Knowing how to cook on a wood stove is a great skill to have when the power goes out, or if you’re choosing to live off-grid it may be essential to everyday life. Cooking on a wood stove is not as complicated as you might think, but it does take some trial and error.
To cook on a wood stove you must start by making a sufficiently hot fire. To do this use several small pieces of wood (rather than one big piece) and keep your damper open, which will allow maximum oxygen flow. Place your cooking pans on the wood stove while the fire is growing to preheat them. Next, use an oven thermometer to figure out which part of your stove top is the hottest. You’ll often want to use the hottest part of the stove for boiling, frying or baking. Finally, once you’ve got food in your pot, be sure to have a lid on it to keep the heat in, and keep a close eye on it to avoid burning. The ease with which you can cook on a wood stove will depend on the model of stove you have.
In the rest of the article I’ll tell you how to get your cooking setup right so your first meal on a wood stove can turn out great. After all, cooking on a wood stove can be a lot of fun but it may take a bit of experimentation at first. I’ll give you a guide on how to adjust the temperature of your stove, how to figure out where on your stove you should cook, and how to alter your your stove setup so you can cook anything you want on it.
First let’s take a look at the two main types of wood stove.
Two Types of Wood Stoves
Wood Cook Stoves
A wood cook stove is basically the original stove, and it will be the easiest model to cook on and bake in. You may recognize them from museums or maybe your grandma’s old farmhouse. They have a compartment where the fire is built (the fire box), with a chamber below that which collects the ashes. Next to the fire box is a small oven with racks. The top of the stove is either a big flat space where you can put pans anywhere, or it may have cast iron burners where the oven is hottest.
There are newer models of wood cook stoves, and some of them come with warming compartments that use the heat coming off the chimney to keep food warm.
Compared to the wood burning stove (described below) it will be easier to make baked goods like rolls and biscuits since it already has a small oven compartment. That said, I will describe a workaround if you only have a wood burning stove.
Since cook stoves are designed to funnel their heat towards a cooking surface, they will not heat your house as efficiently as a wood burning stove, but they will still get quite warm.
This video gives a great introduction to the elements of a wood cook stove:
Wood Heat Stoves
Despite the relative ease of using a wood cook stove, wood heat stoves are far more common in American households today. A wood burning heat stove is intended primarily to heat a house, but if your stove has a sufficiently large surface on top, you can easily take advantage of this to cook on. You will control the temperature of the fire in the same way as the cook stove: with the amount of wood and how much air you let into the fire box with the damper.
If you want to make your wood burning stove more useful for cooking, purchase one that has the chimney coming out the back, rather than the top. This will give you more surface area to work on.
Preparing To Cook On a Wood Stove
Building a Fire In Your Wood Stove
To build a hot fire quickly you’ll want to use several smaller pieces of wood rather than one big piece. The smaller pieces will heat through more quickly, and will catch on fire faster. Always be sure to use dry wood! Damp wood will not burn as hot. Hardwoods like maple, oak and walnut will burn longer than softwoods like juniper, cedar and pine.
It will take awhile for your wood stove to become hot enough to cook on. Remember that the heat from a fire doesn’t actually come from the flames; it comes from the coals. For this reason, in order to build up a sufficient coal base, plan on starting your fire 45 minutes to an hour before you plan to cook.
By the same token, try to avoid over-heating your stove as well. Cooling your stove back down to a usable temperature will take up time.
How to Use the Damper
The damper is the number one best tool for controlling the temperature of your fire. You can control how much air is getting into your fire box with the damper, which is a lever on the outside of the box. Depending on your model, pushing in or pulling the damper out will allow maximum airflow. If you’re not sure but you notice smoke building up inside your fire box, it likely means your damper is closed.
Note that once your fire is going you’ll want to reduce the amount of air in the fire box so that your wood burns a bit more slowly and you get a more steady heat. I’d keep the damper about halfway in at this point.
Check out this video for some additional tips on how to get your fire started, and you’ll get to see what a typical wood burning stove looks like.
Tools Needed To Cook On a Wood Stove
- Gloves: Because of the larger surface area of hot metal, it is very important that you invest in a pair of comfortable, heat proof gloves when you’re cooking on your wood stove. I like the ‘Ove Glove because it allows me to still use my fingers, unlike an oven mitt. Other options that go farther up the forearms would be excellent choices as well. Gloves easily be hung near your fireplace with a hook for easy access when it’s time to cook.
- High Quality Pan: Be sure to use a pan that has good heat distribution. A popular type are cast iron pans for this reason; they distribute heat evenly and won’t develop hot spots. Keep in mind that thicker materials, like cast iron, will take longer to heat up, but will retain their heat for longer. Thinner materials, like enamel will heat quickly but also lose heat quickly. I would recommend having both a cast iron skillet and Dutch oven.
- Trivet: Use a metal trivet to keep your pan off the direct stove top. This can be helpful if your fire is extremely hot but you don’t want to burn your food. We still have a beautiful cast iron trivet that belonged to my great-grandmother but if you’re looking for a newer one Amazon has them in every design you can think of.
- Stove Top Thermometer: Having a thermometer that lives on your stove top will help you keep an eye on the surface temperature. There are magnetic ones that will sit directly on your stove top, but I prefer the handheld “gun” type thermometer that I can point to various surfaces. Since the stove top has variable temperatures, I want to know how hot multiple places are without multiple gadgets sticking to my stove top.
- Food Thermometer: Having an accurate way to check the internal temperature of your food, not just your meat and poultry, is essential for making sure you’ve eliminated any harmful bacteria. Because temperatures will be more variable in a wood stove than a conventional stove, having a food thermometer is also a must have. Be sure you’ve chosen a quality thermometer and that you read the instructions on how to calibrate it to ensure it’s reading properly.
Preheat Your Pans
After you start your fire go ahead and place your pans on the stoves with their lids on. Remember that cast iron, one of the most popular materials for this type of cooking, is quite thick and will take a bit of time to heat up. Having preheated pans will mean that your pan is ready to use when you are.
Learn Where the Hot Spots Are On Your Wood Stove
A wood stove doesn’t have the temperature control knobs that a modern stove does, so you need to learn where the hot spots on your particular stove are. The hottest cooking spot on your wood stove is often the spot right above the fire, or close to the center if you’re using a wood burning stove and not a cook stove. Use a thermometer to help you keep an eye on the temperature of your stove top.
The hottest spot will be useful for cooking that requires high heat, like frying, while the outer edge of the stove may be more suitable for simmering.
Find Out How Thick Your Stove Top Is
If your stove top is less than 1/4 thick you will need something like a flat griddle to distribute the weight of your cookware on the stove top. If your stove top is too thin, as might be the case if you’re not using a wood cook stove, the heat of the fire and the weight of the heavy cast iron can bend the top of your stove.
Prep Food Ahead of Time
Cut veggies and season meat as the fire is heating up. That way, once the stove is at the right temperature, you’ll be ready to take advantage of the perfect temperature.
I’ve seen setups where folks keep a cart next to their fireplace for this reason. They can keep everything they need to start cooking on hand rather than running back and for between the kitchen.
When You Are Ready To Start Cooking
- Make Sure Your Pot Has a Lid: Keeping a lid on your pot will help retain heat, and you’ll certainly need a lid for things like cornbread and cinnamon rolls.
- Rotate Your Pan: Remember that all wood stoves have hot spots. Your food will likely cook more evenly if you rotate the pan occasionally, in addition to stirring the food inside.
- Add More Wood: If your cooking time is going slowly, add more wood at this juncture to kick up the heat.
Cooking Times for Wood Stoves
The cooking times on your wood burning stove will vary depending on the fire you have going. In general it takes longer to cook food on a wood stove and you may want to think of it more like using a giant slow cooker. Some people think of this a plus as it lets flavors mix together better.
You can use cookbooks like this one which are specifically written for wood burning stoves to help give you a ballpark of cooking times.
Making an Oven Out of a Wood Burning Stove
If you are working with a wood burning heat stove but you want to make a small oven all you need is a trivet and a pan to fit over your cooking dish.
Set your pan on the trivet to avoid cooking the bottom of your dish too quickly, and then find a piece of crockery that will fit over the top of your pan. You’ll want to find something without a pouring lip, as this will let heat escape.
Cooking Inside the Fire Box
The fire box is the compartment of the stove where the fire is stoked. Cooking inside your fire box can be tricky, and I caution you against this if your fire is rip-roaring; it’s just too dangerous and you’ll probably burn your food.
However, if you are going to try this you may have some success if you let the fire burn down to smoldering coals and you use something like a grill basket. Grill baskets were designed for grills originally (surprise!), but they work for the fire box because they have a long handle and contain the food you’re trying to cook.
You can also try using a Dutch oven with feet on it. You’ll need a somewhat large fire box for this to work, as you’ll want to clear away the coals so the feet aren’t directly on the coals.
Cooking on a wood stove can be a fun, economical and lifesaving skill to acquire. With the right tools and a little bit of trial and error, you can be churning out tasty treats like a pioneer pro!