Saturday, May 26, 2012

Teakettles and Wood Cookstoves

You may have noticed that in each of the pictures of the three cookstoves that appear on this blog, a teakettle is resting somewhere on the cooktop.  Our cookstoves are not unique in this characteristic at all.  When I do a Google search for pictures of woodburning cookstoves, the vast majority of those ranges which are obviously in regular use have a teakettle sitting on them.

The Riverside Bakewell cookstove in our summer kitchen.

Marjorie the Margin Gem cookstove in the house kitchen.

The Qualified Range in the house kitchen before beginning to remodel.

Other than the occasional cup of tea, we are not tea drinkers at all; however, our teakettle gets a workout.  These soldiers of the kitchen serve many purposes, and I suspicion that when cooks began the transition from wood and coal-fired ranges to gas, kerosene, and electric stoves, the ever-present teakettle was sorely missed.  I know that each summer as we start to do more of our daily cooking with a modern range, I find myself feeling inconvenienced when I no longer have that old friend ready at my fingertips.

Of course, a teakettle is merely a pot with a pouring spout which is intended to be used to heat water.  When a house is equipped with hot running water, or when a stove is equipped with a hot water reservoir, it may seem redundant to have a teakettle heating water on the stovetop as well.  However, the water in the teakettle is used for different purposes than the water in those other systems.  The water in the teakettle is generally hotter than water from the reservoir or the tap, and if you spend any time reading over old, from-scratch recipes, you'd be surprised at how many of them call for boiling water rather than merely hot water.  Obviously, the cooks of the olden days were used to having their teakettles at the ready.

Another difference is that the water in the reservoir was often rainwater, which was what people meant when they referred to "soft" water prior to the advent of fancy electric water softening systems.  This water would have been used for all kinds of washing, but it would not have been consumed.  Of course, not all homes were equipped with a rainwater cistern, so their reservoirs would have been filled with well water, which obviously was often simply called "hard" water.  However, as my copy of The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cooking* states, "As bread crumbs or other food might fall into the water in the reservoir, a kettle of fresh water was always kept on the stove for coffee or tea or for adding to food that was cooking."  I am amazed at how often I grab the teakettle to add a little boiling water to this or that which is cooking merrily away, and the best part is that the cooking is not slowed by this addition because the water is already boiling.

Jane Cooper devotes a section of her book Woodstove Cookery: At Home on the Range to the teakettle.  A contributor to that book wrote that her grandmother kept eggs in the teakettle so that at a moment's notice, one could have a hardboiled egg for a snack (I wonder how green the yolks would have been after cooking for so long).  Ms. Cooper also notes that steam from the teakettle would add much needed humidity to the dry winter air.  This is true, but I'd like to point out that the same humidity is not as welcome on a sultry summer day.  I've also read warnings in vintage cookbooks which state that if the teakettle is not permitted to be on the range all the time, the buildup of lime deposits inside it will be kept to a minimum.  We do struggle with the lime deposit problem, but we choose to combat it with vinegar rather than remove the teakettle from the cooktop.

Our teakettle is a German-made vessel which we purchased from an Amish store near Redding, Iowa.  It holds over a gallon of water and has a lid that is equipped with a "whistle" in the handle which sounds remarkably like the wail of a freight train when it boils.  I would advise anyone interested in seriously cooking on a wood cookstove to purchase the largest teakettle that can be found.  In my opinion, there is no point in messing around with the dinky little designer models that grace most store shelves today.  Heating the greater quantity of water is not going to cost you any more since the teakettle heats as an incidental result of your cooking or heating fire, and I've never heard of anyone complaining because too much hot water was available.  Furthermore, if you ever do any serious canning, that large teakettle will be a necessity.

A side benefit of keeping a teakettle on the stove top is that when the water gets to a certain temperature, the teakettle begins to make that humming noise that all pots make prior to reaching the boiling point.  You can often tell what your fire is doing even if you are not right next to the stove simply by listening to what the teakettle sounds like.  I guess you could call it a primitive version of the baby monitor or remote sensor.

I'd like to close this post with a poem which appeared in the January 1968 edition of Ideals magazine.  Obviously, I'm not the only one who is conscious of the sound of the teakettle.

The Old Wood Stove
by Christel B. Ellis

The old wood stove would crackle
As the cedar dried and burned.
Through the grating coals would tumble,
Glowing red to black they turned.
And the firelight through the covers
Of that dear old kitchen range,
Turned the ceiling into patchwork
With each dancing fairy flame.

Like a warm and glowing magnet
We were drawn around the hearth,
And the high old corner woodbox
Was a warm and heavenly berth.
With our backs against the chimney
We would listen to the wind
As it swung the stovepipe damper
Up and down and back again.

Many crops were planned and planted
As the winter lingered on.
Near the hearth the neighbors gathered
Till the glowing coals were gone.
Woolen socks were always drying
Near the kitchen range back home.
The iron kettle hummed a love song
Folks today have never known.

I see the kitchen of my childhood,
Feel the warmth of that old range.
To have known its glow and comfort
Is a joy I'd not exchange.

I'm just happy that the sentiments recorded in the above poem can still be reality today!

* This is a very nifty book which I purchased for a dime when it was being purged from the Avoca Public Library's collection--probably the best thing I've ever bought for ten cents.  It is full of pictures of people using woodburning cookstoves of every shape and variety and has some general instructions on how to not only cook on a wood cookstove, but also in a fireplace.  It has quite a few wood cookstove memoirs in it, too.


  1. Is there any way I could share the picture of my cookstove with my teakettles on it?

    1. You could send it to our e-mail address: Then, I can post it to the blog.