What?! You don’t have a cookstove?
I’ve been asked why I do not have a wood cookstove in our off grid house. That’s a reasonable question when my goal has always been to cook with wood as much as possible. There are several reasons why we chose our heat stove over a cookstove.
- Cookstoves are expensive. Have you seen the prices of some on the market today? They are beautiful, but so expensive. One of the more reasonable is the Baker’s Choice stove made by the Amish. I recently talked with a woman who owns one and she couldn’t be happier with it. But it’s an investment!
- A cookstove takes up a large amount of room in the kitchen. It’s not impossible, but some reconfiguring needs to be done in order to install a wood cookstove in a modern house. We have a manufactured home and the kitchen is built with standard cabinets. We would definitely lose storage room in order to install a cookstove.
- An additional stove is usually needed for heat when using a cookstove. This is not always the case, but usually a cookstove is built for cooking and is not an efficient heat source. Two stoves were not in our budget. When we purchased our stove, our goal was to get the most efficient one for the price. We love our stove because we can stack it full with wood, close the damper, and it will burn all night! We wake up to a warm house and coals in the morning.
For all these reasons, we settled on an efficient little True North stove from Pacific Energy. We love it! It cost us less than $1000, it’s compact, and it gives us very efficient heat. It is the only source of heat that we have in our less than 1000 square foot house. It may not be intended for cooking, but it can get the job done. If you have the desire to cook on your regular wood stove, I’m here to say that it is possible.
Cooking on the Surface of the Stove
Cookware is probably the first thing you think about when cooking with wood. Over an open fire, it is best to use cast iron. That’s not really a consideration for cooking on my woodstove because the cookware never comes in contact with an open flame, so I can use anything that I would use on an electric or gas stove. Even so, cast iron is my cookware of choice. I use stainless steel for boiling water and making rice or pasta.
The top of our woodstove is big enough to hold two large pots or a few smaller pots. When I have a good roaring fire going, the surface gets hot enough to boil water in about 25 minutes. It’s not as hot as turning a stove burner on high. And it can take a while to get the surface hot once a fire is started. It’s not a matter of lighting the fire and being ready to cook. Some patience is required, but that’s okay with me. I can generally plan lunch and dinner in advance and get it on the stove in plenty of time to cook. Breakfast is another story! It’s the only meal that we prefer to cook on our propane stove in the winter. But it doesn’t use very much fuel to fry up some eggs for our family.
Learning to control the heat while cooking has taken me a little practice, along with some trial and error. The hottest that the surface ever gets is when I have a full fire going and the stove damper wide open. The hottest place on the stove is in the middle next to the stove pipe. With a full fire going, this is the best place to boil water and cook food that needs the highest heat. Because my wood stove gives off what I would call a medium low heat on an electric stove, I often don’t need to think about reducing the heat. But if I do, there are several ways that I can do it. Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Let the fire burn down. This is the most obvious, but not always possible. After all, this is the only heat source for our house!
- Place pots and pans further away from the center of the stove where the temperature is slightly cooler.
- Close the damper on the stove. This cuts off the air to the fire and makes the wood burn slower so the fire isn’t as hot. This is certainly not the solution if something is burning because the temperature will not drop immediately! But if you want to slow cook or warm leftovers, it can work well. I generally only use this option if the house is getting too warm and I need to decrease the burn of my fire without putting it out.
- Use a trivet. This is my favorite method for reducing the heat. I use metal trivets that I have had for a long time, but I believe cast iron would be even better. They must be metal with no wood or plastic parts. I simply set my trivet on the surface of the stove and place my cookware on top of the trivet. This works just like a crockpot. When slow cooking all day, I usually use my enamel cast iron dutch oven, but any stainless pot will work. I also use the trivet method for warming up leftovers. It’s a very low heat, so it generally doesn’t even require stirring! But like all other wood stove cooking, it takes some time. I usually put my leftovers on the trivet at least 15 minutes to half an hour before I want to eat. It’s not a microwave!
Cooking Inside the Firebox
This is a little more tricky than cooking on top, but it just takes a little practice. Unlike cooking on the top, you will need to have the proper cookware. Cast iron is a must. I do not use anything but well seasoned cast iron skillets and dutch ovens (no enamel) inside the wood stove. Here are some tips to consider:
- Cooking inside the firebox is really only possible when you don’t have a roaring fire. You want heat, but you don’t want your food to burn! A bed of good hot coals is the best. When I want to cook in the firebox, I build up my fire so that it is good and hot and let the wood burn down to coals. The picture to the right is what you want. Then using my fire shovel, I push the coals to the back of the firebox.
- Make sure to add the right amount of water. Some liquid will evaporate during cooking. But you don’t want to add too much that your dutch oven boils over and you have a mess. If I am making a roast, I will fill the dutch oven half way with liquid.
- Consider keeping your dutch oven elevated so that it is not sitting directly on the bottom of the firebox, or use a camp style dutch oven with feet. I use a small cast iron skillet flipped upside down for this.
- Always cover your food. Whether it is with a cast iron lid or even just aluminum foil. This helps the outside of the food not to burn while the inside is cooking. When baking potatoes, I cover the bottom of my dutch oven with aluminum foil, nest the potatoes inside, put another piece on top, and then put the lid on. I also use this method for winter squash.
- Check on your food once in a while. The temperature is probably much higher than the normal 350 degree cooking time when you put your food in, but as the coals burn, the temperature will decrease.
- Plan ahead and keep the temperature of the house in mind before you start cooking. If the house has warmed up and I no longer need my fire for heat, I will leave my dutch oven inside as the coals go out. It’s a great slow cooker and keeps the food hot until you are ready to eat. If I need to keep my fire going, I will pull out the dutch oven and add more firewood. If the food is not done, I’ll keep it warm on top of the stove and put it back inside after I have some good coals again. Of course this is not a good method for baked goods.
Speaking of baked goods, that’s another article! I plan on experimenting more with baking inside the firebox this winter and I will definitely share the results with you. So if you have the same concerns about a cookstove that we did, but still want to be able to cook with wood, I’m here to say that it is possible. It just takes a little practice to figure out what works. For more information about our wood stove, see 9 Things I Love About Our Wood Stove.
Also, to see my wood stove cooking in action, check out this video. I’m making a cream of jerusalem artichoke soup with veggies harvested from our garden.
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