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Cooking and Heating With a Wood Stove
by Peggy Deland

wood stove
 
Wood stoves have been used for centuries as an economical method to heat homes and cook meals. They're an obvious choice for homesteaders on large, wooded parcels, and for those who live in rural areas where wood is inexpensive and readily available. Wood stove costs much less to buy and to operate than central heating systems, and aren't as expensive to operate as space heaters and typical electric or gas ranges. However, they do have several limitations that must be carefully considered before making the decision to move to wood-fueled cooking and heating.

In most cases, traditional methods of doing things tend to be more ecologically sound. Wood stoves are one major exception to this. While it may be tempting to buy an antique wood stove, there's little question that the amount of smoke produced by older wood stoves is far from environmentally friendly. According to a study conducted by the University of Illinois, wood stove use in third world countries is among the top causes of air pollution worldwide.

This doesn't mean that you can't use a wood stove and still have a green lifestyle, however. Modern, EPA-certified wood stoves are more expensive but are subject to strict emissions regulations that ensure your stove won't harm the planet. They're also much more efficient.

Heating with a wood stove is simple, and most modern wood stoves are designed for this purpose. Wood stoves are best used for supplementary or zone heating, unless your home is very small. Thoroughly dried hardwood should last through the night with an efficient stove. You won't have the convenience of a thermostat, but it's not hard to adjust the damper to increase or decrease the amount of heat produced.

Cooking

antique wood cook stoveMany modern wood stoves aren't designed for cooking, but if they have a flat surface on top they can be used for this purpose. Wood stoves designed for cooking do provide certain advantages; the most notable is the ability to divide the surface of the stove into separate heat zones. Some wood cookstoves also include an oven.

The part of the cooking surface directly over the firebox is the hottest; this is what you'll want to use if you're sautéing, stir-frying, or searing meat. The surface gets gradually cooler as you move away from the firebox. Most cookstoves have a firebox on the left or right side, which makes it quite a bit easier to figure out where to put your pans.

You can bake on a wood stove that doesn't have an oven, but it can be tricky. Choose a cooler portion of the wood stove for baking, and make a "tent" over the pan with a larger pan or heat-proof tray. Baking in a seasoned cast iron frying pan often works best, but be sure to grease the pan's surface thoroughly to prevent sticking.

Cooking with a wood stove requires quite a bit of practice, and you can't expect to rely on cooking times provided in recipes. In fact, you can't even rely on your own notes on cooking time if you change the stove or the type of wood you're using! It's hard to gauge the temperature of a wood stove, so keep a close eye on your food and make adjustments accordingly.

 
Safety


Wood stoves can create a serious fire hazard if not installed or used properly. The wood stove must be placed on a fireproof surface that extends at least 18" beyond each side of the stove. Install your wood stove well away from the wall, unless it's brick or another non-combustible material. Make sure that the chimney is working properly; smoke inhalation can and does kill wood stove owners.

Wood stoves are very hot when in use, especially wood cookstoves. The surface can easily reach 1000 degrees F -- hot enough to cause instant third degree burns if accidentally touched. If you have small children or pets, make sure they don't have access to the stove while it's operating.

Heating and cooking with wood stoves is a little more complicated than using modern electric or gas appliances, but many homesteaders find that it's well worth the trouble. Not only will you save money on your energy bill, you'll be using locally-grown, renewable resources.