Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Cooking without electricity

My wood cook stove
There's some kind of emergency here in New Hampshire just about every winter. Either it's a major snowstorm, or we have flooding, or something else happens. Power goes out all over the place. You probably have candles, and maybe a lantern or two. You can pull out extra batteries for the flashlights. But what do you plan on eating?

Fire in the stove
 I love my wood cook stove. With it, I am not dependent upon the vagaries of the public utility system. I have the opportunity to largely ignore power outages, because my lovely Glenwood B provides us with heat and a place to cook. With its moderately sized firebox to the left, it's six "burners" on top, and the large and spacious oven area, it does everything our electric stove does, and more. And better yet, it does it with style. Nothing beats coming in from shoveling snow and putting your feet up on the chromed hob to warm them while a pot of soup simmers on top of the stove.

A casserole cooking in the oven
Wood stoves work differently than electric ones, or even gas stoves for that matter. The top of a wood stove is one big burner, despite the little circles you see on good quality cook stoves. There are no dials that adjust the heat; you have to learn to do that using wood and the position of your cooking gear on the stove top! In a way, though, the use of a wood stove for cooking is much more intuitive, much easier than doing so with an electric stove, despite the fluctuations in temperature. You learn it, much as you learn any new skill, and as you do you can enjoy knowing that your granny or great-granny probably learned the same skills many years ago!

Open for viewing
The magic of a wood stove starts in the fire box. Different stoves have them in different places, but the most common spot is on the left hand side. There's usually a little door that lets you in from the front to load wood, however you can also lift off the top burner circles and load up that way. Sometimes, that's a convenient way to load up initially, perhaps the night before, so that all you need in the morning is a single match to get your stove going for the day. The grate to the very left has a few uses. First, it swings open to allow you to pull out the ashes without disturbing the fire itself. This is very important if you're cooking something that takes a long time, such as a full size turkey. You can also slide open the little holes in the grating to allow oxygen to get in to the fire, which helps adjust the temperatures within. I liked to keep an old fudge pan in under there, so that when it was time to take out the ashes I just had to pull the pan out and dump it, instead of spending a lot of time raking and shoveling.

Oven racks, older than you think!
Soft woods, like pine or punky birch, are wonderful for getting your fire going. However, to cook anything, you'll want a nice hardwood like ash or oak. The best way to know which woods work for you is to actually use them and see what happens. Different areas of the country produce different types of wood, and those cause different heats and qualities of fire. If you're lucky enough to have a supply of appropriately sized split ironwood, you'll be able to cook anything!

A small box stove
Those circles that you see on any kind of wood stove are designed for use during cooking. If you want to fry something at high heat, pull out a ring and put your cast iron pot or pan right over the fire. Old cast iron actually has a ring on the bottom, which nestles into the cut out on the stove. This allows you to safely put your pan right over the fire, heating it quickly and efficiently. Woks, too, can be slid into the openings to allow more direct heat. If you need to simmer something, slide it way over to the right, away from the fire box. Wood stoves that have a shelf extending from the stove top allow you to keep the food warm without cooking it more. There are also usually shelves above the stove top, where it was common to keep a pot of water or tea or coffee for everyone. The shelves can be a good place to put your bread starter, if you happen to keep a sourdough handy.

The heat in a wood cook stove comes from that fire box, then initially goes directly up the flue. Once the flue is hot, there is a toggle you can push to the side to allow the heat to circulate inside the stove itself. Another toggle will force the air to circulate all the way around the oven before going up the flue. This heats your oven fairly evenly, although as with all ovens (even electric and gas ones), there will be hot spots.

In my opinion, a wood stove gives you a lot more scope for cooking than electric does. A proper dutch oven can be set inside for baking bread, or perched up top for making stew or soup. Any cast iron pan or pot can be used very easily and will provide an incredibly beautiful and non-stick surface for your cooking needs. You can pile the top of your stove with as many pots and pans as will fit, instead of being stuck with only the four standard burner spots of a regular stove. You can use griddles and large pans just as easily as small ones, because the heat is everywhere.

Of course, the best part of having a wood stove is that you can just light it up because it feels nice or looks good. While the fire within won't last as long as with a heating stove, a wood cook stove gives off a nice blast of heat and is generally pretty easy to keep going if you're up and about. There's just something cheery about sitting in the kitchen by the wood stove, having a cup of tea with family.

If you know how to use your wood stove before an emergency hits, you'll be proficient enough to feed your family easily when there's no power at all. You'll quickly become accustomed to keeping a large pot of water on the back of the stove, for washing up or for tea, or whatever else comes up. And you'll find your family tends to gravitate toward its cheery spot in whatever room you have it!

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