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    Nick Rosen

    I was very excited to begin cooking on my wood cookstove, but I was also intimidated. It seemed so complicated with all those doors, levers and implements. I got a lot of good information from the book, Woodstove Cookery, by Jane Cooper. But actually, it turns out that it’s more “feel” than exactness. And as you use it, that feel becomes something you don’t have to think about. But here are some basics that will shorten your “trainee time”.

    First, don’t be afraid of your stove. Feel the different temperatures on different parts of the stove (must I say it? Be careful not to burn yourself!), notice how long things take to get to the different stages of being cooked. Try cooking things at lower temperatures and notice how the food changes as it cooks, and what subtle differences there are in the end result. If the stove gets too hot, close down the vents and see if that brings it to the tempurature you need. Even if you burn something, there’s a lesson to be learned here, too — just don’t do it too often! You will find that cooking with a wood stove is really an art, and very willing to give up her secrets.

    What kind of stove to get –

    Some people are lucky enough to find an oldie but goodie, used but still usable, antique stove. eBay has them from time to time, but you have to be able to pick them up yourself, as shipping costs would be unbearable. Besides, you would want to inspect it before you closed the deal.

    Most new wood cookstoves I have seen range about $2000. I got my stove at a local building supply house, for only $411 in 2008 (I understand it’s $700 now in 2009). It’s a small model, a Hasty Baker 1864, cast iron, made in China. But it has 6 burners (I’ll explain more later) and an oven that holds a small roast, 2 chickens, or two loaves of bread. It’s more than adequate. I’ve been cooking on it all day, every day for about a year now and I have no complaints.

    We covered the kitchen floor with saltillo tile, so that sparks would not be a problem, and we built a platform out of cement board and saltillo tile so the cooking surface would be high and comfortable enough for us.

    The cookstove is also our source of heat in our 700 sq. ft. house. Because woodstoves have a small firebox, it’s necessary to fill it more often than we would like, so on the coldest nights, we have to get out from under the covers about every half hour to stuff the stove. But it does the job.

    How does it work –

    Most wood cookstoves will have a configuation like this:

    (Picture Missing)

    On the top, near the stovepipe, should be a lever to open and close the flue (the opening for the chimney or stovepipe). On the left side of the stove should be another grate that can be opened to allow more air to flow in. There is another air-flow grate on the back, behind the ash box.

    The top will look like this:

    (Picture Missing)

    About once every month or two depending on the type of wood I use and how often I use the stove), I burn a “creosote log” to clean out the chimney. This helps prevent a chimney fire and cleans out the chimney so that the draft is good, giving a better fire for cooking with. Some people say that if you get a really hot fire going for a while it will burn out the creosote, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.

    How to BUILD a fire –

    The first thing to do is make sure that the ash box and the area that the ash box slips into are cleaned out of yesterday’s ashes. Then open the chimney flue all the way, open the left side vent grate and if you want or need to, the back air flow grate.

    Whenever I am teaching someone to start a fire, I always tell them to remember this: You are BUILDING a fire. This means, don’t start off stuffing all your big logs onto the newspaper whatever you use for kindling, light a match and expect it all to go poof and light. Start with small pieces and as the fire grows, add bigger pieces.

    Here is another thing to keep in mind when building a fire. Fire takes fuel (the wood) and air. If your kindling or bigger logs are too close together, you won’t have a good fire.

    I place three small rolls of paper (I find paper grocery bags ripped into 8″ by 12″ pieces and rolled up the best, newspapers second) on the grate, and a few pieces of kindling on that. Don’t use too much paper, it’s not necessary and it will “dirty-up” your stove pipe.

    Kindling wood is the small pieces that come off the wood when it’s being chopped or is out on the ground. About 1/8″ thick and maybe 6″-8″ long, and very dry. Rough, broken pieces light better. Make sure that there is air flow around the kindling, not all in one pile. Actually, I like to criss-cross the kindling over the newspaper to ensure that there is good air flow.

    Then I light the paper with a match and let the kindling catch a good flame. When the kindling is burning well, I add a couple of bigger logs until they catch well, then I add more logs to fill the fire box, but being sure I have air flow. At this point, I close the back vent and bring the flue to halfway closed. This will keep the heat on the cooking surface and oven, rather than flowing up the chimney.

    The next thing you have to do is wait – until the stove gets hot enough to cook with, usually about 15 minutes to ½ hour, depending on what you are cooking. First thing in the morning, I put the tea kettle on when I get the fire lit, and when it boils I know the stove is ready.

    If I should let the fire go unattended for too long and find youI only have a few coals left, I add a few pieces of kindling on top of some of the hot coals, and then I blow on it gently through the firebox door (move your face away when you inhale) until the kindling lights, then I re-build the fire as above.

    How to cook on it –

    Make sure you see the Recipe section for great meal ideas, using your storage food!

    Cooking on the Stove Top

    For the first few weeks, when what I was cooking was ready, I had to stop myself from reaching for the knob to turn off the heat! In wood stove cooking, heat is mitigated by where you place the pot or skillet. The heat on the stove top graduates like this (with 1 being hottest):

    Numbers 1 and 2 are the hottest, since they are directly over the firebox, with 1 being hotter because the draft of the chimney is pulling the heat up to itself.

    Since the stovetop is flat, it’s easy to move pans around to change the amount of heat they get.

    I use mostly plain cast iron cookware, except for the few pieces of Le Creuset I have left over from a “former” life and some stainless steel pots I use for things like boiling macaroni. Once the cast iron cookware is seasoned, clean up is very easy, just remember to dry them after washing so no rust forms. But again, you have to wait until it’s well heated before cooking. (Wood stove cooking allows you to learn the pleasure of patience and taking your time.) However, it heats much more evenly and holds the heat longer.

    For hotter heat, we add juniper pine, which burns hot and fast. Then I temper the juniper pine with pinion (pine), which burns less hot, but longer.

    If you have a cast iron wok (or even a stainless steel one), you can remove the burner #1 above and set the wok right into the open fire.

    How to Bake

    There is a layer of air between the oven box and the rest of the wood cook stove which is how the oven gets its heat. This is also a place where ashes and creosote can build up. On most wood cook stoves, not only the heating circles, but the surface tops that hold them in place are removable so that you can get to the top of the oven box can be cleaned. I scrape it off so that it falls below the oven box and there is an opening there to scoop them out.

    Baking is a whole ’nother thing in a wood stove. It’s not easy to regulate the temperature, so you have to keep an eye on what it is you are baking or roasting, and turn it often to get more uniform cooking.

    Do get an oven thermometer. Even an inexpensive one is just fine, it will give you at least a good idea of the oven temperature. Once you have gotten the oven up to temperature (remember to have the flue only ½ way opened so that the heat gets to the oven, not up the chimney), close the left side air grate and, sometimes, close the flue all the way (this is one of those “feel” things…you’ll know). This will cause the wood in the fire box to become a big bed of coals, rather than flames, which is what you want for baking. It will hold the heat longer and at a more steady temperature. When you do need to add more wood to the fire box, just add a couple of logs, don’t fill it up. This will allow the oven to come back up to the temperature you want without over-doing it and running the risk of burning your food.

    I will admit that when I make bread, the top of the crust ALWAYS burns. Try as I might, if I keep the oven cool enough that the crust doesn’t burn, the bread doesn’t cook. If the bread comes out right, the top burns and that’s all there is to it! So — we all have to make sacrifices sometimes. We leave the top crust, but enjoy the bread. May burnt crusts be your worst problem. At least it means you have bread ;-).

    More great articles on our site,

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