Friday, March 27, 2009

Cooking on a Wood Stove - Yankke

Wood cookstoves often have more individual quirks than the cooks who use them. But successful cooking with wood begins in the woodshed. The key to a well-planned and tasty meal is the availability and selection of fuel-split, dried and stacked perhaps a year in advance.

There are innumerable advantages to cooking with one's own wood. A twenty-acre woodlot will supply a family's cooking and heating needs almost indefinitely, if culled and harvested properly. The cost of wood grown on the farm is lower than that of any other fuel. In addition, wood cookstoves continue to function when outside power sources fail. They provide auxiliary heat, and this in turn can make a kitchen thee family social center that modern efficiency has done its best to displace.

It is true that bread can be baked in any oven, but somehow the combined odors of fresh bread and a wood stove is enough to stir a pang of nostalgia in any breast.

However, before installing a wood cookstove in your kitchen-if you are fortunate enough to locate one in working order at a reasonable price-consider some of the disadvantages. Foremost is the amount of wood demanded by the cook to keep meals coming on time. If it is available and at hand, wood stove cooking is economical. But the constant cutting, dragging, splitting, stacking and carting of wood into the kitchen can be a tiresome task in a busy world and has persuaded many a farm boy to leave for the city.

In learning the art of wood stove cooking-even if one is already a capable cook using another fuel-there are bound to be disappointments until the personalities of cook and stove become compatible.

To start with, the fuel must be dry. Although any wood will burn eventually, the fire will be hotter and more easily controlled if seasoned wood is used. Green wood can provoke chimney fires.

Hereabouts, the stove wood most generally used is white or rock maple, beech, white birch, and white or red oak. Ash is a fine wood, easily split and safe to use either green or dry. In the old days, ash was used largely as kindling. It was split into 3/4-inch vertical slabs then these were worked into 3/4-inch square sticks with a hatchet. Small-diameter ash was left in the round.

Countrymen never use pine, even for kindling. This wood can coat your chimney with resin, which in turn could lead to a house burning. Pine is saved for the lumber yard.

Wood that will not split easily because of knots or grain is stacked in another area of the woodshed and eventually finds its way to the parlor stove.

In the days when the wood range was king of the kitchen, country people kept a woodbox next to it, which was filled with a mixed lot of stove-length wood by the boys before they went to bed. From this the cook would select her fuel for the purpose intended: birch for a quick, hot fire with little body; maple and beech for longer lasting dependability; oak (which takes longer to dry) for a slow, hot fire, once a bed of coals had been established. It was an unsplit oak log that was put into the firebox just before bedtime and banked with ashes. Usually the cookstove firebox was too small to hold a fire to last the night (a larger one would make it more difficult to adjust cooking temperatures), but some coals of oak would remain by early morning, which helped keep the chill out of the kitchen. During a spell of cold weather, the cookstove and parlor stoves would have to be tended periodically throughout the night to keep the water pipes from freezing.

To kindle a fire, the housewife took a piece of newspaper, tore it down the center crease, and crumpled and twisted each half separately. She laid about eight twists on the grate, lighting both ends of one of them as she put it in then loosely covered these with eight to ten ¾-inch square sticks of split ash. Within minutes her fire had started. Now according to what she was to cook, she selected fuel for her fire bed-often white birch and maple to get her chores off to a good start. (Any birch more than 2 inches in diameter should be split to dry in the shed; otherwise, the center will rot in a year's time and its usefulness will be lost. This is especially true of gray birch.)

Once the fire bed is established, the attentive cook spends her time regulating the drafts until the stove lids and oven are heated enough for her to proceed.

Most cookstoves have four different dampers. The front damper is located to the left and below the firebox. This is the primary source of draft, which allows controlled combustion. Ashes drop through the grate into the ashpit below. (It is here you can bake potatoes. Coat them with either grease or aluminum foil and turn occasionally until done.) The adjustable upper damper is called the "check." By closing the front damper and opening the check, you can cool the fire and save fuel. The regulation of the check is one way to keep a more even temperature in the oven while baking.

The stovepipe damper is the chief device for getting your fire going and, later, stopping it from burning too quickly and allowing an excessive loss of heat up the flue.

One other damper is important. This is the oven damper and is located either to the left or right of the stovepipe-depending upon the make-at the back of the stove. When this is open (as for starting a fire or cutting down the surface heat of the stove), the heat goes directly to the stovepipe; when closed, it allows heat to circulate across the top and around the oven walls before escaping through the flue. An open oven damper, therefore, spreads the heat more evenly under the surface of the lid covers.

The hottest spot on the cookstove lies between the left and center back lids in a six-lidded cookstove. When the oven damper is open, this generally shifts forward along the right ridge of the firebox. One of the great advantages of cooking on the surface of a cookstove is the cook's choice of temperature range. Results can be had instantly merely by shifting the pots backward and forward from hot to medium heat, far off to the right or left for warming or simmering. If the stove is equipped with a pair of warming ovens or movable trivets attached to the metal casing around the stovepipe, the cook has handy places to set her breads to rise, keep platters and food warm, dispel the dampness from salt, and hang dishtowels and mittens to dry.

Many cookstoves also boast a holding tank for water on the right. Not only is warm water available whenever the stove is going, but the added humidity is healthful and seems to temper the room's cold corners.

It is oven cooking that is the hardest to learn and the most challenging. The art of wood stove cooking is centered around the successful maintenance of oven temperature. Most stoves have a gauge set into the oven door. This should be treated only as an indicator of the interior temperature on most old-model stoves. Even if the needle is in working order, invest in a hanging oven thermometer if your experience as a cook demands more accuracy. However, by trial and error and without cost you can learn to assess the oven temperature-provided the proper kinds of wood are used in the firebox-by putting your hand in the oven temporarily. This should indicate to you whether the oven is warm, hot, or very hot (which essentially is what both the oven-door thermometer and old cookbooks will tell you anyway). Another method is to lay scraps of white paper in the oven and to judge its temperature according to the amount of time the paper took to turn brown and scorch. There are no written directions for this kind of experience.

From the stories of feasts in the days before electricity, there seems nothing that a wood stove oven cannot do, although it takes more careful watching than modern ovens with automatic controls. Bread should be baked in a hot oven that is allowed to cool by shutting down the front damper, the chimney damper, and cracking open the check. To assure evenness (the firebox wall of the oven is the hottest side), the loaf pans should be watched and turned occasionally. If the top crust starts to brown too quickly, lay a piece of brown paper bag over the loaf. Even a souffle-although a product of France originally and probably cooked in the more steady heat of a coal fire-can be attempted in a wood stove oven, provided the trick of maintaining a steady temperature through the selection of wood and manipulation of the dampers is learned.

Another way of using the potential of your wood stove is to take advantage of the firebox. When the wood has burned down to coals, chop them up with a poker and level the bed. Then throw on a steak or lamb chops. Sear them on both sides and cook quickly. If apple. wood has been used for the fire, the results will satisfy the most discriminating taste.

Old-fashioned baked beans-costly for the modern electric stove cook-can be prepared economically in a wood stove. Leave the pot in the oven, heated by a steady-burning red oak log, and let it fend for itself all day with an occasional addition of liquid. By dinner time the beans will be ready. Meanwhile, on the stove top start soup simmering in a cast-iron pot. Add scraps of meat and vegetables from time to time for a nourishing and convenient pot-au-feu meal.

There are several important things to bear in mind if wood stove cooking is to be both worthwhile and enjoyable. Keep a neat and orderly wood pile where dry stove wood is available as needed.
Clean out the ashpit and soot from around the oven frequently to reduce possible fire hazard and. allow the dampers and stovepipe to function efficiently. Ashes should be kept in metal buckets or ashcans
at a safe distance from the house, for wood coals have surprising longevity. If kept dry, these ashes can later be used for making lye-the first step in home soap production (see Chapter 26)-or
spread on the garden to increase the potash content. Wood ashes are not much good for sprinkling on the icy walk in winter; they find their way back into the house too quickly!

Three more points should be mentioned to increase the enjoyment of using a wood cookstove. If your children are still young enough to be malleable, train them early to the onerous daily task of keeping the woodbox filled. This is a tedious but necessary process, and its neglect may result in a trip to the woodshed for a reason other than the gathering of wood. Never use the oven as a storage closet for dirty dishes when unexpected company knocks, or for hiding valuables if you should leave the house. Human memory may not warn you to look in the oven before lighting the next fire.

Finally, if the results of cooking are to benefit both the family and the cook, clearly establish a basic rule: only the cook regulates the dampers while a meal is being prepared. Many a dish has been ruined and many a temper roused by a seemingly innocent fiddling with the drafts when the cook's back is turned. The best place for the noncook-and one of the most enviable in the house-is in the rocking chair next to the stove where one can be near enough to be warm and appreciative but not get in the way.

Havens, David, "The Woodburners Handbook," Media House, Box 1770, Portland,
Me. 04104


Pattern and Perspective said...

We have a an old cylinder stove in our dining room. It's been here for a while, this house is 100 years old. It says US-O-NA on it, #413. Any idea what that means? I was just looking at it this morning, because I get wild hairs to research where things came from. However, I don't know who mfg'ed this. Any idea? It has the finale on top, it is probably silver or nicked, but it's fairly ornate but not in tacky way. It probably is 5 feet tall or more. I think it might stand taller than me. (I'm 5'5") Thanks. If you can help, I would appreciate.

LadySuffragette said...

This is very useful to me as I am writing a novel about my husband's ancestors, in 1910 era, who cooked on a woodstove. The mother of the family born 1854 was a crack cook, (weren't they all) who tested the oven temperature with her elbow apparently. She won all the prizes for bread and such at the country fairs in her town. No idea what stove it was, but they built their home in 1896. It's based on letters I psoted on a website. Lots of letters, but as with diaries, people didn't mention details of how they blog on another site is flo in the city; a work in progress based on the letters on tighsolas. I will be coming back for more info. best Dorothy Nixon.