February 29, 2012

Wood Cookstove Cooking: What I'm Learning

While I'll not consider myself a master yet, I've gotten quite a bit of practice on my wood cookstove since we got it installed in January. I'm definitely more comfortable with it and am starting to learn how to get good results.

This is a very versatile piece of equipment. It cooks and it warms. Some days I've kept it going nearly all day, for the warmth. Other days, milder days or days I work outside a lot, I start a fire for each meal I prepare.

Learning damper control was important, both for starting fires and adjusting heat. This is different for each cookstove. Mine is a Heartland Sweetheart, and I admit I didn't like the bell style dampers at first.

My stove has 3 bell dampers

I've gotten used to them though, and the stove has fairly good control, though not nearly as sensitive as our Woodstock wood heat stove.

Stovetop Cooking

Pancakes on the griddle

The surface actually heats up pretty quickly, though a slow start is better for the cast iron itself. Even starting from a scratch fire, I can get cooking fairly quickly by removing plates and placing a pan directly over the fire. The firebox is fairly deep, so sooty pan bottoms are not a huge problem, unless I build a large, pot licking fire. An old Girl Scout tip for that, apply liquid dishwashing liquid to pan bottoms before using, so soot washes off easily.

There are two other ways to control cooking temperature. One is by placement of the pot or pan on the cooktop. The entire cast iron top can be used. After the stove is warmed up, even the surface farthest away from the firebox will keep soup simmering.

Temperature is also controlled by the dampers, which control air flow. Open dampers mean more air and a hotter, faster fire. Closed or partially closed dampers restrict air and slow the burn rate down. This means the wood lasts longer, but the temperature is lower. The oven damper can adjust stove top temperature as well as oven temperature.

Oven damper control, here, almost all the way open

When it's open, the heat is routed directly up the chimney. When it's closed, the heat circulates under the cooktop and around the oven. So I can somewhat adjust the temperature by adjusting the oven damper. If I want to turn "up" the heat, I close it. If I want to turn it "down," I open the damper to allow the heat to escape. The stove obviously retains more heat when the dampers are closed.

If the stove is used to heat the kitchen all day, getting a meal prepared is quite quick. Everything is pre-warmed and ready to go. I keep a cast iron pan or two on the cooktop. They stay quite warm this way, and are ready to use when I'm ready to cook. It's also quicker to heat the oven.

I have successfully used my stainless steel pots as well as my cast iron. With the SS however, food wants to stick to the bottom of the pan more quickly than with the cast iron, so I need to keep a closer eye on whatever I'm cooking.

The stove can also be used like a slow cooker. If I'm going to be keeping the stove warm all day, I can start a soup or stew in the morning, keep it off to the side and tend to it from time to time to judge its progress. I've used the oven the same way, "slow cooking" baked sweet potatoes.


Hot, golden brown biscuits as they come out of the oven

Getting the oven heated to a good baking temperature takes awhile if starting with a cold stove. In that case it's a plan ahead project. If the stove is already warm, then the oven heats to baking temperature in no more time than it takes to preheat my electric oven.

The thermometer in the door only registers the temperature of the door. I use a small oven thermometer inside the oven to check it's actual temperature.

Baking requires a good coal bed and larger pieces of wood for a sustained, even temperature. This is actually not as fussy as I first feared. 12 to 14 inch long pieces of hardwood at least 3 inches in diameter are good for this purpose.

At first I lamented that my Air-Bake baking sheets didn't fit in my new oven. I love them because they help prevent burned cookie bottoms. With a wood cookstove however, the heat source is on the side, not the top and bottom of the oven. Burning cookie bottoms (or tops) is not a concern with this oven.

I'm learning to worry less about precision oven temp, by adjusting cooking time. This doesn't work as well with baked goods, but does with vegetables, meats, and casseroles. I reckon it could be called a more intuitive type of cooking, which would likely drive some folks crazy. It's a different style of cooking I suppose, but one that I actually find easier.

Pizza? Well, since my beloved pizza stone also doesn't fit in the wood cookstove oven, I still bake that in my electric oven every Friday night!

I've also not tried to bake loaves of bread in my wood cookstove oven yet (too used to the bread machine!) I am understanding however, the concept of once a week baking ("bake on Saturday" as Ma Ingalls used to say). Especially in summer, why heat up the kitchen more than necessary? Bake everything once a week and get it over with.


On milder days, I let the fire go out between meals. Also I don't worry about it if I'm working outside for most of the day. It's just easier that way because even though it has a good size firebox, I don't want to be running in and out all day just to tend the fire.

The fire can be banked however (fill firebox with large pieces of wood, turn down dampers, and cover with ashes to slow the burn). A good coal bed and pre-warmed stove make it quicker to get the next meal going. I've not tried to bank a fire all night yet.

The stove does a marvelous job of keeping the back of the house warm, including our tiny bathroom off the kitchen. The ceiling fan helps push warm air out of the kitchen (we have high ceilings). The oven and warming oven doors can be left open to add even more heat to the room.

I stick my slippers or house shoes underneath anytime I have to go outside. The floor under the stove doesn't get exceptionally warm however, so these aren't as toasty to put on again, as one would imagine.

Hot Water

Hot water with the turn of the faucet (up to 5 gallons worth)

The water reservoir holds about 5 gallons of water. It is slow to heat however, so to have hot water requires that the stove be going most of the day. Still, it's wonderful to fill the dish pan without using the hot water heater! This is not potable water however, and cannot be used for cooking or tea.

When the water in the reservoir is hot, the stove retains heat longer.


When the days get warmer, I'll switch my cooking to my summer kitchen, a.k.a. the back porch. Eventually I'd like to get a solar oven for summer cooking and baking. Even farther down the road would be an outdoor kitchen. The hows and whens of that are still future tense. I'm gradually learning not to get too anxious about accomplishing anything like that. It's what the slow life is all about after all. :)


Mama Pea said...

It sure sounds like you've got a very good grip on how your stove works already! I just love the pictures of it. Such a beauty! Have never seen an actual "faucet" like that on the side of the water reservoir. My old stove had a faucet (just a piece of pipe really) that folded on a hinge next to the tank and swung out when you wanted to use it.

I've heard that the "old gals" (before thermometers you could put in the oven) would just stick their hand in the heated oven and could tell whether it was approximately 350, 400 or 450 degrees! Guess we've lost the touch. (Hahahaha!)

Swamp Dog said...

Your stove looks really great, I've got one on my wish list! I've got a plain old wood stove for heat, so I can do some basic heat up on the surface, but no real cooking.

Donna OShaughnessy said...

Fantastic Leigh! Thanks so much for taking the time to do such a great tutorial. One day I hope to be doing all you are doing. You are such an inspiration to me!

Benita said...

I am so envious of your stove. This is something I have always wanted, but since I can't stay home all day to keep fires going, it would not be very practical for me. Also, hubby hates live fires in the house. It's hard even to light a candle around him.

Sherri B. said...

I so enjoyed this post. It seems you have learned quickly, how to cook with your new stove, your biscuits look beautiful. Thanks for giving us this little 'cooking lesson'. xo

Natalie said...

Thank you for sharing this. I enjoyed reading it very very much.

Dani said...

You've done really well, and are an inspiration to me to get to grips with my Dover stove. It's not as fancy as yours, but it will still take some getting used to.

Well done :)

Florida Farm Girl said...

I've never event tried to cook on a wood stove. However, I do have very fond memories of my grandmother's food from her huge old stove. Looks like you're making progress. Good for you.

2 Tramps said...

Your stove is really wonderful! We have Tramp 1's grandparent's old wood cookstove. It is a 1924 Charter Oak. It was quite a chore to move it and restore it - but we are sure glad we did it. We installed it in our family room and we heat with it and cook with it. It is going full blast this morning with our cold and snowy weather.

Ngo Family Farm said...

So fascinatingand wonderful! Thanks for sharing with us :)

Sylvanna said...


Leigh said...

Mama Pea, "we've lost the touch," LOL. I read about that; they gauged the temperature by how long they could stand to keep their hand in the oven. I reckon I'll stick with the thermometer. :)

Swamp Dog, I've used our heat stove for cooking too. Mostly beans and soup. It's great for one pot meals!

Donna, thanks! I truly appreciate that. I hope you get a buyer for your farm soon.

Benita, fire definitely needs to be treated with caution; can't blame him there. Still, wood heat is so superior to any other.

Sherri, thanks!

Natalie, thank you!

Dani, I'm always slow to try anything that has a learning curve. Sounds like your Dover would be worth it though.

FFG, there's definitely a knack to it and I'm fortunate to have lived with one years ago. It's a great appliance!

2 Tramps, what a great place to put it. Nothing like a snug cozy place where the family gathers. Plus they're nice to look at!

Jaime, thanks!

Sylvanna, thank you!

Michelle said...

Excellent post! We have recently decided to make the commitment that we are definitely getting a wood stove for our house, and my #1 criteria is that it have a top that can be cooked upon! At least in the winter I have every intention of using it exclusively.

CaliforniaGrammy said...

I was showing your pictures to my husband, Ken, and when I got to the beautiful biscuits shot, his comment was "Where's the gravy?"

Thanks for sharing your stove with us this morning. It seems like you're getting quite comfy with it!

www.FarmLifeLessons.blogspot.com said...

Your stove is gorgeous! I am curious about how much heat radiates from the stove and how it impacts the wall behind the stove? And I wanted to tell you thanks for adding me to your prepper link, I have several areas of prepping to write about; it is a bit overwhelming sometimes to think about how we've had to do this all our lives, for actual dangers that exist in our area with heavy industrialized areas close to our homes and the bay close by as well. We've lived through some awful times, but having some survival/emergency response skills does help you get through it all.

I'm reading some of your older entries...having such a great time. I come by to visit, but I just LOVE reading about the stove, etc., because it is amazing that you are learning to use it. You could actually be a mini-expert on those stoves for other people! I am jealous!!! It is a work of art.


Cat Eye Cottage said...

It sounds like you just about have that thing licked!

Leigh said...

Michelle, that is an excellent idea. There are some wonderful heat stoves with burner plates included. Also, you might want to consider a chimney oven. I looked for one when we installed our heat stove, but didn't actually find where to buy one until much later. I used to have one of these (many moons ago) loved it, and used it all the time.

Janice, oooo gravy and biscuits! Dan like his with butter and homemade blueberry jam. :)

Lana, mine has a heat shield, which does a super job. The wall barely gets warm at all. The heat shield is great, because it means I can move it closer to the wall without fire hazard.

Keep up the good work on your prepper articles! So many folks blow it off, but you have real life reasons that we all ought to heed. It may not be hurricanes for everyone, but there are tornadoes, flooding, earth quakes. No one is immune from potential disaster.

Candace I'll feel like I have it licked after I master break baking!

Sue said...

Those biscuits look delicious! I heat exclusively with my wood stove, and I love it. Can't do all the fancy cooking, but it'll hold temp for up to 16 hours (very useful when I was working 13 hour shifts at my old job). And I have used it for one pot stovetop cooking when we lose electricity, so that's nice.

The Stay @ Home-Gardener said...

Its pretty.

spotted face said...

Beautiful stove. Inspiring!

Kristi said...

Its amazing that something so substantial could be so versatile too. You biscuits look beautiful.

Renee Nefe said...

just in case you ever forget to do the Girl Scout trick to your pots before using over the open flame... Dawn Power Dissolver will also take the soot off easily. I take it with me when we go camping because I would rather not deal with soaping the pots first.
I don't think that I could ever talk my hubby into a wood stove though...so I'm jealous of yours.

Leigh said...

Sue, thanks! Yes, a good wood stove can keep coals and heat for a long time. There's nothing better than waking up in the morning and just tossing another log in!

Stay @ Home-Gardener, thanks!

Casey, thanks!

Kristi, it's wonderful. And it's nice to know I'm only using one appliance for so many purposes.

Renee, thanks! That's good to know, I'll have to get some to keep it around. Maybe you could just get a nice wood heater and cook on top of that. :)

Joe said...

Used to be a lot of old houses 'round here (SW VA) with a summer kitchen attached to the house by way of a narrow closed hallway. I remember grandma telling me what they were. Hardly any of those old houses left.

Modern houses don't even have screened windows. Silly to run the A/C in mild weather IMO but its either that or let the skeeters in.

Theresa said...

Good for you! That didn't take long at all. The biscuits look delightful.
Serious stove envy here..

Seeking Serenity said...

such a beautiful cookstove!!! I am so jealous-I love cooking on and with cast iron and miss it so much

Leigh said...

Joe,when we bought the "new" replacement windows for the kitchen, neither came with screens. I can't even find screens for them. Somehow we're going to make them! Amazing how the times have changed.

Theresa, thanks! I have to say that they were the best biscuits I ever made. :)

Peaceful, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Oh Leigh, that sounds like heaven, and that you are getting a great grasp on the sensitivities of cooking on this marvelous stove. Thanks for sharing!

Renee Nefe said...

I was looking online at cabins for sale as we would love to have a vacation cabin. I found 2 with wood stoves in the kitchen...one that was the only stove! and I found one with the wood cooking stove in the living room, and a bunch with wood stoves for heat. Maybe I'll get me one yet! :D
Course I have to talk hubby into seeing that having our own cabin is a good idea.

Leigh said...

Stephanie, the learning curve really hasn't been too bad. Of course, staying warm while learning hasn't been too bad either. :)

Renee, of course you need a cabin! Sounds like the ones in your area are rustic to say the least. I remember you were looking at one awhile back. Wasn't you DH fairly receptive then?

chris said...

hey leigh,
speaking of solar ovens.... are you still interested in one of those solar windshield deflectors? they should be making their appearance here in vegas any day now.

Unknown said...

This is great! I really want a wood stove, but that will come last with our priorities as we are just starting our homestead. Thanks for the info!

Leigh said...

Chris, actually, yes! If you contact me at my email, leighsfiberjournal at gmail dot com, I can send you some $$ and give you my mailing addresss. :)

Rugratmommy, I know you'll find the right stove at the right time! We had to wait for ours, but I love it and am so glad we did. :)

John L said...

That is very nice, I would definitely thinking about getting one for my cabin be very nice in the winter for cooking and in making meals.

Anonymous said...

I bought one of these from ChimneyHeaters.com . I installed and it works fine. Heats my 2000
square foot house. I have the pump connected to a UPS but I am not sure how long the pump will run if the electric goes out. I had it installed all winter and did not have to turn on my Electric heat once which saved me about 200 euro a month here in Romania.The Electric is not stable here so I had to rush to take out the fire a couple of times because the water pump had stopped and the pressure valves were going off. The UPS will solve that but I don't know how long a UPS will keep my central pump going. I will attach a pic of what chimney heaters are in case you are not familiar with them. The pump is a Grundfos and has three speeds.

Leigh said...

John, thanks!

Anonymous, thank you so much for this information. I'd never seen this before and think it's something worth considering, definitely. Our electric heat pump is both expensive to run and inefficient - it does not warm the house very well. Would appreciate a pic, my email addy is on my blogger profile page.

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