How to cook on a woodstove

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.

The Stove

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.

The Tools

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.

Temperature Zones

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.

Cooking

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.

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11 Responses to How to cook on a woodstove

  1. Leigh says:

    Good post! This should be helpful for anyone looking for this kind of information. Makes me wish I still had my big dutch oven and hand crank corn popper though.

  2. Lynn says:

    Very interesting post! We got a woodstove this past year, but we do not have a cooking surface on it. And yes, you have made me hungry!

  3. Benita says:

    Wonderful post!! I grew up with a fireplace and became pretty proficient at roasting meats on tongs and baking potatoes in the ashes with it. And a favorite after-school and before chore snack for my brother and I was to roll up a slice of cheese in a piece of bologna and roast it over the fire using the tongs – YUMM!!

    I’d love to have a wood stove, but Scott won’t even let me burn a candle. A blazing wood fire isn’t something I can discuss with him. Sigh…

  4. Pingback: Cooking on the wood stove top » Farm Folly

  5. Kelly says:

    I got my father a bean pot for christmas as well as my uncle. My uncle decided to use his on his kitchen stove….and the bottom blew out! I bought them for each to use on their wood stoves, and my father still wants to use his on the wood stove but he wants to be safe and get something to put the bean pot on top of, something like a trivet. If anyone has a solution to this problem we would greatly appreciate it! my father is getting anxious to use his bean pot!

  6. Melyssa says:

    My Napoleon 1600 was installed in December. I am and still getting used to it. I’ve taught cooking and catered before, so I’m well versed in cooking techniques.

    Although my stove is iron with a ceramic finish and not made for cooking per se, tonight I fulfilled my dream of frying bacon in the living room! It was great! After the bacon was crispy perfect, we put on another skillet and made a giant omelet and toasted bread on the top. The stove performed better when the temperature was between 475 and 525. The eggs were amazing. Actually the best I’ve ever made. :)

    I use iron trivets to protect the ceramic surface of the stove from scratching.

    We’re already planning the split pea soup and the omelet to order brunch weekend!

    I don’t want summer to ever get here!

  7. S. Jones says:

    Just installed a woodburner! Its not a cook stove but I will be frying massive bacon soon!!!!

  8. david says:

    have had a woodstove for awhile, and just thought i would cook my family a hamburger steak on the stove.
    it took alittle while but they were very good!my wife wanted to kmow why on the woodstove?
    becasuse it was only about 25 degrees with the wind sat.what i would like to do is buy some cookware to cook on my wood stove. my home is 2000 sq. ft and my gas furnace has’nt been turned on yet.so i thought ,might as well learn to cook onit! just having fun, pintos and cornbread mon,waiting in snow in nc
    jan 8th 2011

  9. Aunt Raven says:

    The best (=healthful) vegetable oil for cooking at high temperatures is cocoanut oil, not olive oil– the amino acids break down and you may as well use pork lard for all the good it will do you.
    If you have only one woodstove for both heating and cooking, have a look at the Villager “kitchener” which has a clever hot plate you can regulate with a trivet. You can get this model with an optional ss back boiler for domestic hot water if you want to get fancy and have an overhead hot water tank to rig up hot showers in winter if you’re off grid. The kitchener is an 8 kw stove, so make sure your space is big enough to take the heat it will put out, though a back boiler will reduce the output to about 6 kw.
    Sheer unapologetic luxury: one of those Japanese “tetsubin” cast-iron teapots. Dry them carefully as soon as you empty them to prevent rust. However do not boil water in them on your wood stove if they have a porcelain lining– the woodstove is too hot and will crack the porcelain. These artistic (and cute) teapots will keep your tea hot for an hour on your table, however; use a trivet and a potholder to keep from burning your table or your hand.
    Go to charity shops or garage sales to pick up old cast iron ware at a bargain. If it is rusty or pitted, check online how to restore and re cure it for use.
    Efficiency hint: get an iron frying pan that will also fit the lid of your dutch oven.

  10. Shannon says:

    My husband and I are hopefully closing on our homestead property this month. We will need a woodstove. I’ve been researching, but I am so overwhelmed! I’d like a glass view because I think they’re nice looking and easy to keep an eye on the status of the fire, I’d like a large cooking surface like yours has. I’ve been shopping yards sales and good will for my cast iron and have assembled an arsenal of cast iron, now I need to buy a stove. Any thoughts or advice on choosing stove? Actually we will need two for our cabin, but only one will be used for cooking. Thanks for the great article.

    • lee says:

      Yes, I think a glass view stove is essential for maintaining a good fire. Some older stoves had a grate you could mount across the door to see the flames, but high efficiency stoves won’t burn correctly with the door open. If you are going to deal with the mess of woodstove, good ambiance is required. :)

      Our stove is a Lopi Endeavor. The two tier design is really great for cooking, and we are pretty happy with it overall. There are a few details I dislike. The burn tubes could be better designed as they catch on logs and lose their pins if you don’t watch them. We’ve also managed to sag one of the metal guards above the burn tubes, which is replaceable but an annoyance. There were a few other problematic details I complained about at the end of this post. My wife is partial to steel stoves, so the Endeavor was a natural choice for us. If you like the cast iron stoves, I’m partial to the Jøtul line of stoves. I don’t think steel and cast iron stoves are that much different in practice, except that cast iron stoves usually have fixed burner locations for cooking (if it all). You might also search for stove companies local to your area. After we bought our Lopi, I found several northwest companies which made stoves that I would have seriously considered if I knew about them earlier.

      Your selection will be largely influenced by required BTUs. A certain BTU output suggests a rough maximum square footage, assuming common insulation levels. Most of the major brands will only have one or two models which are appropriately sized for your cabin. Our stove will be a little oversized for our house when it’s finished, but it’s fine right now while so much insulation is missing. Eventually, I hope to burn one small hot fire each day and rely on high insulation levels to retain the heat.

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