For anyone considering going off the grid, one decision they are faced with is how they'll cook meals since an electric range is out of the question. Most opt for a propane or gas stove. But there is another often overlooked and underutilized option-a wood burning cook stove.
For the modern day off-gridder, a wood cook stove can be an integral part of self-sufficiency and energy independence, especially for those with their own source of firewood. Propane/natural gas are fossil fuels that must be purchased. If and when availability becomes an issue, the off-gridder relying on these fuels for the kitchen stove is no better off than someone who is still "plugged in."
Whether the cook stove is an antique or a newly built modern model (yes they are still being made by various manufacturers), it is a versatile piece of equipment which will last a lifetime. The stove will heat your home while at the same time cooking and baking your meals. If your cook stove comes equipped with a water jacket plumbed in the firebox, it can heat your hot running water too. So when you think about it, an armload of seasoned firewood can serve triple duty with the right setup. A very efficient situation indeed.
Mastering the Wood Cook Stove
The biggest question many people have is how to control the temperature without knobs to turn the heat up or down. Simple: just move the pot or skillet around on the cook top until you achieve your desired temperature. Because there are no burners and because the entire surface is heated, many pots and skillets can be going at the same time at either a boil, a simmer, or just keeping warm depending on their location on the cook top.
Mastering the oven is the greatest challenge of wood stove cookery. Expecting to maintain a perfectly steady temperature throughout the baking time is not reasonable. This is why old recipe books referred to oven temperature as either slow (think 250° to 325°), moderate (325° to 400°), or fast (400° to 500°). Old time cooks would stick their hand in the oven and count the number of seconds they could hold their hand in there to gauge the oven's temperature. I simply use an oven thermometer which hangs from my oven rack. Most cook stove oven doors have a built in thermometer, but I've found then to be guides only and not very accurate.
Regardless of how careful you are regarding oven temperature, vigilance is required throughout the entire baking process. Checking the oven at least once half way through the baking time and rotating the item so it bakes evenly are essential. Unlike a conventional oven where the heat originates from the bottom, the heat in a cook stove comes from the firebox which is situated to the left side of the oven. This means the side of anything that is next to the firebox will bake faster than the far side. What to do if the oven gets too hot? Opening the oven door to let heat escape is one option. Closing draft and damper controls will slow down the fire, but the effect on oven temperature is not immediate. Laying foil across the top of items keeps the surface from burning while allowing the interior to cook.
Wood Cook Stoves for Canning
What about canning? Is it possible to do that essential piece of food preservation with a wood cook stove? Absolutely. For the last 30 plus years, I've done all of my canning on a wood stove. The long cooking times required for preparation of some items, such as the reduction of tomato sauce prior to filling jars, make wood stove canning an economical alternative compared to a gas or electric stove. Because of the ease of temperature regulation on the cook top, it's much easier to boil down sauce or reheat squeezed applesauce prior to packing without scorching.
Admittedly, constant attention is necessary to keep the canning kettle at a full rolling boil. When using a pressure canner, once the required pressure is reached, it's a simple matter of moving the canner around on the top to the "sweet spot" - the spot where the pressure stays steady without increasing. But you do have to keep the fire fed because if the pressure drops before the time is up, you have to start the whole process over.
In my opinion, the only drawback to wood stove canning is having to "slave over a hot stove" in the dead of summer. No doubt that's where the expression came from. I've been lucky to have lived in northern regions where nighttime temps generally decrease enough to offset the overheated kitchen, but a summer kitchen would also eliminate the discomfort.
Firewood and Cookware on a Wood Cook Stove
The type of wood and the size of your firewood pieces have an effect on a fire's intensity. Soft woods produce a quick, hot fire which is good for range top cooking such as bringing a pot of water to a boil, stir frying, or searing. Hardwoods are longer burning producing a more steady, even heat and are good for baking. Smaller diameter pieces yield a hot burning fire, great for boiling water and bringing a cold oven up to temp quickly, while larger diameter, unsplit pieces burn at a slower rate making them ideal for baking and roasting. Regardless of type or size, all firewood should be seasoned and dry.
A word about cookware. I swear by cast iron. I have an assortment of cast iron skillets ranging from 4" up to 12", a muffin pan, an antique waffle iron and various sizes of dutch ovens with lids. The largest will accommodate our Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas ham. An excerpt from my book, Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness extols the virtues of cast iron:
"We have good, heavy stainless steel pots, but our favorite cookware is the antique cast iron skillets passed down from both of my grandmothers and Johanna's mother. For ease of cooking and cleaning, properly seasoned iron cookware can't be beat. Seasoning is the process of baking on a thin coating of grease that protects the pan, and gives it a no-stick quality that rivals the best of Teflon pans. Additionally, we get a little added iron in our diet by ingesting food that has absorbed iron from the pan."
I also have a set of stainless steel pots with heavy bottoms. Because the entire cook top radiates heat, consideration must be given to what material pot handles are made of so they don't melt. My pot handles are metal just like my pots. Why not take advantage of the many benefits and consider installing a wood cook stove. Personally, I wouldn't want to be without it.
Thanks for reading.
Ron and his wife Johanna currently live alone 100 miles in the wilderness of Northern Saskatchewan. Ron is the author of Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness, which is published by Moon Willow Press and is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Ron can be contacted at http://www.inthewilderness.net and on Facebook and Pinterest.