Visitors to my home are often intrigued by the cook stove in the kitchen. Frequently guests are curious and question why I’d use a wood fired cook stove, instead of a conventional electric, natural gas or LP range.
The answer is simple: I use a cook stove because I don’t choose to be dependent upon big energy corporations for my everyday needs.
To my way of thinking, a cook stove provides a measure of real security and independence for me and my family. No matter what the weather may bring, I’ll always have a warm home, plenty of hot water, and a home-cooked meal as long as I’m willing to chop wood and feed a stove. For many people a cook stove represents a move towards a life of greater self-reliance.
Cook stoves are similar to wood heat stoves and basically work the same way. Like wood heat stoves, cook stoves are connected to a chimney, contain a fire box and have some way to clean out the ash. But a cook stove unlike an ordinary wood burner, has a much more sophisticated system for controlling the heat that a fire produces. Temperature management is critical when cooking and baking with a cook stove. Be forewarned that it takes time and lots of practical experience to learn how to use a cook stove properly. But once you get the hang of it you’ll never forget.
Anatomy Of A Wood Burning Cookstove
The entire top surface of a cook stove is used for cooking and is called the hob.
The round plates on the hob are called “eyes” and they are removable for cleaning out soot and ash. With some cook stoves the eyes can be removed while the stove is in operation to add small pieces of wood directly to the fire, or to seat a pot into the hole for more heat. The eyes of a cook stove are lifted off with a “lifter”.
The part of the hob that is located directly over the firebox is the hottest part of the stove. When cooking on most cook stoves, the pots & pans are moved from the left to the right to control the cooking temperature. The left side of the stove is the hottest part of the stove and the right side is the coolest.
A cook stove has more dampers and draft regulators than a wood heat stove. Dampers and regulators on a cook stove control the amount of air that a fire receives. When the dampers are open, they allow more air to a fire and the fire burns hot and fast. When dampers are closed the air is restricted to the fire, and the fire burns slow and cooler. The dampers on a cook stove are typically located in the stove pipe, on the hob, beneath the firebox and near the oven. All dampers are opened fully when a stove is first lit. From there, the dampers and regulators are adjusted to control the fire and the heat. To hold a fire overnight or from one meal to the next, the pipe damper and all the stove dampers are closed. To cool a cook stove down quickly, all the dampers are opened to allow heat to escape.
For most cook stoves it takes about 15 or 20 minutes for the hob to heat up and be ready for cooking when the fire is first started. The type of wood used in a cook stove has a great effect upon how hot or how long a fire will burn. Small, dry pieces of wood are best for fast fires. Small pieces of green wood will slow a fire down. Poplar or pine burns cool and is considered “summer wood” because it won’t overheat a kitchen. Maple and cherry wood build heat fast but the heat doesn’t last. Hickory or oak wood burns hot and are good choices for frying or boiling water. Apple wood is my favorite wood to make a good hot fire.
Baking With Wood Cookstoves
Unlike ordinary wood stoves, cook stoves have an oven. Oven temperature on a cook stove is controlled by a separate damper(s) that work to hold the heat in the area surrounding the oven. On a cook stove, when the oven damper is open, the heat from the fire moves up the chimney and away from the oven. When the oven damper is closed, the heat is contained and trapped in the oven area.
For baking purposes, a cook stove typically needs at least 45 minutes to 1 hour before the oven is ready. As a general rule, if the top of the stove is hot enough to boil water the oven will be hot enough to bake. When I bake, I bring the oven to within 25F° – 40F° degrees of where I want it and then close the oven damper. A small amount of heat will build in the oven even with the damper closed.
Oven temperature can be maintained by adding small pieces of dry or green wood whenever the temperature starts to fluctuate. Dry wood will increase the heat and green wood will decrease it. It’s important to keep in mind that a cook stove oven doesn’t heat evenly in the same way that a modern electric or gas range will. Heat collects at the top of a cook stove oven. This is good situation for breads or rolls, but is a disaster for cakes. One trick that is used to prevent a cake from burning in a cook stove is to place the cake on the bottom or floor of the oven and put a pan of water on the top shelf. The pan of water collects the heat and acts as a barrier to the top of the cake. Also it’s important to keep in mind that the side of the oven closest to the firebox will be hotter. Food needs to be turned often while baking or roasting so that it doesn’t burn on one side.
Many cook stoves have built-in oven thermometers. But more often than not, the built-in thermometers aren’t accurate. The most reliable way to test a cook stove’s oven temperature is with a small inexpensive oven thermometer that sits directly on the oven self. But if you don’t have an oven thermometer handy, take heart because there are a few different ways to measure oven temperatures without one.
To check an oven’s baking temperature place a tablespoon of flour into a piece of oven proof crockery or glass. If the flour turns brown within 1 minute the oven is between 325°F and 350°F – a perfect temperature for baking. Another way to test if the oven is ready for baking is to inset your bare hand in the oven to a count of 20. If you can stand to have your hand in the oven for the full count to 20, the oven is hot enough to bake a cake or slow roast meat. But if you can only bear to have you hand in the oven to a count of 5 or 6, the oven is a very hot oven and is well over 475F°.
Another way to check oven temperature without toasting your hand is to put a piece of white paper into the oven for 5 minutes. If the paper turns a golden brown the oven heat is medium – 325°F and 350°F. If the piece of paper turns a dark brown the oven is hot – about 450F°.
Cook stoves sometimes have a water reservoir attached to the side for hot water. A water reservoir is a metal container that holds water. Water reservoirs can be either built-in or detachable. The water in the reservoir is heated by the transference of heat to it. Sometimes the reservoir has a spigot to draw off hot water. Water is usually added every day to the reservoir to keep it full. It’s important that a cook stove reservoir never be allow go dry, because the soldered seams can come loose and the reservoir will leak.
Some cook stoves have a place for a water jacket to be plumbed through the fire box to provide hot water under pressure. Water jackets provide a modern convenience, but can be tricky to install and do require constant attention and must be maintained to keep them operating safely.
Many cook stoves have a special compartment with a door above the hob or alongside the oven. This area of a cook stove is known as a stove warmer. As its name implies, it’s a place to keep things warm. Stove warmers will keep a plate of food warm for hours. Warmers also act as a dehydrators or crispers. I use my stove warmer to dry fruit and herbs; to defrost food and to warm up mittens or socks before I go out into cold weather. I usually keep a set of serving bowls and plates in the warmer so that they’ll be warm when I need one for supper.
Wood Cookstove Maintenance
It is important that a cook stove, and the pipe and chimney that services the stove, be cleaned and inspected regularly. Chimney fires are dangerous and for the most part can be avoided with regular maintenance and good wood burning practices. To keep chimney creosote to a minimum, use only well-seasoned wood and try to burn a very hot fire at least once a day. Slow fires and wet or green wood contribute to creosote, and creosote buildup is the leading cause of chimney fires.
The hob area of a cook stove can be subject to rust when it is not in daily use. The best way to prevent rust on a cook stove is by rubbing the surface areas with a very light layer of shortening or vegetable oil every few weeks or so. The shortening protects the stove and burns off the next time the stove is lit. A crumpled up piece of wax paper rubbed on a warm stove hob will also offer a degree of protection from rust.
Soot and ash form deposits on the interior parts of a cook stove. These accumulations should be removed at regular intervals to keep a cook stove in good working order. Built up ash under the hob and around the oven reduces the temperature of the hob surface and oven and wastes fuel.
Generally, cook stoves are cleaned from the top of the hob, then along the interior sides and then ash is raked out the bottom at the soot door. A soot rake is used to get to the back of the stove and to all the hard to reach areas.
If I could only have one stove in my home, it would be a cook stove and not a wood heat stove. A well-made cook stove can last more than a lifetime if it’s is well cared for and common sense is used. Cook stoves can be expensive and they require diligence and plenty of back breaking, old-fashioned hard work. What’s more, if the truth is told, a cook stove isn’t always easy to live with. But if you’re the kind of person who’s looking for independence and security, a cook stove might be just as important to you as a good rifle, a big garden or a treadle sewing machine.