How to Cook on a Wood Cook Stove
Not only can it be daunting to learn how to operate a wood cook stove, then comes the monumental task of learning how to cook with one. Using an electric or propane stove is an entirely different experience, so the skills learned in using those types of “automatic” stoves do not apply.
When you are learning to use a wood cook stove, you must understand how your stove works before you can use one effectively. Of fundamental importance is understanding how to control the fire and manipulate the subsequent hot exhaust gasses and heat. Each cooking task will require its own way of controlling and manipulating the fire and heat. For example, if you want to simmer a homemade soup for hours on a wood cook stove, you need to know how to keep a low fire and where to keep your pot of soup so it does not burn. That is the second part to learning how to cook on the top of the stove; where to keep your pots and pans depending on what you need to accomplish.
Not much has changed, in decades, in the way cook stoves work. You have air controls on the stove, which are drafts. They can either be at the side of the firebox, on the front of the firebox door, or on the side of the stove. A simpler stove uses the ash pan as a draft air control. Some stoves have all of these. Then, there is an ash pan, which is under the firebox. The firebox is where you keep the fire, and the ashes fall into the ash pan. The ash pan keeps the ashes mostly neat and tidy for disposal. You will shake or scrape the ashes down through the bottom of the firebox grate into the ash pan below. Next to the firebox and ash pan, which are on the left hand side, is the oven on the right side. If you were to cut away the front of the stove, you would see that there is an open chamber over the top, down the side, and under the oven. It is open to allow the heat in the fire exhaust gasses to go over, around, and under the oven for baking. Otherwise, there is a bypass just at the top of the oven, but at the back, that allows the hot gasses to escape to the chimney if you choose to open it. To bake, you will close it, and the exhaust gasses will go around the oven to the bottom, and will escape up the chimney from the bottom.
Next is the top of the stove, and that is easier to grasp. Directly over the fire is the hottest place on the stove’s surface. That is where you want to place a pot of water to boil or a frying pan to fry quickly. The farther you move the pot or pan away from the fire, the cooler the stovetop will be. The front right corner is the least hot place on the stovetop. Always leave a frying pan on a cool spot on the stovetop to keep it pre-warmed and speed up cooking time, unless you are very good at remembering to put the pan or pot on the stove before cooking. Nothing about cooking on a wood cook stove is instant! Boiling a pot of water for coffee can take fifteen minutes on a good morning.
Baking in a wood cook stove can be the most challenging of all. An oven thermometer will help you to learn how hot your stove is, and is a good idea in case the oven temperature gauge on your stove is not accurate. It can take a long time to get an oven to baking temperature. As with cooking on the stove top, I recommend working on getting the oven warm before you prepare the food to go in it. Maintaining a certain oven temperature is very difficult. I suggest that as your oven approaches the temperature needed, dampen the fire quickly with the drafts and damper. To get an oven hot in the shortest amount of time, add several small pieces of wood, open the drafts, and allow a hot fire to develop. After that, dampen down the fire with the draft controls to control the heat. If you need to bake something for a long period, you will want to use larger pieces of wood. A shorter baking time will require smaller and fewer pieces of wood. These are suggestions that will help you achieve faster learning, but experience is the best teacher of all.
Draft and Fire: A fire needs oxygen to burn and exhaust gas to escape. Control the oxygen, and you control the fire. That is a basic principle you will utilize to manipulate and control the fire. Now direct your attention to the draft controls on your stove. Those are not the only controls you will use. You may have a damper control in the front center of the top of the stove if the chimney runs up the center of the stove, or you may have a damper control in the chimney pipe itself. The damper will help control the fire by “dampening down”, or slowing down the release of exhaust gasses from the fire. The draft controls around the stove allow you to control air to the fire or direct hot exhaust gasses, and the damper in the chimney allows you to control the release of exhaust gasses. Slowing the release of hot gasses out of the chimney serves to keep more heat in the oven longer. An open damper allows exhaust gasses to escape more quickly. Knowing this will allow you to keep the oven hotter for a longer period. For example, if you want to bake a bone-in ham, a long, slow fire produces a ham that falls apart and is moist and delicious. You would want to add some large pieces of wood to the fire, set the draft to allow a slow flow of oxygen to the fire, and set the damper at a tilt that almost closes the chimney, but not quite. Again, experience will be your best teacher.
Take the time to get to know your stove. It is well worth knowing how to take care of it to prolong its life. After all, some antique stoves are still in use, and it pays to take care of something that can take good care of you by providing heat and cooking your meals for a long, long time.