Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How (Not) to Cook on a Woodstove

I didn't know it when we bought our house in 1997, but one of my favorite features would end up being the woodstove. For the first couple of years, I didn't appreciate it - the woodstove, I mean. It was something that was little used. We had a furnace for heat, and afterall, what else good is a woodstove, except for heat?

Ah! That was certainly a question we ended up answering in some very big ways in the years that followed.

Sometime around the turn of the Century, heating oil prices started to rise, and then, about six years into the new millenium, we realized that our "way of life" (that is the over-consumptive, reckless wastefulness) was definitely bad, and maybe even coming to an end. Many authors call this time we're experiencing right now "the End of Cheap Energy", and I'm not one to argue with them.

Regardless, however, we haven't seen K1 Heating Oil (which we use because our tank is outside, and regular (cheaper) heating oil would freeze, whereas Kerosene does not) for the eighty-nine cents per gallon price tag we paid back in the late nineties, when we bought our house, for over a decade. Even if we didn't care (which we do) that reckless use of resources is killing our world, and therefore, us with it, it's expensive to heat our house with the oil furnace, which uses oil to heat the air, but electricity to push the heated air through the house.

Plus, it just isn't as comfortable as a fire.

So, we switched to using our wood-burning stove as our primary heat source, and as my long-time readers know, we replaced our older, less efficient woodstove with a cleaner burning, more efficient model last summer. This winter, we used only wood to heat our house.

Of course, we quickly learned, when we started using the woodstove more regularly, that having a hot surface all day is useful for a lot of things, not related to keeping us warm.

I'm an avid tea drinker and imbibe all day, all year long, enjoying the beverage both hot and cold, but especially hot. In fact, in the morning and late evenings, even during the summer (keeping in mind that the average temperature for a Maine summer is about 75°, and so drinking a hot beverage here in July isn't the same as having a hot beverage in, say, Florida), I'll drink up to five cups ... although I don't keep count. I just know I spend a lot of time heating up water.

Which is the beauty of the woodstove. I keep a tea kettle on the stove all day during the winter, and at any time during the day when I want tea, it's ready.

In fact, anything that can be heated on stove burner can be cooked on a woodstove. During the winter, we cook many of our meals on the woodstove, from soups to eggs and bacon. I've even made bread on the woodstove, using an inverted kettle to keep in the heat so that the bread will bake. It takes a lot longer than using my oven, but it saves energy (the energy is being expended anyway for heat, and I figure, we might as well take advantage of it for other uses).

When we had the ice storm in December 2008, I learned to appreciate our woodstove even more. The power outage didn't affect our water supply, and so we had water, but without the electric igniter, our tankless propane water heater didn't work. So, I heated big kettles of water on the woodstove, which I poured into a galvanized wash tub, and we bathed.

I love multi-purpose "appliances" - things that can serve more than one function.

Of course, there is one thing I would not recommend using the woodstove for, and that is cooking popcorn ... or more appropriately, if the popcorn doesn't pop on the woodstove, DON'T put it on the electric stove to try to finish the job.

One very early winter afternoon a couple of years ago, Big Little Sister asked if she could make some popcorn. Knowing my affinity for saving, she asked to cook it on the woodstove. I agreed, although I thought, maybe the woodstove wasn't hot enough, as it wasn't too cold outside, and so the stove wasn't stoked very hot. I ignored my concerns, however.

She got a pan into which she poured oil and dropped a few kernels. She placed the lid on the pot and put the pot on the woodstove. What seemed a really long time later, the popcorn wasn't popping. She asked if she could put the pan on the electric stove. I said, "Sure."

The woodstove is in the room where I have my desk, and so I can monitor it while I'm working. The kitchen is around the corner from my desk, and I can not see what's happening in there, if I'm at my desk.

From the kitchen, she asked, "What temperature?"

I said, "High."

A few minutes passed. I smelled something burning, and at that exact moment, the smoke alarm starting blaring, and at that exact moment, Little Fire Faery and Precious ran into the kitchen and started screeching.

"Mom! The pan is on fire! The pan is on fire!"

I jumped up and ran into the kitchen. A black cloud of billowy smoke hovered near the ceiling, and the pan was, indeed, on fire. The oil had boiled up under the lid and slid down the sides of the pan. The large burner, on high, ignited the oil, and the outside of the pan was on fire.

The inside of the pan held the charcoaled remains of the unpopped corn, which was smoking, like a green wood fire.

I turned off the burner and reached for the pan, which caught the hanging threads on the cuffs of my favorite, rather tattered, flannel shirt.

And Precious and Little Fire Faery changed their litany to "Mom! Your sleeve's on fire! Your sleeve's on fire!"

I patted out the fire on my sleeve, and the fire on the side of the pan burned out when the oil was "consumed."

I opened the windows and cleared the smoke alarms and took the smouldering pan outside.

It was a very exciting five minutes.

I made popcorn for Big Little Sister ... in a different pan - not on the woodstove.

I think woodstove cooking is awesome, and I still use the woodstove for a good portion of our cooking in the colder months and will continue to do so. What I won't do, however, is burn popcorn kernels on the woodstove, because the oil gets hot enough to cook the seed, but not pop them, and then cook the unpopped kernels into charcoal.

It was a good lesson for all of us.

Next time, Big Little Sister can have pancakes for a snack. They cook really well on the woodstove.


  1. There are often times when something like you popcorn adventure happens here and we sorta roll our eyes and say," ahh...another learing year."