Cooking With Wood Cook Stoves
When we spend time thinking about new cooking appliances we are usually limited to electric, natural gas, or propane compatible devices. The market is flooded with smaller electric appliances that range from microwaves to the newest quick cooking infomercial gadget. In days gone by our grandparents had a very different set of choices: coal or wood fired cookstoves. (I use cookstove in an effort to differentiate from other wood fired stoves. It may not be grammatically correct, but bear with me.)
I grew up in a home that was warmed by wood. My great-grandparents spent dark winter mornings stoking the wood heater to warm the areas of our home that we kept open in the cold winter months. Like their parents before them, to conserve on both fuel and physical energy, the huge two story farmhouse had portions ‘shut off’ from the rest of the house. Three rooms (aside from the bathroom), were kept open and heated.
I have fond memories of my first efforts at cooking. My granny, (that is how I kept up with all of my grandmothers – one was granny, her daughter was my mawmaw), had small pans she gave to me to use on the wood heater. The very first item I ‘cooked’ was cut carrots for dinner. I carefully cut the carrots with my butterknife, poured them into a little saucepan, and proceeded to load them with enough pepper to cause my ‘pawpaw’ to swear he’d never touch another thing I put on the table unless he had a cold. Apparently lukewarm, hard, peppery carrots are not considered gourmet food.
Hot and Fast vs. Warm and Slow
Luckily, I paid attention later when my granny made meals. When I left home I moved to a hobby farm where I started as a farm hand and moved up to being in charge of much of the day to day operations. My boss had used the cabin I was given as his own, it included an antique wood cookstove that was situated in the center of the kitchen. I was excited to try it out, but had to wait until cool fall weather.
I found out that cooking on top of the stove was fairly easy. In most wood cookstoves the ‘fire box’ is located to the left of the oven area. Some also have a closed shelf that is about eye-level called a ‘bread warmer’. When using the wood cookstove you will build a fire in the firebox and keep it going while you are cooking. The heat of the fire will depend on the type of wood you choose and how much wood you add to it during burning.
Soft woods make a hot, fast fire. This means that the wood burns away quickly, but is also very hot while it is burning. Hard woods burn away slower and produce a more even heat. To get a fire started in your cookstove, choose a soft wood such as pine or cedar for kindling, then move on to adding harder woods, hickory is a great choice for cooking. Don’t let wood choices deter you from trying to cook with wood – a fire is a fire is a fire. Just keep an eye on your fire and food.
Rotating and Other Tips
You can adjust the cooking heat of your fire by using different woods, but the top of your stove also has different heating levels. Directly over the firebox is high, the middle of the stove surface is medium/medium high, and the farthest point from the fire is low. This is usually from left to right. Move your pots or pans as you need.
Cooking in the oven is a bit trickier. Since the firebox is right next to the oven, one side of the oven will be hotter than the other. This is why almost all baking recipes have instructions for cooks to rotate a baked food half-way through the baking process. If you do not rotate in a wood fired oven, you will have an item that is burned on one side and perfect on the other OR perfect on one side and raw on the other. Always pay attention to your baked items and rotate at least once during baking. (I prefer to rotate several times.)
The bread-warmer on a wood cookstove can be an amazing addition to your kitchen. Breads, biscuits, and other baked goods always taste their best when warm. Place fresh baked foods in the bread-warmer and they will retain their warm goodness until and even beyond dinner. A trick to keeping these breads from drying out – place a coffee cup in the bread-warmer over the warmest part of the stove full of water. The evaporation will keep the breads fresher.
One of my favorite things that requires little effort to make is baked sweet potatoes for breakfast. I had another heater, so if the fire in the cookstove died down at night, there was no worry that the house would be freezing in the morning. I did bank the coals before bed – this helped the coals stay alive in order to shorten the time to build the fire in the morning. It also radiated a soft, low heat at night which was perfect for sweet potatoes! Prick the skin on several large sweet potatoes (or yams), pop in the oven, and by morning you have a perfect handheld breakfast while tending the animals.
Some municipalities have laws regarding the use of wood fired heaters in the home. Before you take the time to purchase a wood cookstove, remember that you must abide by the same laws that govern wood heaters in your area. Installing such a cookstove is the same procedure you would use to install any freestanding wood heater. If you live in an area where you can use a wood heater, consider buying a wood cookstove the next time you need to purchase a heater. Cookstoves can be used for heating, cooking, and some have a water reservoir that can give you gallons of hot water on the cheap (or free!)