Saturday, November 24, 2012

"Automatic" Cooking on a Wood Cookstove

My mother has always taken great advantage of the "Time Bake" feature of her electric stoves in order to be able to have Sunday dinner cook automatically while we were at church.  Nancy and I would occasionally do the same thing with our 1951 Hotpoint electric range, which we sometimes used in conjunction with the Qualified Range until we began remodeling our kitchen.  Usually, whatever meat dish we were having would be cooked in the Hotpoint, and then we would cook the side dishes on the Qualified once we got home.  The reason that we never cooked the whole meal in the woodburning cookstove was because the Qualified couldn't hold a constant fire for the time that we were gone to church since it wasn't airtight.  It would have been able to start the cooking with no problem, but the oven temperature would have dropped to a point where meats couldn't have been safely consumed.

The 1951 Hotpoint was delivered to a used appliance store to hopefully be refurbished and resold shortly after we began serious work on our kitchen in 2011.  I will admit to having been sad to see it go.  However, it had some quirks that Nancy found particularly unforgivable, and the new plan for the kitchen doesn't allow any space for it anyway.  The good news is that because Marjorie the Margin Gem is an airtight cookstove and is able to easily hold a fire while we are gone, I've begun to experiment with having her cook our dinner while we are gone to church.

In The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery, Addie Norton is quoted as saying, "If I put a fire in that woodstove and go out of the house, it's not gonna get hotter.  It's gonna get cooler.  That wood's gonna burn up and it's not gonna hurt nothing."  For the most part, I would say that is true.  The exception is that if you fuel the fire right before you leave it, the fire will first get hotter and then will get cooler.  In an old style cookstove, this cycle will take less time, and the extremes in the hottest point and coolest point in that short cycle are most likely to have a wider gap between them.  In an airtight stove, the burn time will be longer, and the extremes of temperature will not be as discrepant.

Knowing how the heat of the stove will behave governs one's decisions regarding how and what to cook when you are having your wood cookstove cook "automatically."  For our initial experiment, I chose pork roast and mashed potatoes.  I seasoned the roast, put it in our red spatterware roaster, and slid it into the oven.  The oven was running at about 400 degrees at the time that the roast was put in. 

The potatoes were peeled and quartered and then put in a Saladmaster saucepan with a vented lid.  I chose that particular pot because I could put the lid on it tightly, but the chances of the potatoes boiling over were lower because the steam vent on the lid would have reduced the chance of that happening.  I was also only cooking a small amount of potatoes, so the pan was plenty tall in order to provide additional protection against boiling over.  The potatoes were placed between the rear middle and right lids.

Pork roast in the oven and potatoes on top of the stove
ready to cook while we are gone to church.

I then filled the firebox with large pieces of wood, turned the damper down, and completely closed the drafts.  We left at about nine in the morning and got back home at about 12:45.  When we returned, this is what we saw.

Cooked potatoes that were still very hot but no longer boiling.
They did boil, though.  You can tell that by the starch that is clinging
to the sides of the pot.
A completely cooked pork roast.  I know that the top looks burnt,
but there was a thick layer of fat on the top side of the roast.  I cut
the blackened part away since it was not meat anyway, and a tender,
succulent pork roast lay underneath.  The oven was still at a safe
temperature to hold the meat.
I put a pint of home-canned green beans on the stove to boil while I mashed the potatoes and carved the meat.  Nancy cut some pre-cooked bacon into the green beans and set the table.  Within minutes of coming home, we sat down to a wood-cooked meal that looked like this:

We deemed this experiment a definite success and feel that we have yet another reason to be glad that we upgraded from the Qualified Range to the Margin Gem.  I can't wait to try other combinations of dishes.  If I were to cook another pork roast in this manner, I think that I would add a little water or stock because I think that a little added moisture would have prevented the top of the roast from becoming overly browned.  My grandmother-in-law says that I also should have put the potatoes in with the roast.  I would have thought of this with a beef roast, but I guess my mother never did that with pork roasts, so I didn't think of it.  I don't think that the moisture from the potatoes would have been sufficient to prevent the over-browning, though.  At any rate, stay tuned for more "automatic" cooking experiments!


  1. I think it is funny that as I read this blog, I am hearing your voice. Also think it is funny because I don't remember Gma ever putting potatoes on with her roasts - not that I remember her cooking on a wood stove, but she never puts potatoes in the crock pot with her roasts like Mom does.

  2. Your post reminds me of days spent at my granny's in West Virginia. Mostly it would have been green beans, pinto beans, fried potatoes and some type of meat but don't forget the biscuits.

    1. The mere mention of fried potatoes makes me hungry!

  3. I'm so glad I found your blog. I am salivating over getting an indoor wood cookstove. We built an outdoor one that we haven't been able to put in a permanent spot. We've only cooked cornbread & chili so far. Pizza is next during the winter.

  4. Brian,

    Please feel free to leave questions for me here in the comments section of the blog. I'm always happy to try to answer reader questions here. Hope to hear from you soon.

  5. Jim,

    The roast looks delicious. But I agree with your Grandma-in-law no roast is complete without roasted potatoes. I add in carrots and onions too; and on the occasion cellery. There is just something about the flavor of the roasted vegtables that cannot be duplicated in any other way.