Using Wood Stoves for Off-Grid Cooking
When I was a kid in California I used to cuddle up next to the wall heater in the winter to warm up. When my son was little we would sit in the hall and put our feet on the wall warming ourselves next to the gas wall heater, me drinking my coffee and him lying on my lap while I stroked his hair waiting for the house to warm up. It was just something we did that I never thought about until recently. There is something comforting about warmth on cold winter mornings even in sunny California. Now, back then, a wall heater was not exactly a beautiful creation, it was, in fact, ugly. Now just imagine what it must be like to snuggle up to a beautiful wood stove, a wood stove that not only warms your home but cooks your food, dries your clothes and heats your water...all the while using wood that you either cut yourself or harvested on your property.
Having a wood stove is one of the great things about going off the grid. But, what do most of us know about wood stoves? Most of us have never even seen a wood stove let alone purchased or used one. So what things should you consider when purchasing a wood stove?
New wood stoves can be expensive. Of course one can buy a used wood stove but some of the older wood stoves might not work and/or would not fulfill the E.P.A. requirements (if that matters to you), so buyer beware! Having said that, you can find some great deals on used wood stoves on ebay or on craigslist. You can buy a new wood stove for as little as $300 or as much as $9,000. The cheaper wood stoves are really intended to be used for heating only but the surface will suffice as a stove in a pinch, there is no oven in those models. The more expensive ones can use wood, gas and/or propane. Now there are youtube videos showing you how to build a “rocket stove” from scrap metal and I've included one at the bottom of this article. I'm sure you can build something like that for very little money, but for our purposes, in this article, I am going to stick to the more traditional wood stoves that are used for cooking.
Safety is most important when you are using fire to heat and cook your food. While some do-it-yourselfers could probably assemble their own wood stoves I would recommend having a professional install it. You don't want to mess around with fire.
Would you like to cook on a wood stove?
There are two types of wood stove doors, windowed and cast iron. I always wanted to get a windowed wood stove because I enjoy seeing the fire. However, after speaking to an owner of a wood stove store I changed my mind. He told me that in no time at all the window would become black so it's a waste of money to get a windowed wood stove. Still, they are beautiful so it's a hard decision, at least for me! I suppose you can always leave the door open if you would like to watch the fire..who knows maybe someday soon they will invent a window that doesn't blacken with use.
Many wood stoves come with water reservoirs. These reservoirs can be used for instant hot water for both cooking, cleaning and bathing (should you choose to pipe it into a bathroom). Personally, I think this is a great way to heat hot water in an off-grid scenario. Just make sure that the kitchen is close to the bathroom. Also, having a water reservoir allows steam to be used in the home to bring some moisture into the air if needed in the winter. It's like having an automatic humidifier.
I spoke to a wood stove store owner and he recommended that if you have a new wood stove that you should start by cleaning it once a month. He said that if it is still pretty clean once a month to go to twice a month and to continue on like that until you get the feel for your oven. He also said that if you burn dry wood as opposed to green wood that your chimney will more than likely not need cleaning for a very long time. He told me his mother burned dry wood and she didn't need to have her chimney cleaned for over 15 years. However, if you are using an old chimney you should have it cleaned because it's not worth a fire caused by a bird's nest or a squirrel or what have you. Creosote build up is something you have to address when using a wood cook stove. Using dry wood will deter creosote build up, however some people also add rock salt or potato peelings to a strong fire once a week to keep it at bay as well. If you have an enamel stove you would clean it like you would clean a refrigerator. However, if you have a cast iron stove you will need to wipe it down with oil every once in a while and some say that all cast iron wood stoves will need to be re-blacked eventually.
Cooking on a wood stove can be a little tricky. To regulate heat to your pan instead of moving a dial you move the pan. When baking make sure to use a thermometer to gauge how hot it is. Many people dry food in the oven or warmer as well.
Pots, Pans and Utensils:
The only pots and pans that should be used on a wood stove are cast iron. They are the best whether you have a wood stove or not. Also, make sure to avoid any plastic either on your pots and pans or on your utensils. There is nothing worse than trying to remove melted plastic from your stove. The other very important item is pot holders, make sure to have good pot holders and lots of them!
Odds and Ends:
Make sure you have a fire extinguisher and/or baking soda to extinguish a fire should one arise. Never pour water on a fire as you can crack the stove! In the summer you might want to take a break from using your stove in order to keep your home cool. Many people use outdoor kitchens, grills or solar ovens in order to avoid firing up the stove when it is hot out. The summer is the best time to give your stove, flu and chimney (if needed) a good annual cleaning.
Not only will a wood cook stove provide hot water, warmth and light but you can also use the wood ash to make lye and then soap. There are many reasons why a good wood stove would be an asset especially off-the-grid or in a collapse situation. A good wood stove will last a life-time if not longer and will be a comfort and a joy to everyone in your family. It will be the centerpiece of your home and it's one of the best things about going off the grid!