From our website metrics, we’ve noticed that one of our most popular older posts is about our first attempts at cooking on a woodstove. People arrive at that page seeking cooking tips, but we were just getting started at the time. Now, a year later, we are more qualified to offer some useful advice about this most esoteric of tasks.
Our wood stove is shown on the right. It’s a steel stove with a step top. This gives it two natural temperature zones and makes it more flexible than a single surface stove or a cast iron stove with a burner surface. Your other option for indoor wood cooking is a cook stove. The skills required to use an actual cook stove move up the scale from esoteric to arcane, and I recommend you look elsewhere for details.
In addition to a wood stove (and wood), there are a few tools that make cooking much easier. These include:
- Flue Thermometer – A useful device (shown on the right) to ensure that high efficiency stoves are running optimally, the chimney thermometer becomes essential to monitor and keep the stove at a constant temperature while cooking.
- Cast Iron Cookware – Most cookware will work, but cast iron or high quality stainless is the best. Light metal cookware is more likely to cause burning, and non-stick is probably an even greater health risk on a cook surface that can exceed 600°F. We like our set of Lodge Cast Iron a lot. It’s reasonably priced, easy to maintain, and naturally non-stick.
- Cast Iron Trivet – A heavy trivet (shown on the right) isn’t required, but it creates one additional temperature zone. We keep a Lodge trivet sitting on the hotter lower surface at all times. The trivet allows us to heat food more quickly while reducing the risk of burning the bottom surface.
- Gloves – It’s probably obvious, but everything about a woodstove is hot. I burned myself at least a dozen times the first year just feeding wood into the stove. I’m more careful now, but hot pads or gloves are still required to rearrange pots on the cook surface.
The various temperature zones for our stove at optimal temperature are shown on the right. Most sources suggest that flue temperature should be at least 250°F for an efficient burn and to prevent creosote deposits. We have a double wall chimney, so when the outside reads slightly above 200°F the inner wall is actually about 350°F. This is our goal temperature. We use fuel additions and air control to keep it constant as much as possible, especially when cooking.
For a given flue temperature, the other surfaces have fixed temperatures. The upper surface of the stove tracks the inner flue temperature at 350°F. The lower surface is a blistering 500°F. Adding a trivet to this surface creates a slightly cooler 400°F area. The trivet gets the most use of any surface. It captures the greater heat output of the lower surface, while having much of the burn-resistance of the upper one. Even if we want to bring something up to temperature quickly, we’ll use the trivet to remove any initial chill. Setting cold pots on hot stoves is bad for both pots and stoves.
What follows is a summary of our experience with different types of cooking:
- Boil – “A watched pot never boils.” The first time we tried to boil pasta we probably waited an hour for the water to heat. It turns out that adding a lid solves this problem. (No escaping steam to bleed off the heat.) We quickly boil water for coffee, tea, pasta, etc. in a stainless steel pot with lid directly on the lower surface. Boiling sauces or soups is safer on the trivet.
- Simmer – A slow simmer can be achieved on the upper surface with the lid on, and a fast simmer on the trivet (lower surface) with the lid off. Boiling and simmering are somewhat dependent on the size of the pot and the quantity of liquid.
- Fry – Fresh eggs fried with lard in a cast iron skillet on a wood stove–now there’s a dose of country living nirvana. Cast iron is great for frying as it holds the heat and evens it out. The trivet on the lower surface is just about the perfect temperature for frying. As long as the oil has heated sufficiently, nothing sticks to the cast iron and the cure improves with each use.
- Dutch Oven – Dutch oven cooking is particularly well suited for wood stoves and you can find a lot of nice recipes online. Flat bottom cast iron Dutch ovens are essential, and a bail (wire loop handle) makes them much easier to move. We can slow cook in the Dutch oven on the upper surface, or roast things on the trivet. One of my new favorite dishes includes ham and sweet potatoes cooked in a Dutch oven on the lower trivet for about an hour.
- Bake – Baking on a wood stove has been challenging (translation: charcoal cake). While cast iron shines for other cooking, it suffers from several flaws when used for baking. It heats from the bottom up, so when those biscuits or cookies are done on the top they are charred on the bottom. Also, it retains heat, thus allowing it to thoroughly burn that cake you removed from the heat at the perfect time and then left on the counter to cool. Immediate removal from the cookware is required. We’ve found that thin crust pizzas can be baked just fine on the upper surface in a cast iron frying pan. Cookies can often be baked similarly. We’ve also had limited success with biscuits and cake through a more complicated process. We put them in a light metal pan, suspended (using a spacer of some type) within a preheated Dutch oven, sitting on a trivet on the lower surface. The idea is to provide a hot air environment while buffering the bottom of the cooking container from excesses of heat. For biscuits, we’ve found that periodically removing the lid (while keeping it hot) is required to allow them to dry correctly. I’m under the impression that many of the issues we’ve encountered can be solved by using a stove-top portable oven. To be honest, I’m not sure why we haven’t bought one.
- Popcorn – Popcorn was our first great success on the wood stove! A hand-cranked popper saves your stove from scratches caused by shaking a pot. We set the popper directly on the lower surface and crank away. It’s usually done in 2 minutes or so. Popcorn absolutely won’t pop for us if the flue temp falls below our 200°F minimum.
Have I made you hungry yet? Good! That’s all for now. I have a cast iron pot of Cuban black beans with olive oil simmering on the upper stove surface, and it’s calling my name.