The weather’s warming up faster than the wood pile’s disappearing now. There’s hope! But, before the wood heat season ends, I wanted to pass on a few things we’ve learned about cooking on the woodstove.
We don’t have a wood-fired cook stove, but we cook many of our meals on our wood heating stove. You can cook on the top of just about any wood stove as long as it has a flat surface large enough for a pot or skillet that heats directly from the stove. Virtually all wood stoves have a surface at least large enough to heat a kettle. If your stove doesn’t, you can still use it as an oven.
Dry firewood is key to success. If you know what kind of wood you have in your woodpile, that’s a distinct advantage. Generally, hard woods burn longer and cleaner; soft woods, especially the more resinous kinds, burn faster and hotter.
Cut fuel small for wood cooking. Sticks of 3 inches or less in diameter make a brisk, hot fire. If you’ve been burning your stove for warmth before cooking, add smaller sticks on top of coals or larger warming chunks to boost the heat to cooking temperature.
Remember that you’ll need to stoke your fire often while cooking. Make sure you have enough wood handy for the operation, as you won’t want to be running to the woodpile while preparing food.
Stoke your fire early! As soon as you sense that the fire’s dying down, or may be about to do so, add a few more sticks of wood. Don’t wait! Adding new wood actually cools your fire briefly until new fuel ignites. If the fire dies down too much, you’ll lose more heat waiting for the new wood to build back up to the right temperature.
Before you begin cooking, check your cookbooks. Even if you’ve been cooking for years, and know the temperatures needed to cook on a conventional stove, take time to review this information. Chances are you’ve developed a habit of cooking hotter than necessary, or even proper! You may not need as much heat as you thought. If that’s true, you can cook on your wood stove sooner, in less time, expending less fuel and effort. Such conservation pays off over time.
The hardest part of wood stove cooking is probably getting it hot enough, then maintaining a uniform temperature. Stove thermometers help, but the best way to deal with this is to take a Zen approach. Forget gauging degrees. After all, most conventional stoves and ovens fluctuate in temperature above and below the marked setting. Wood stove cooking essentially eliminates controls that point to a desired temperature. Dismiss knobs, thermometers and other gadgets, and trust your own senses.
Use your sense of touch: focus on the feel of the heat. If you hold your hand flat over the cooking surface, and find it’s too hot to do so for more than three seconds, it should be hot enough to cook.
Use your eyes: watch for heat rippling on the cooking surface. If you have a fire view, watch the level of the flames. Remember these as you reach the desired cooking temperature, and monitor them for changes. Flick a drop of water onto the cooking surface. If it dances rather than steaming slowly or evaporating immediately, it’s just right for grilling.
Use your nose: you can actually smell changes in heat in most wood stoves, and in your pots and pans. The smell can help you sense changes in temperature.
Use your ears: listen to the volume of the fire, the roar it makes in the stove, the crackling of the wood. Listen for pops from the stove itself as the metal heats and cools. Some pots actually vibrate at certain temperatures.
If you learn to sense these changes, you’ll be able to maintain a fairly constant temperature while you cook. The information is there if you tune in to it.
If your stove gets too hot, you may need to cool it. Close your draft until the fire slows, or add a few sticks of wet or green wood. Some people soak a handful of dried sticks for this purpose. Don’t overdue it! All in all, hotter is probably better than cooler, as it takes less time to return to proper temperature. You can always remove your pan from the stove until the temperature moderates.
Cast iron cookware is best for wood stove cooking. If you don’t want to use cast iron, stainless steel is next best, then aluminum. Be very careful if using pans with non-stick coatings! If the coating burns, its fumes are toxic, and a burned pan will no longer be safe to use for cooking!
You can bake on the cooking surface of the stove. Turn a large cast iron skillet or Dutch oven upside down on the cooking surface. Let it heat, then set your pan inside of it, using the cast iron utensil as a lid. Make sure you have hot pads handy, and try to check the progress as little as possible, as you lose much of your heated air each time you raise the pan for a peek.
If you want to cook inside the wood stove, allow your fire to die down, wrap your food in two or more layers of aluminum foil, and bury them in the coals for a while.
Be patient. Wood stove cooking won’t all come together the first time! Consider cooking when you’re not hungry, learning the process while your head is clear, and dinner doesn’t hang in the balance. Try to sense changes as you boil a kettle of water. Once you get the hang of it, cooking on a wood stove is very rewarding. Using your wood stove for heat and meals economizes on the time, effort and resources. Try it and see!