It has been quite some time since I have written about cooking on a wood stove. I wanted to share a few ideas that I have used to make the process easier.
This picture is one of the wood stove that I cook on. It also provides heat for our kitchen. The stove was made by Atlanta Stoves Works. I love it! The oven is very small, but functional. I went to the Dollar Tree store and bought small baking pans & cookie sheets that are better sized for the oven. The large baking sheets popular for modern ovens do not fit.
The first thing that I do prior to using the wood stove each season is to blacken it. Blackening a stove means that you are polishing it with a black polish designed for cast iron stoves. This polishing process will continue throughout the year, whenever the stove is in need of it. I currently use a liquid polish, but am preparing to order a tin of polish that is about the same consistency as a tin of shoe polish. A cast iron stove needs a good polishing to prevent rust. Periodically, I will notice that an area is becoming dull. This is not only due to spills, but simply the friction of the cookware rubbing against the stove. Whenever the stove is cool enough, a quick wipe with the polish on a scrap of an old cotton t-shirt rag is enough to freshen the stove.
When cooking on the stove, it is important to remember that choices in firewood will determine the amount of heat your stove puts out. Soft woods, such as pine, are fast burning and while they do put out heat, the heat is not sustained as long as a harder wood. A favorite local wood in our area is pecan. It burns very hot and lasts much longer than pine. I try to stay away from soft wood unless I have nothing else on hand. Usually, I will mix it with the hard wood to stretch out my hard wood supply if need be.
Unlike cooking on a modern stove, a wood stove requires much more tending. If you are simmering a pot of soup or stew, you need to maintain the fire. There is a constant fluctuation of heat taking place. I have a set of cast iron trivets of various heights. These are my temperature controls. If I have added more firewood and the stew is at risk of scorching, I put it on a trivet and move it to a slightly cooler part of the stove. You will find that every wood stove has a “hot spot” where foods cook quickest and are at higher risk of burning or scorching. This takes a short time to figure out. To learn your stove’s hot spots, set 6 recycled tin cans across your stove. Fill each about 3/4 full of water. I placed the tins in 2 rows of 3 with one row towards the back and the second towards the front of the stove. I placed one set over the firebox, another set in the stove’s center, and the last set on the far side away from the firebox. I got a hot fire going and watched to see which tin of water boiled first, then second and last. This was all I needed to know on that topic. I learned that my stove is hottest directly over the firebox towards the back. The coolest spot was the front portion of the side opposite of the firebox. This let me know where I could simmer all day without worry of scorching.
In lighting the stove, I learned a trick years ago. Pack a cotton ball with petroleum jelly. I place it onto a piece of bark from the wood pile or the chopping area. The cotton ball lights very easily and will burn for several minutes. It gives me plenty of time to add kindling to get the fire going well before adding the larger pieces of split firewood. A jar of these will last quite a while and do not dry out or lose their effectiveness. Near the wood stove, I would suggest keeping 4 items: the tin of blackening polish with a piece of cloth, a tin or jar of the prepared cotton balls, a box of matches, and a jar of aloe gel. The aloe is there simply in case of a burn. In my case, it is guaranteed that I will receive at 2-3 burns at least just from forgetting to use a pot holder then I grab the handle of a kettle or the cast iron skillet.
In cooking on a wood stove, I have learned that using lids can really help to speed up the process. This is especially true when you are making breakfast first thing in the morning. Our stove usually is cold in the morning, so I use a lid on the kettle so that the contents will heat up faster.
Baking in the wood stove’s oven was my latest challenge. The rack in the oven was not adjustable. I removed it as it was not the right height for my bread pans. I had an extra jar rack from an old water bath canner, which I turned upside down and placed into the oven. This fits very well and is the right height for my bread. To use the oven, I keep an oven thermometer in the oven so that I can gauge the temperature easier. Unlike using a modern oven, I don’t worry about the temperature being exact, but to stay within a 25* range above and below the desired temperature. When I baked bread in the oven, it took longer, but came out very nice. The oven temperature was maintained at about 300-325*F instead of the 350*F the recipe calls for. Even with the temperature causing a longer baking time, the bread was very good.
Wood stove baking is a high maintenance task when compared to modern ovens. Throughout the process, I had to be sure to remove a small shovel of coals from the firebox to place on top of the oven box. To do this, I lifted the burner plates above the oven and scattered the coals evenly on top before replacing the burner plates. This helped to heat the oven more evenly. Otherwise the heat would only have come from the left side of the oven where the firebox is located. After the first 10 minutes of baking, I turned the bread pan around 180* so that the side of the pan that had been closest to the firebox was now farthest away. I did this rotation every 10 minutes. As soon as I saw the top of the bread beginning to brown, I covered it with foil to prevent it from becoming too dark. I also found that it worked best to place the bread pan closer to the side of the oven that was farthest away from the firebox. This was in great part due to my burning hard wood only. The harder wood allowed me to use the coals more efficiently on top of the oven as they did not burn away as quickly as soft wood.
Overall, I love cooking on the wood stove. I enjoy it far more than using a modern stove. I often can cook faster on the wood stove than the gas stove. Especially once the stove has been lit for a while. I cook mainly with cast iron. The only exception being my stock pots. Along with the trivets I mentioned above, the cast iron makes cooking easier. The pans retain heat much longer. As a matter of fact, I always end up using a trivet even when frying pancakes or other foods due to how hot the cast iron becomes.
If you are handy with a needle and thread, a very simple tool to keep on hand are handle covers. Get yourself a couple of square pot holders from the dollar store. Fold each in half and whipstitch along one short edge and the long edge. Leave one short end open so that the cover will over the handle of your pans & skillets. Having some of these will save your fingers from being burned.
I hope that this gives you some ideas on wood stove cooking. There are always so many questions that I am asked that I never know if I have answered them all. Feel free to ask if you have any that were not answered here. Just keep in mind that as you had to practice and learn to use a modern stove, a wood stove is no different. It just takes a little time and experience to learn your stove. Each one has it’s own “personality” of sorts. The hot spots on one may vary from another stove of the same model. Once you start using a wood stove, it won’t take long to become comfortable with it.