Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Fire Brick in the Bottom of the Oven

For the most recent Readers' Cookstoves post about Jessie's stove in Northern New England, she sent a picture of the oven of her Oval with fire brick lying on the floor.  She said that the stove's previous owner had put the fire brick there to help with heat distribution.

Reader Jessie's oven with fire brick in the bottom.
Longtime blog reader and cookstove friend Gary from Pennsylvania read the post.  He and I have corresponded via e-mail the past three years, and one of the things we have talked about was his difficulty in getting his antique Ideal Sunshine's oven up to good baking temperatures.


Gary's Ideal Sunshine cookstove.
 
 Well, Gary e-mailed me yesterday with this to say:

"I saw your post about Jessie’s firebrick oven tip and bought 8 firebricks for $16.   Wow, what a difference that made.  My oven shot up to 400 degrees even without getting the fire real hot.  Thanks to you and Jesse for posting the article and the tip."

Gary's new fire brick on the bottom of his Ideal Sunshine's oven.

I'm very happy for Gary because now he'll be able to bake much more easily in his cookstove, and I have always felt that baking in a wood cookstove is the most rewarding experience.  I don't know why the fire brick helped his oven reach baking temperature more easily, but I'm glad it works.

I feel very honored to have played a small part in helping a reader get the most out of his woodburning cookstove.  It's why I operate this blog. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Grandma Marian's Biscuits and Gravy

I think that when most people hear the phrase "biscuits and gravy," they think of the wonderful combination of breakfast sausage and white gravy poured over biscuits.  This dish is a traditional favorite from the southern United States which has steadily gained so much popularity in the north that it is now on our school lunch menu.  I can remember the first time I tasted that dish.  We were visiting my dad's older sister at her home in Tennessee near where her husband had grown up, and she had set out to give us a sampling of all of the southern foods that she had learned to cook.

Grandma Marian, my mother's mother, had been serving us her own version of biscuits and gravy for a long time before that.  I don't know whether this dish originated with her, but I know that I've never seen anyone outside our family make it.  At Grandma's house, roast beef frequently appeared on the menu.  As long-time cattle producers, our family has always done our part to support the beef market, and to this day, I believe I could sit down to a dinner of roast beef and some sort of potato every noon and never get tired of it.  Grandma is an expert when it comes to roast beef.  Each of her roasts was always perfectly cooked and carefully seasoned with salt, pepper, and plenty of bay leaves, and her gravy was legendary. 

If any beef and gravy were left over, they would appear a day or so later in this delicious entrĂ©e, which is particularly suited to being made on a woodburning cookstove.  Grandma always baked this in a glass baking dish.  Sometimes such a small amount was left over that everything fit in a dish that was only about six inches in diameter; other times so much would be left over that it would be made in a 6x12 rectangular casserole dish.

Our Sunday dinner one recent weekend was a beef roast cooked in the method that I wrote about in the post called "Automatic" Cooking on a Woodburning Cookstove.  As neither Nancy nor I felt like having gravy that day, I refrigerated all of the leftovers, including the generous amount of liquid in the bottom of the roaster.  A few days later, we had Grandma Marian's Biscuits and Gravy for our supper.  Here is what to do to make it:

1. Build your fire so that you will soon have a hot oven (400-425 degrees).

2. If you are going to make your biscuits from scratch, put your shortening in the warming oven, on top of the reservoir, or wherever it will melt for you.  Later, you'll mix your cold milk or buttermilk into the melted shortening, which will cause it to congeal again.  This way, you save having to cut your shortening into your flour.

3. While the oven is heating, either make your gravy or reheat any leftover gravy.  While it is still on the stove, cut the leftover roast beef into chunks and add it to the gravy to heat.  Grandma would sometimes add chunks of any carrots that had been cooked with the roast, or she would add peas to the gravy so that this could be a one-dish meal.

The shortening for the biscuits melting in the sauce dish
in the warming oven while the gravy cooks directly over the fire.
4. Once the meat and gravy are thoroughly heated, remove them to a casserole dish of a size suitable so that the gravy doesn't go much more than halfway up the sides of the dish.  This is important because you don't want the gravy to boil over onto your oven floor.  Keep the dish of gravy warm while you mix your biscuits.



The beef and gravy resting on the opened warming oven door.
5.  Either roll and cut your biscuits or drop them by spoon on the top of the hot gravy.

Nancy and I agreed that these were the best biscuits that I have
ever made.  Unfortunately, I only measured the flour; I just
guessed on the shortening, buttermilk, and baking powder, so
I'm going to have to practice to recreate them.

6. Slide everything into your hot oven and bake until the biscuits are a fairly deep brown.

Keep two things in mind as you do this.  You want to be sure to give the biscuits plenty of time to bake because if you don't, they will be very doughy since their bottoms are steamed by the gravy.  Also, don't let your fire get your oven too hot.  If you do, the tops of the biscuits will be too brown before the center of the biscuits is thoroughly baked.


Our recent rescue kitten "Charlotte" soaking up the heat from the
cookstove.  Our joke is that if we had known how much time she
was going to spend under the stove, we would have named her "Cinderella."



7. To serve, I like to drizzle a little honey over the whole mess, but that is really unnecessary.  I just come from a terribly long line of sweet tooths.  --Hmmm.  My computer doesn't like "sweet tooths," but I'm pretty sure that it isn't right to say that I come from a long line of sweet teeth.

Put a dish of some kind of fruit alongside of this, and you have
one delicious repast.
Has anyone else eaten this dish before?  I'd be interested to know if others make this same thing.  Let me know in the comments below.  Enjoy!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Cookstoves at Thanksgiving

A few days ago, I put out the call for people to send pictures of their cookstoves as they were in use over the Thanksgiving Holiday.  So far, I've had three responses, and it has been a lot of fun to see other people's woodburning cookstoves.  The first pictures to come in were from longtime reader and cookstove friend Tim L. from Minnesota.  Back in October, he had e-mailed me pictures of his Mom's new-to-her Monarch which is installed in her basement.  Tim sent a picture of their Monarch warming up leftover roast beef.

This Monarch seems like one solid stove to me, and Tim concurs.

The second response came from Jamie and Kate A. with pictures of their Modern Clarion range.  I'll let their text explain their pictures.


"We bought our home in the backwoods of the Downeast section of Maine and it came with an old Modern Clarion wood cookstove. It's in great shape and we just had our chimneys swept and inspected just in time for Thanksgiving. We fired it up the other day and it served us well. Still learning to properly operate and adjust the dampers, but it successfully cooked our sweet potatoes, roasted squash seeds and simmer pie filing over the past few days. I'm in love with it and am having a blast figuring everything out." 
 

 
Is that a beautiful stove, or what?  I'm hoping to hear a lot more from Jamie and Kate as they continue to get their stove mastered.
 
The third response came from Karin in West Virginia.  She has had a long relationship with the stove in the pictures below.  Here is what she had to say:
 
"My aunt found and my father got us this wonderful little stove many years ago when I moved to a home with no running water or electricity.  And no internet.  It has been a source of many fine turkeys, loaves of bread, and wonderful canned goods.

We have only burned hickory in it as that is perfect for a hot, long burning fire.  I used to can in the middle of the night to keep the heat down. 

Since my husband's death, I rarely use it any more as wood gathering, splitting is problematic.  But I have managed to get some for the holidays.  Also, a toaster oven and gas range top handle most of my cooking needs. 

It is a wonderful little stove."



 



I've been stuffed with leftovers for the last two days, but Karin's pictures make me hungry!
 
Last, I'll show you our pictures.  My parents hosted Thanksgiving, but we all contributed parts of the meal, and part of our responsibilities were the cranberries and the pumpkin pie.  This year, we prepared our own pumpkin from some we purchased at a local orchard, so you see them steaming here along with the cranberries boiling.
 

I think it would be interesting to know how many people in the United States prepared at least part of their Thanksgiving Dinner on a woodburning cookstove.  Of course, worldwide, the number of people who prepare their food over wood heat is much higher than it is here, but it always makes me curious. 

I'll leave my previous post up for awhile so that if someone would still like to submit pictures, he or she will have my e-mail address, and then I can add to this post.

Hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving!
 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

A Blog Reader's Cookstove - V

One of the absolute joys of operating this blog is when I get the opportunity to converse with other woodburning cookstove enthusiasts.  Such was the case when Jessie, a northern New England reader, let me know that she and her husband had just installed their new-to-them Findlay Oval cookstove.  I contacted Jessie to find out whether she would be willing to let me write a "Reader's Cookstove" post about their Oval, and she was very forthcoming with information and pictures.  I asked her the usual set of questions, and as Jessie is an excellent writer herself, I'm going to let her writing be the bulk of this post.

Jessie's Oval cookstove sitting on the new
hearth that her husband built.

1. What made you decide to purchase this particular make and model of cookstove?

"Three years ago, my husband and I visited a history museum that is still a working farmstead. We have a little homestead (very much a "hobby farm") of our own -- raise our own pork, chicken, and beef, plus garden -- and we love seeing how people used to live, if only to appreciate how easy we have it these days! There was a woman in the kitchen running a wood cook stove, and my husband said, "My wife would love one of those." He was correct. So we started looking.

"We found the Oval in a Craigslist ad. An older couple who had bought it from Lehman's in the 1980s were selling their farm and moving away. We bought it for $1,200. The man who cooked on it said they had used it as their sole cooking source for 15 years. He loved baking bread in it, and put a layer of firebrick in the bottom to help with heat distribution. It seems to work.

This picture shows the layer of firebrick in the bottom of the oven. 


"It took 3 years for my husband to get it up and running, and it wasn't cheap; we had to have a metal-asbestos chimney installed, for starters. But so far we are in love with it. I imagine there are much more efficient wood cook stoves out there but we love the look of this one and for our purposes for right now, we couldn't be happier."

2. What feature of your stove do you like the best?

"I know this is a bit shallow, but I love its looks. We live in an old farmhouse, and it just seems to fit. Also, the firebox is quite a bit larger than we expected. We got 15" split wood and have no problem getting it in there. The firebox is a bit beat up and will probably need replacing at some point, but so far it's OK. The oven looks small but is very deep, which is very nice. And the warming oven is currently drying our bean pods, so that's handy. The water reservoir seems to be adding moisture to the air; the extra surface area is nice to have as well."


3. What would you change about your stove if you could?

"I don't have enough experience with it yet to say. Maybe after the first winter I will. It's not airtight, although we did patch some holes at the seams. But maybe it would be nice to have a stove that would keep a fire going all night."

4. How much of your home heating does your stove do?

"Our intention was originally just to use it for supplemental heat in the morning and at dinner, and, of course, to cook on it. To our surprise, it puts out quite a bit of heat, even reaching to our bedroom upstairs at the far end of the house. (We live in a two-story, 2,500-square-foot farmhouse that still has a lot of old windows and doors.) We don't know how it will do when the weather gets really cold. But I do know that we are going to try to use it as much as possible to heat the house, even if we have to get up during the night to feed it. I am currently surprised at how warm the kitchen is in the morning even when we let the fire go out after bedtime. It was 43 out this morning and still 70 in the kitchen." 

5. Is there anything else you would like to say about your stove?

"So many things. :-) The biggest surprise to me is how easy it is to cook on. In some ways it's easier than using the gas range. For instance, I was frying up potatoes/sausage/peppers/onions the other night, and I realized that the fire heats the entire bottom of the skillet, not just a ring. And there is an unlimited heat range, from super hot to low heat, to just barely warm. It's all in the placement.

"I went into this thinking I was some kind of throwback, just someone wanting to live in the past and make life difficult on myself just to prove that it could be done. Now I am seeing that a wood cook stove is actually a very practical dual-purpose object. Guests are already flocking to the warmth it puts out, and it has really made our house feel very homey.

"One more thing: I have noticed so far that the crust on my homemade bread and the pie crust on last night's pumpkin pie have a special texture to them that is maybe a result of the dry heat? Whatever it is, it's a good thing. It's early days yet, and maybe I'll find the burden of cleaning the stove greater than the pleasure of using it. But I doubt it."

Jessie also volunteered some information about how she manages the oven temperature.  Since maintaining oven temperature is one of the most talked-about aspects of using a woodburning cookstove, I am glad to add this method to my blog archives:

"The two times I have baked, I have started with a well-established fire, which seems to keep the oven at about 275. I then opened up the damper and drafts, loaded up the firebox with smaller pieces of wood, let them get cooking and then shut everything down, which shoots the oven temp up to 350 in about 15 minutes. (I bought a thermometer to put in the oven; the door thermometer reads about 50 degrees lower.)"

Of course, no conversation about a wood cookstove would be complete without mentioning the efficiency of these dual-purpose appliances as well as the change in thinking that they can effect on their owners:

"My impression so far is that it's a very practical addition to the house; why not heat and cook with the same fuel source? Having a hot surface always ready just makes me want to cook more than I already do. Best of all, my husband is now in love with the wood stove, even though I'm not sure he thought it was worth the effort while he was preparing for it. We were sitting in front of it Sunday morning having coffee and he said he had forgotten how much he liked wood heat, which we haven't had in over 20 years."

It looks to me like Jessie and her husband aren't the only ones
who are enjoying their new wood cookstove.


I would like to echo what Jessie says about the even heat on the surface of the cookstove.  Each summer as we transition back to gas, I get frustrated with the ring of heat in the middle of frying pans especially.  Also, I'm particularly excited to have contact with an Oval owner because I looked longingly at them for several years before purchasing the Margin Gem.  I hope Jessie will feel free to comment often on the blog.

I can tell by Jessie’s e-mails that she has already perfected that most necessary trait of any woodburning cookstove cook: the art of being a reflective practitioner.  In education we use that phrase to say that a teacher habitually reflects on his or her successes and failures in order to be constantly improving, but it really spills over into many facets of life, especially cooking over wood.  To be consistently successful, you constantly evaluate your finished product, take note of what works well and what doesn’t, remain attuned to how your stove responds, and before you know it, cooking with wood is a joy.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Operating the Drafts of a Wood Cookstove: The Point of Diminishing Return

When we first installed the Margin Gem, one of the aspects of operating the stove that was significantly different than the Qualified Range was the amount of time needed for the wood to ignite when adding wood to an established fire.  Then, once the fuel ignited, it didn't seem to burn like it would have in the Qualified.  Thus, I would open the drafts of the Margin Gem until I felt like the fire was burning the way I thought it should.

Well, I'm embarrassed to admit that basically, I spent the first three years of operating the Margin Gem quite inefficiently.  I remember telling my mom that I thought the Margin Gem was a real wood eater.  What I've come to understand in the last couple of years is that the Gem shouldn't have nearly the amount of air that I was giving it in order to reach peak heat output.

A Little Background Information-

With the Qualified Range, once the fire was established, I would operate the stove with all drafts completely closed unless I was having trouble keeping the fire burning because of wet wood or something like that.  Our kitchen chimney draws extremely well, and the Qualified, though a very well made stove, was not airtight, so plenty of air was constantly being pulled in to the fire even with the drafts tightly shut.  Thus, fires always seemed to burn brightly in that stove.

You can see that the two drafts on the left side of the Qualified
are closed while the stove is cooking our Thanksgiving Dinner
in 1999.
Enter the Margin Gem-

The Margin Gem cookstove is equipped with two drafts.  The primary or direct draft is located in the ash cleanout door below the firebox.




The secondary air-jet re-burn draft is on the left side of the stove.  For more information about this draft, see this post.


When I first start the stove, I usually open both drafts widely.  However, the secondary draft can usually be sufficient by itself, so sometimes I only open it.  As the fire catches and begins to burn hot, I always shut the direct draft completely and then just operate the stove by adjusting the secondary draft.

Thus, during the first couple of years of using the Margin Gem, I would often leave the secondary draft open as much as a quarter of an inch, trying to get the fire to behave the way that I was accustomed to seeing it in the Qualified.  My thinking was that since the Qualified was not airtight, it must have been permitting a lot of oxygen to get to the fire even when the drafts were completely closed.

What I've come to believe is that the Margin Gem actually operates at peak efficiency when the secondary draft is opened enough to let air in but not enough so that you can see any gap between the knob and the air intake shaft.  Once the fuel has caught fire, this seems to allow sufficient air for combustion, but it keeps the stove very hot and the fuel is not consumed so quickly.

The Point of Diminishing Return-

You might be questioning my use of the phrase "the point of diminishing return" in the title of this post by now.  You see, conventional wisdom would lead one to believe that the more oxygen that is allowed to get to the fire the faster it would burn and, therefore, produce more heat.  (I believe that this is indeed the way a coal fire would operate, but someone should confirm that in the comments below.)  However, what I've come to understand is that if the drafts are open too wide--past the point of diminishing return--the abundance of room temperature air that is allowed to flow through the stove actually cools everything down.  This results in having to burn quite a bit more fuel in order to provide enough heat for cooking and baking.

This "point of diminishing return" will potentially be different for every stove, every chimney, every type of wood, and even every weather condition, so it is the job of the wood cookstove cook to constantly be observing and evaluating the way the stove and fire are behaving in order operate the wood cookstove at peak efficiency.

In any event, I no longer think that the Margin Gem is devouring more fuel than necessary in proportion to the amount of heat that she puts out.

What methods for operating the drafts of your wood cookstove do you use?  Let us know in the comments below.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Best Laid Schemes o' Mice an' Men Gang Aft Agley

Well, my last post ended up being a little pre-mature.  We had the stove fired from Wednesday, the 28th to Monday, Oct. 3rd.  I had planned to work on cutting wood after school that Monday, but my brother had other plans.  He had a bunch of alfalfa hay down, and we were due to get quite a bit of rain the following day, so I ended up helping him put up hay instead of cutting wood.  That meant that I had to let the fire go out and restart the electric water heater.

The rest of that week ended up being quite wet, so it wasn't until Friday, the 7th, that we ended up starting the stove again.  Marjorie has been our sole source of hot water since then.  She has been busy cooking and baking too.

Now to get down to more important posts!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

And We're Off! The 2016-2017 Heating Season Begins

Tonight, after cleaning the chimney, stovepipe, and internal flue chambers, Marjorie cooked my supper and is now heating our hot running water again.  The electric water heater has been turned off for its 7-8 month siesta, and we are back in business!

Last year, the electric water heater was turned off on Sept. 30th, so we're about right on schedule.  Our thermometer has registered temperatures in the 30s for the last three mornings, and I would have liked to have started the stove earlier, but we've had so much rain (nothing like the flooding in northeastern Iowa, though) that all of the wood was very wet around here.  I also hadn't taken the time to cut any wood yet.

Today after school that changed.  And what a banner afternoon it was, too!  The weather was beautiful, the chainsaw started on the first try, and the wood splitter did the same.  I felt like a king.

I have lots to share with all of you, so let's all hope for a schedule that permits a good deal of blogging over the next few months.

Happy autumn, everyone, and may your wood cookstoves be burning brightly soon!