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One dish rules after backyard salmon grill-off

The Salmon Grill-Off in Jim Kershner’s Spokane backyard tests three recipes: grilled marinated salmon, grilled salmon with citrus butter and cedar-planked salmon. (Adriana Janovich)
The Salmon Grill-Off in Jim Kershner’s Spokane backyard tests three recipes: grilled marinated salmon, grilled salmon with citrus butter and cedar-planked salmon. (Adriana Janovich)

The timing seemed just about perfect last week for a Salmon Grill-Off in our backyard.

For one thing, Copper River salmon (and other equally fine Alaska salmon) were showing up fresh in our supermarkets. For another, Father’s Day was approaching.

The connection? You cannot call yourself a true Northwest dad if you don’t know how to properly grill a salmon.

Yet grilling salmon can be a challenge. Many of us have embarrassed ourselves at an outdoor barbecue by turning a glistening red-orange slab of perfection into a tough, dry piece of charred flesh. Things can go wrong very quickly.

Our Salmon Grill-Off was intended to help all Northwest dads – and other grillers – attain salmon mastery.

We made three grilled salmon recipes – cedar-planked salmon, grilled salmon with citrus butter and marinated salmon – and then performed a taste test.

The results? There was one surprising winner – surprising to me at least. I’ll tell the winner below, but the best news was that all three were quite delicious, partly because we scrupulously observed the Cardinal Rule for Grilled Salmon:

Do NOT overcook it.

We can’t give any hard and fast time guidelines because every salmon fillet differs in thickness, and every grill varies in temperature. But we can say this: Take it off the fire a little before you think it’s done.

In many cases, the salmon will continue to cook just long enough to be perfect. If it truly is underdone, you can quickly remedy that problem by throwing it back on the grill for a few minutes.

Overdone, on the other hand, has no remedy. It makes even the best salmon taste fishy and unpleasant, like bad canned salmon.

To sum up: Salmon sushi is better than dry salmon cardboard.

A couple of other tips:

Preheat the grill thoroughly. A hot grate will cause less sticking and a hot fire will cook the fish quickly and give it less time to dry out.

Add a little bit of smoke. Throw a few fruit tree twigs or hardwood chips onto your charcoal. Smoke and salmon have gone together in the Northwest for at least 10,000 years.

Now, here’s a recap of the contenders in our Salmon Grill-Off (with recipes to follow below):

Grilled Marinated Salmon: I have been using this as my standby grilling recipe for at least a decade, and I assumed it would win hands-down. It is essentially a fillet of salmon marinated 1 to 3 hours in a salty-sweet mix of soy sauce and brown sugar. I learned it from The Spokesman-Review’s Outdoors Editor Rich Landers, who probably learned it from an Alaska grizzly bear.

It has a number of stellar attributes. The marinade firms up the flesh, which rehabilitates even a relatively soft piece of salmon. It also keeps the filet moist and adds a delicious sweet flavor. You might even describe it as salmon candy.

It’s easy to cook. You slap the filet down on the grill flesh side down for just a minute or two – just long enough to make grill marks. Then you flip it skin-side down and do the rest of the cooking from that side, with the lid closed. Don’t worry about the skin sticking to the grill or charring – it doesn’t matter. When it’s done, you just slip your spatula between the skin and the filet and lift the filet off to a platter. The semi-charred skin stays on the grill. When the grill cools you can pluck the skin off and toss it.

It is an excellent salmon recipe – but it placed third in our grill-off. That’s because we were cooking fresh Copper River salmon. The flesh certainly did not require firming up and the marinade just masked the fresh flavor.

I’ll still be using this recipe often, but not for high-quality fresh, wild salmon. I’ll use it during all of those other times of year, when I want to turn average salmon into something outstanding.

Grilled Salmon with Citrus Butter: This recipe, adapted from a recipe used by Ivar’s Salmon House in Seattle, turned out to be simple, delicious and ideal for Copper River sockeye.

The fish is sprinkled with lemon pepper and salt and then quickly grilled over hot coals with wood smoke.

It’s a classic Northwest recipe, with one added special touch: You baste the fish with citrus butter, which is melted butter mixed with orange, lemon and lime juice. The citrus tang, along with the sweet smell of alder smoke, is what makes the grilled salmon at Ivar’s Salmon House salmon such a Seattle favorite.

This came in a close second in our grill-off. It can be used with salmon fillets or steaks.

Cedar-Planked Salmon: I know this method has become very popular in the past 10 years, but until I compared it with the other contenders, I wasn’t sure exactly why.

Now I know. The plank gives off just enough smoke to infuse the fish with the sweet cedar scent of the Northwest forest. The tarragon rub adds a subtle flavor note and the apple-juice-mustard glaze keeps it moist.

For all of those reasons, this recipe won our grill-off by a near consensus,

I also recommend it as the best of the three grilling recipes for a more practical reason. The plank makes it harder to overcook your salmon. It shields the fish from the hot coals, and helps the fillet retain moisture. You never have to flip the fish. Nor do you have to worry about the fish sticking to the grill – you just sweep it right off the plank. No salmon-grilling recipe is foolproof, but this one comes close.

The only downside? You must have a cedar plank, preferably made just for grilling. But this is not a huge problem. The last time I was at my neighborhood supermarket, they had packages of planks on display exactly where they should be – right in front of the fresh salmon.

Cedar-Planked Salmon

Adapted from “Weber’s Smoke,” by Jamie Purviance

Cedar plank

1 salmon fillet with skin, about 1 1/2 pounds

1 teaspoon of kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon of black pepper

1/2 teaspoon of sugar

2 tablespoons of minced fresh tarragon leaves

1 tablespoon of minced scallion (white and light green parts only)

2/3 cup unsweetened apple juice

1 tablespoon of whole grain mustard

Soak untreated cedar plank in water for at least 1 hour.

To make the glaze: Boil the apple juice over high heat until it is reduced to about 3 tablespoons. Remove from the heat and stir in the mustard.

Combine salt, pepper, sugar, tarragon and scallions. Rub the mixture into the flesh side of the fillet.

Prepare a charcoal or gas grill for direct medium heat. Place the soaked cedar plank on the cooking grate and close the lid. When the plank begins to smoke and char, turn the plank over.

Place the fillet on the plank and cook with the lid closed. Brush it with the glaze after the first 10 minutes. Cook until the desired doneness, depending on the thickness of the fillet and the temperature of the fire. This could be 15 to 20 minutes, or it could be much less. Ours was done in about 12 minutes. Don’t overcook it.

Lift the entire plank off of the grill and put it on a heatproof surface. Serve directly off the plank or slide a spatula between the skin and flesh and transfer the fillets to a platter.

Yield: 4 servings.

Grilled Salmon with Citrus Butter

Adapted from “BBQ USA” by Steven Raichlen

4 pieces skinless salmon fillets, about 6 ounces each or 4 salmon steaks

Kosher or sea salt

Lemon pepper, such as Lawry’s Lemon Pepper

Wood chunks or chips

For the citrus butter:

1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter

3 tablespoons of orange juice

3 tablespoons of lemon juice

3 tablespoons of lime juice

Freshly ground black pepper

Melt the butter and stir in the citrus juice. You may clarify the butter first if you prefer.

Rinse the salmon under cold water and blot it dry with paper towels. Generously season on both sides with salt and lemon pepper.

Prepare a gas or charcoal grill for direct grilling. Add some wood chunks, preferably alder, but apple wood or other fruit woods will work.

Grill 3 to 5 minutes per side – a little longer if the steaks or fillets are thick, a little shorter if they are thin. Baste each side with some of citrus butter while cooking. To test for doneness, press the fish with your finger; it should break into clean flakes.

Transfer the salmon to a platter and drizzle more citrus butter over it.

Serves: 4.

Grilled marinated salmon

One or more fillets of salmon, any kind

Soy sauce, about 2 cups

Brown sugar, about 1 cup

Water, about 1 cup

3 garlic cloves, crushed

Wood chips

Fill a Mason jar half full of soy sauce. (If using a quart-sized jar, that’s 2 cups. If you are only marinating a small amount of salmon, you can use a smaller container, but keep the ratios the same.) Add brown sugar until the jar is three-quarters full. (If using a quart-sized jar, that’s 1 cup.) Add water to the top. (If using a quart-sized jar, that’s 1 cup.) Toss in the crushed garlic cloves. Put on the lid and shake the jar until the brown sugar is dissolved. For best results, let the marinade sit overnight at room temperature to let the flavors develop. However, you can also use it right away.

Pour the marinade over the salmon fillets in a glass baking dish or in a large zip-top baggie. Allow the fish to marinate 1 to 3 hours – the longer the time, the stronger the flavor. I usually find two hours about right.

Prepare a charcoal or gas grill for cooking over direct heat. Preheat the grate. Place the fillets flesh side down, close the lid and cook only long enough to make grill marks – a minute or two. Flip the fillets so they are skin side down, close the lid and cook until the salmon is just cooked through. The time will vary depending on the thickness of the fillet and the temperature of the fire. Ours was done in less than 8 minutes.

Insert a spatula between the skin and the fillet. Scoop the fillet right off the skin and put it on a platter. Leave the skin on the grill – you can remove it easily after the grill cools.

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