to the Pacific Northwest, that the Chinook and other Indian tribes used for dugout canoes, totem poles, woven bark clothing and, presumably, cooking planks. It does not have the pungent, moth-repelling scent at all. Maybe that's why young Native American women didn't have hope chests. (Or maybe not.) Thus, the "cedar" the Indians used wasn't the wood we may think it was, and they used it not as a flavoring agent but only as a way of propping the fish up at the right distance from a hot fire.
The bottom line: Grilling or baking on a "cedar" plank is a gimmick. But if you insist on buying wooden boards from "gourmet" cookware suppliers at anywhere from 20 to 60 bucks a throw, your self-esteem will require that you taste "cedar's unique, spicy, citrus-y flavor" in whatever you cook on them.
And you will hear tom-toms.
In a recent column, you mentioned that plain old table salt is the standard of measurement in baking recipes. However, several chefs and cookbook authors specify kosher salt or sea salt. Do I use the same amounts of these kinds?
No, I'm afraid they all measure out differently. A few years ago, before the nation's chefs broke out in a rash of irrational exuberance about sea salts, a teaspoon of salt meant a teaspoon of the only salt in most people's kitchens: salt-shaker or table salt -- most often that familiar blue, cylindrical canister that Pours When It Rains. It is still the standard of measurement. (And by the way, that little girl with the umbrella is now 91 years old.) But kosher salt is deliberately manufactured in coarser grains, to work better in the koshering process. Because its bigger crystals don't pack down as well into the measuring spoon, a teaspoon of kosher salt contains less actual salt than a teaspoon of table salt.
How much less? Many writers quote a single conversion factor, without knowing that the two major brands of kosher salt have different crystal sizes and therefore measure differently. For Morton's Kosher Salt, use about 11/2 times the amount stipulated in a recipe. For Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, use twice the stipulated amount. If a recipe specifies kosher salt without naming the brand, just turn your back to the stove and throw some over your shoulder. After all, seasoning should be adjusted to your taste in the final stages of cooking, and the amount of salt specified in a recipe is often just a suggestion.
What about measuring sea salts? Forget about it. Using them in cooking is pure foolishness, because their sole distinction is the size and shape of their crystals, and these disappear the moment they dissolve in the food. Sea salts are for sprinkling ad lib onto a finished dish to deliver crunch and bursts of flavor.
Robert L. Wolke (www.robertwolke.com) is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. His latest book is "What Einstein Told His Cook 2, the Sequel: Further Adventures in Kitchen Science" (W.W. Norton, 2005). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.