Way back in 1951, country music legend Hank Williams released the classic song “Hey Good Lookin’,”which asked the following important musical questions: “Hey good lookin’, what ya got cookin’?” and “How ‘bout cookin’ something up with me?” We don’t know how the object of Hank’s romantic affections responded to these queries, but here’s what we can say for sure – if Hank Williams had owned his own wood-cooking stove, or even just a plain old wood stove for heating, he could have prepared a full-course home-cooked meal that would have impressed her to no end.
People are used to the idea of using wood for heat, and many off-the-gridders have embraced the wood burning option enthusiastically. But many may not be aware of just how easy it is to cook with the heat generated by burning wood, failing to realize that having a wood stove in their home could allow them to kill two birds with one stone while saving valuable power resources in the process. People have been cooking directly over open fires since the very dawn of time, but in our sophisticated modern times we have gotten so used to cooking at home with electricity that it would never occur to most of us that the old ways might still be an option right under our very own roofs. And for the purposes of cooking, wood stoves are actually far superior to open fires because they hold and concentrate the heat they produce and pass it on more reliably and consistently.
Cooking with a wood stove is an art form, and any aspiring culinary artist who chooses to work with the medium of wood must scale the arching peak of a significant learning curve before they will finally be ready to produce four-star meals on demand. But for families and individuals making a go of it off-the-grid or hoping to transition to that lifestyle in the very near future, the versatility of wood heat could make it an ideal solution to the inescapable resource-use conundrum from which complete escape never seems possible. For the conservation minded, it is smart to learn about cooking with wood, and the payoff will make the effort involved in learning how do so successfully more than worth the while.
If you are thinking it might be cool to give this a try, you have two legitimate options. First, you could make a full-out commitment to becoming the Wolfgang Puck of the wood cooking set by purchasing and installing a wood-burning stove manufactured especially for cooking (these amazing stoves will be the topic of our next article). Or conversely, if you already have a conventional wood stove or are planning to get one to heat your home, cabin, shack, tent, teepee, yurt, or outhouse, through a combination of trial-and-error and careful planning you can learn how to use that stove for food preparation in order to maximize your off-the-grid efficiency. Either way will work; it is just a matter of deciding how much money you would like to invest and how interested you are in using wood as a food producing resource.
Cooking As You Heat: Food Preparation On A Conventional Wood Stove
Wood stoves are fabulous heating appliances. Not only do they produce copious waves of radiated warmth that can keep us comfortable on even the coldest winter days, but they do so using a totally renewable resource that with a little hard work can be replenished in perpetuity – and time spent cutting, splitting, loading, hauling, and storing wood is the very definition of a productive activity, keeping you vital and strong as you supply yourself with a prodigious bounty of a truly fantastic and versatile fuel source.
Believe it or not, the interior of a well-fired wood stove can reach temperatures as high as 1000˚F, while surface temperatures can surpass the 400˚F mark. It is not hard to see the cooking potential in such an appliance; it is just a question of selecting the right cooking materials and supplies and using them in the right way so any food you attempt to fry, sauté, boil, bake, roast, or heat on your wood stove will be thoroughly prepared and safe to consume.
The flat surface of a typical wood stove makes an excellent platform for food preparation. In fact, sometimes the central areas of a wood stove’s surface can actually become too hot, and you may have to move your pots and pats around a little in order to maintain correct cooking temperatures and prevent your food from burning. When choosing pots and pans for use with a wood-burning stove, cast-iron is almost always the best way to go, and in addition to frying pans made of cast-iron, you will most definitely want to purchase at least one Dutch oven for regular stove top use. These heavy-duty lidded pots have been used as cooking containers for centuries, and they work great with wood stoves because they distribute heat very evenly, correcting for any temperature variations on the stove’s surface that might otherwise undermine your ability to cook food properly.
For use on a wood stove – or anywhere, for that matter – all cast-iron cookware must be seasoned first to prevent sticking and rust. To complete this process, your pots and pans should be coated with vegetable oil and heated for 2-3 hours at 300˚F, and afterwards any oil that has not been absorbed into the metal should be wiped away and a scouring pad and salt should be used to scrub out any rough spots or patches. When properly seasoned, cast-iron pots and pans become runaway winners in the “no-stick cooking” category, and this is an important consideration because of the white-hot temperatures that are sometimes produced directly over the firebox on a wood stove’s surface.
Basically any type of food that can be prepared in a frying pan or slow cooker can be cooked on the surface of a wood stove. Dutch ovens with lids sealed tight will function just as effectively as any conventional slow cooker, although it may be necessary to elevate them using a trivet (an iron tripod that will lift a cooking pot off a hot surface while continuing to transfer heat) so the food on the bottom of the pan doesn’t burn and stick. For quality slow cooker-style preparation, the Dutch oven should first be placed directly on the surface of the wood stove, uncovered, until the juices of the food inside begin to bubble. Next, the pan should be placed on a trivet located in the middle of the stove and the lid should be popped on and fastened tightly over the top, completely sealing in the pan’s contents. From this point it should all be smooth sailing, and you can sit back and relax as your delicious supper cooks slowly but steadily throughout the remainder of the day.
As hot as it gets inside a wood stove’s firebox, it is still possible to bake vegetables or meat in there as long as you wrap what you want to cook in two layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil. This will protect your food from complete incineration, and it will also keep the juices sealed inside to ensure your potatoes, chicken breasts, sweet potatoes, onions, corn-on-the-cob, or what have you are well preserved and come out mouth-wateringly delicious. Before you start baking you, should let your fire burn long enough to build up a decent-sized bed of glowing coals – one to two hours at least – and you will want to push the burning wood off to the side so you can place your wrapped food directly on top of the coals (with a long pair of metal tongs, since putting your hands inside of a sizzling hot firebox is never a good idea). Cooking times inside a firebox should approximate those of a conventional oven, but you must remember to turn your food over half way through your planned cooking time to make sure things are cooked evenly.
It is also possible to bake on the upper surface of a wood stove. To do so, you will want to start by putting your baking pan and its contents on a trivet or cast-iron cookware cover in the middle of an already-heated stove. Next, place an upside-down Dutch oven over the top of this assembly to hold the heat in and allow the baking process to commence. In all honesty, baking this way can be quite slow, but if you can just be patient, when all it is said and done you should have a main dish, dessert, or loaf of fresh bread that will redefine your conception of what scrumptious food is supposed to taste like.
Learning The Art
When cooking on the top of a wood stove, preparation times will vary tremendously based on the type of wood burned, the characteristics of a particular stove, the quality of the cast-iron cooking pots, the intensity of the fire, and the section of the stove top where the food is being cooked (directly above the firebox is super-hot, near the edges of the surface not so much). There is no getting around it – in order to prepare a multitude of recipes and different types of food on a conventional wood stove, whether baking, broasting, boiling, frying, or steaming, it will be necessary to experiment frequently. Of course this playing-it-by-ear approach is a big part of what makes cooking on top of a wood stove so much fun; learning how to do it magnificently really is more of an art than a science, and trying to figure it all out can be a real adventure for those who love embracing this type of challenge. You will want to take lots of notes as you are experimenting with a wide variety of different recipes, so that when you try to recreate your best recipes in the future you will be able to do so without struggling to remember what you did the last time.
Generally speaking, you will be able to do your best cooking after a fire has burned long enough for a healthy-sized bed of coals to accumulate. The presence of such a bed will prevent you from having problems with a fire that cools too fast and interrupts the cooking process, and it will make it easier to control cooking temperatures on the stove top by opening and closing the damper (on a well-heated stove, a closed damper will cook hotter and an open damper will allow more heat to escape up the chimney).
Just about any sized wood stove should generate enough heat for cooking. However, with some smaller models it may not be possible to sauté or fry. Again, you will have to do a lot of experimenting to find out just exactly what you can and cannot do, and how fast you can do it. But in most instances, you should expect preparation times for food to be longer in comparison to a regular oven and the range of dishes you are able to prepare to be restricted more by a lack of space and time than by any inherent limitations in the technology. And of course, home wood stoves are only useful for cooking during the coldest months, when fire intensities are strong enough to reach food-transforming levels.
But perhaps the idea of cooking with wood sounds so exciting to you that you would like to find a way to overcome some of these caveats and limitations so you could do it all the time. Fortunately, a technology exists that will allow you to do just that, and this is what we will be discussing in our next article.