If you have ever lost power in your home and had only an electric stove or microwave, you certainly understand that cooking food can sometimes become a bit of a problem. In fact, with no power, you don’t have a place to actually cook food, severely limiting your choices on what you are able to eat.
Even when there is power, electric stoves have serious sustainability issues. While modern electric stoves may seem cleaner and more convenient than wood stoves, they are much more inefficient. Cooking on an electric stove is one of the least sustainable methods of cooking. When fossil or biomass fuels are converted into electricity, it has an efficiency rating of between 20-45%. The rest is lost in heat during electricity generation. On top of that, the way that electric stoves work is also inefficient. A lot of energy is lost through the burner and cooking utensils.
If you are trying to reduce their carbon footprint or live off-grid, you may be surprised at how much energy you consume through cooking. Therefore, we’d like to suggest that you consider skipping the electrical middleman and try some alternative forms of cooking your meals.
Wood Burning Cook Stoves
Wood burning cook stoves may seem nostalgic, or inefficient, or even a smoky dangerous tool, but for those who have mastered their use they have a lot of uses. A good wood burning stove can do more than just heat your food. It can also heat your home and serve as a hot water heater.
While it is possible to find antique wood stoves that are still in good working order, there are many manufacturers that are producing wood burning stoves. Many of these make use of modern efficiencies such as improved flue controls, warmers, or a glass firebox door that will allow you to see inside to check the fire. Some of the older stoves weigh more than 600 pounds and the newer models can be much lighter.
Below is a small list of some of the major wood burning cook stove manufacturers and distributors along with their websites:
Heartland – (http://www.agamarvel.com/heartland/products/woodburning-cookstoves/)
Homewood Stoves (http://www.homewoodstoves.co.nz/)
Cooking on a wood stove
Many people claim that food prepared on a wood burning stove tastes better because the process is both slower and more thorough. While it can take a bit of practice to be able to successfully prepare meals using a wood burning stove, it’s worth learning the skill.
Having a good supply of dry, seasoned firewood on hand is a good place to start. Different types or species of wood burn differently. Hard woods such as oak, elder, walnut, and hickory burn longer and throw off an even heat. Soft woods such as pine should only be used as kindling or to start a fire that you want to get hot quickly. Fortunately, you don’t need that much wood to keep a wood burning stove going compared to a fireplace.
Regardless of the type of wood you are using, it is a good idea for firewood to be split and left to season for a period of at least six months. Six months is a good place to start. The pieces should be cut into lengths small enough to allow them to fit into your stove’s firebox, yet not so small that they burn up too quickly. You may also want to have some whole logs for days you’ll be cooking all day. These burn much slower, but also take much longer to dry. Using wet wood will make your woodstove smoke and build up deposits that can cause a chimney fire!
The firebox is where you will be burning your wood. The firebox is usually located on the left side of the stove. Directly above the firebox is the Broiler drawer where a grill can be inserted. Most stoves have grooves in the firebox that will hold the grill. Broiling is usually done over a bed of coals and not when the fire is too hot.
Directly below the fire box is the ash pit. Ashes should be removed regularly from the ash pit to make sure that there is adequate air flow for the stove and oven. If you’re cooking on the stove every day, you’ll need to clean it every day. Cook stoves come with a special ash broom to pull the ashes out. Remember that ashes can keep coals hot for a very long time. Dispose of the ashes into a metal bucket, preferably with a lid, so that they can be safely moved outdoors and away from the house.
Don’t just throw the ash from your wood fire away. Stove or fireplace ash is the best snow and ice melt you’ll ever find and is especially good on walkways and driveways. It won’t cause damage to stone, pavers or concrete. If the ash is kept dry, then it can also be used in the spring to balance out the soil in the garden. In a pinch, you can also use the ashes to make soap.
The top of the cook stove is called the hob. Inset into the top of the hob will be various round or square disks of metal called eyes. These eyes are removed during ash cleaning or for setting large pots of food inside for faster heating.
During operation, the gases from the burning fuel go up from the firebox and pass under the hob on the way to the stovepipe. The further away from the firebox your pot is on the hob, the cooler the temperature of the stove. The overall temperature of the stove depends on the wood you’re burning, how much you’re burning, your air damper controls, and where you put your pan on the stove. Balancing all of these factors is the tricky part of working with a wood stove.
If you want a hot fire, fill up the fire box with wood that is drier and then open the dampers and regulators up more to allow more air flow. Each stove is different, so you will want to find out what works best for your own unit. If you want to make the fire cooler, you simply stop stoking the fire box until it’s down to embers, then add a larger, hardwood log that will burn a long time and at a more even rate.
In many wood burning stoves, at the top of the stove along the stove pipe are warming ovens. These are ideal places to keep bread, pies and other food warm. You can also use them to help dry herbs, and it’s the perfect place that is warm enough to encourage homemade bread dough to rise before it’s baked.
It is highly recommended that you get further instruction on how to run a wood cook stove before you take the plunge to buy one. They’re quite expensive, but if you can get the knack for cooking on one and you have the wood, you’ll never have to worry about an electrical fault reducing your meals to pop-tarts and saltines.
But what if you live in a place without sufficient hardwood? What if you don’t want to contribute to greenhouse gases and deforestation, which wood burning will do? In these cases, you may want to look into solar cooking. It uses no fuel, emits no greenhouse gases, and there is no particulate matter to add to air pollution. It is quite possible to cook any dish with a solar cooker if there is enough sunlight and you know how to use it. Their major disadvantage is that they are slow compared to cooking on a fire.
Box solar cookers are much like a green house or a solar water heater. An insulated box with a glass lid can trap heat and increase the temperature inside enough for cooking to happen. These can take advantage of even diffuse sunlight, but they are very dependent on construction and the overall solar gain for their maximum temperature. However, as long as you can get the temperature of the box above the boiling point of water and keep it there, you can cook most foods given enough time.
Parabolic solar cookers focus the energy of the sun on a central point where the cooking vessel sits. They have to be oriented to the sun properly to use and it can be difficult to control the temperature. They can become too hot quite quickly!
The best thing about solar cookers though is their cost. They are extremely cheap to build. You could make one in an afternoon if you have the materials. You can find instructions on how to build both kinds of cookers on several places on the web or on YouTube.
Cooking efficiency is determined by how much energy is kept in the food where it belongs. One way to do this is to use a fireless cooker. Forms of fireless cookers have been around for centuries. If you’ve ever buried a hot dutch oven into the ground to keep the heat in, you’ve used a fireless cooker.
The essential principle of a fireless cooker is to take a cooking vessel that has reached the right temperature and insulating it long enough for the food to finish cooking without additional fuel. An early American version of one is a haybox, a box with a metal sleeve in the middle for a pot to rest that was stuffed with straw for insulation. Just slip the pot into the sleeve and close the lid, then wait until the food is cooked.
With a fireless cooker you’re trading time for fuel. The end product is just the same as using a regular stove, but it’s much more efficient. Depending on the type of insulation material that lines the fireless cooking box, how much time is needed to cook the food, and how quickly the pot is transferred from the heat source and into the box, fireless cookers can reduce the amount of fuel you need by 50-80%.
A more technologically advanced version of this is a thermal cooker. These are basically special vacuum cases that act like a big thermos. Sealing a meal in a thermal cooker prevents convection heating from stealing away heat from your food just like a thermos keeps your coffee warm till lunchtime.
Pressure cookers are another form of efficient cooking. While they do require a lot of fuel to maintain temperature long enough, they can cook many foods remarkably quickly. For instance, pressure cooking dried beans can be done much faster. Think less than 10 minutes under pressure fast.
Most Americans use pressure cookers only for canning or for huge cuts of meat, but many Indian grocery stores carry small pressure cookers specifically for cooking beans and lentils. These special pressure cookers automatically let out pressure much like a steam kettle. After filling the cooker according to instructions, it is heated until the correct number of whistles have sounded. If you plan on growing a lot of beans or grains, it may be worth the investment to get one of these smaller pressure cookers.
Savvy readers of this article may have their wheels spinning about combining some of these methods to create a super-efficient cooking system. This approach is called integrated cooking. Once you understand that, for most dishes, heating food above the boiling point of water only makes it cook faster it’s easy to combine approaches.
Want to cook a huge pot of food, but don’t want to keep feeding a woodstove? Put a haybox next to your cook stove and stick your pot in there when it reaches boiling. Sun about to go down and your food isn’t cooked yet? Put it in a thermal cooker. Or get your wood stove really hot, dampen the flame, and cook your high temperature stuff early in the day and use the residual heat to bake things.
Our use of fossil fuels for cooking has really separated us from the true mastery of fire that good cooking requires. As energy costs increase, it would be well worth your time to learn some of these other cooking methods so you can support your community.