Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Maintaining an Even Oven Temperature in a Wood Cookstove, Part 2

Variables to Consider

The contractor whom we chose to refurbish the walls in our living room and dining room a few years ago used to run a country inn where she had cooked on a vintage wood cookstove.  Both of us preferred cooking on our woodburning ranges over a modern stove, and we had great conversations where we compared notes.  I said to her that one of the reasons that I liked to bake in the woodburning range better than the electric stove was because I felt like I was in control of the woodburning range.  

"I know exactly what you mean," she agreed, "but not just anyone would understand what you just said."  

I've thought of that conversation several times over the years, and though it might seem strange to the layperson, I think that it makes all kinds of sense to experienced wood cookstove users.  When you use a modern oven, the only control that you have over that oven is the thermostat.  When you bake in a woodburning cookstove, you actually have a broad array of things that you can do to control the heat of your oven.  Thus, maintaining an even oven temperature is entirely dependent on the knack and skill of the baker.  That said, it seems appropriate to discuss several variables that are present when one is baking in a woodburning cookstove.  

The information below might seem intimidating in its scope, but my aim is to equip the reader of this blog with an arsenal of information and techniques in order to make the wood cookstove baking experience as easy and rewarding as possible.  As I said in Part I of this series, baking in a wood cookstove is not difficult.  It just looks that way in print.  Fear not!

Variables You Can't Control

These aspects can affect your baking experience.  You can't control them, but you may need
to take them into consideration as you evaluate what is happening while you bake.

1. Weather  This usually isn't a significant concern, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention it.  Cooler weather creates a better draft in your chimney and will make your stove respond better to what you do to control the fire.  Warmer weather reduces draft and can make controlling your fire a bit more challenging--though certainly not impossible.

2. Food You Are Baking  Sometimes you haven't got a choice about what it is that you are baking, and what you are baking will determine the temperature that you need your oven to be and for how long.

Variables You Can Control

This is a list of what is up to you to govern to make your baking experience successful.

1. Food You Are Baking  Sometimes you have got a choice about what you are going to bake.  If you are having trouble achieving a hot oven, but a moderate oven is attainable, make Danish pastry instead of cream puffs, or a cake instead of baked Alaska.
This seems to be the most appropriate place to also point out that some baked goods will demand that you open the oven door more frequently during the baking process than you would for others.  Cookies, for example, involve frequently accessing the oven at shorter intervals of time than you would for a cake or pie.  Each time you open the oven door, experts estimate that the oven loses twenty-five degrees of heat.  In a modern range, the thermostat cycles to bring the oven back up to temperature; with a wood cookstove, you've got to manage your fire in such a way as to compensate for the additional heat loss.
2. Fuel  When you are baking, I think that it is best to have a variety of woods available for use.  Different types of trees yield firewood of different densities, heat values, and burn times.  If all of the firewood available to you is the same variety of tree, do not despair.  Having different sized pieces of the same wood usually offers quite a bit of control over the fire too. 
In the future, I would like to write a few posts about firewoods, but for now I'll just touch on a couple of points:

a) Small diameter, lighter weight pieces of wood burn very hot, but don't last long.

b) Pieces with larger diameter and greater weight burn hot, but less so, and they last longer.

In the picture below, you can see the variety of firewood pieces that were in our woodbox last night.  We had a combination of cottonwood and elm and something else that my folks brought us that a storm brought down at their house.  You can see that we had pieces of various diameter which were whole as well as split.

Different varieties and sizes of firewood available for baking.

3. Distribution of Fire in Firebox  I know that this sounds funny, but it is important.  If your fire is not spread evenly in the firebox front to back, the oven will not heat evenly either.  Thus, if the hottest part of your fire is in the back of the firebox, the back of your oven will be hotter than the front--and so on and so forth with wherever the hottest part of your fire is located.

A picture from the post about grilling on a cookstove.  This
shows a time when I purposely did not distribute the fire
evenly in the firebox.  At the time this photo was snapped,
the front of the oven would have been hotter than the back.

4. Oxygen Supply to the Fire  For combustion to occur, oxygen must be present.  In general, the more oxygen supplied to a fire, the hotter the fire burns.  This is why the old blacksmith forge was fitted with a hand-cranked fan or bellows to rush oxygen through the coals and create the intense heat needed to make metal malleable.

To cool a fire in a cookstove, you decrease the oxygen flow by closing the drafts.  To cause the fire to burn hotter, you increase the oxygen flow by opening the drafts.  HOWEVER, there is a caveat: opening the drafts too widely will make the fire burn hotter, but will also allow extra, unused fresh air to circulate around the oven and will result in a lower oven temperature.  This "point of diminishing returns" can only be learned with experience, and because weather conditions affect draft, it is also mobile.

5. Amount of Unheated Air Circulating Around the Oven  If the fire is too hot for the baking temperature that is necessary, permitting cool air to circulate around the oven will keep the oven temperature from getting too high.  Some stoves are equipped with a "check draft."  This is a draft which is located above the fire so that, when opened, cool air is permitted to enter the stove above the fire and around the oven.  Fellow cookstove user katlupe has a great picture of her Jewel cookstove at this link.  The check draft is the three little openings on the pouch feed on the left side of the cooktop.

I've never had the privilege of cooking on a stove that was equipped with a check draft.  However, I've read that a similar effect can be accomplished by simply tipping open a few of the cooktop lids above the oven, thus permitting the cool air to circulate around the oven in the same fashion as a check draft is designed to do.

6. Amount of Fly Ash Above the Oven  Since most wood cookstove ovens heat from the top down (see the Part 1 of this series), some ovens tend to cook foods thoroughly on the top, but not on the bottom.  One way to help make sure that the oven is of more uniform temperature from top to bottom is to leave a layer of fly ash resting on the roof of the oven beneath the cooktop.  Fly ash is ash that floats up from the fire and either gets stuck somewhere in the flue path of the stove or travels up the chimney.  Except for when I had to move the Qualified range, I never scraped away all of the fly ash from above its oven in the entire time that I used that stove.

7. Use of Baffles in the Oven  When I was in college at Iowa State University in Ames, I once visited the kitchen store in downtown Ames which sells AGA cookers.  The sales lady there explained to me how one can use the "cold plain shelf" in the AGA ovens to create two different baking temperatures in one oven.  Covering an oven rack with a piece of aluminum foil produces the same effect in a wood cookstove oven.

8. Location of the Food in the Oven  Foods placed closer to the top of the oven will cook differently than foods placed nearer to the bottom of the oven.  This is true in modern ovens too, so this is nothing that would surprise the experienced cook.  It is also a variable that the wood cookstove baker has at his disposal.

I'm always stressing to my students that writing is a process of revisions upon revisions, and I'd just like to take this opportunity to say that readers of this post might want to occasionally revisit this location in the future.  I have a sneaking feeling that I have inadvertently left something out, but I can't think of anything that is missing at the moment.  If I find that something has been omitted here, I will add it in the future.  Also, if you are a wood cookstove user, please take advantage of the comments section to tell me about other variables which I have neglected to include here.

Now, I realize that I still haven't actually told you what processes one might use to maintain an even oven temperature.  The next two posts on this topic will provide you with that information, I promise.

Jump to the next post about "what other people do" to maintain an oven temperature here.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Maintaining an Even Oven Temperature in a Wood Cookstove, Part 1

How the Oven on a Wood Cookstove is Heated

One of the most common questions that people ask me about cooking on a woodburning cookstove is how to maintain an even oven temperature.  I think that this question is so popular for two reasons: a) people have heard all manner of folklore about temperamental cookstove ovens and b) though it was once as common a skill as combing one's hair, people no longer have the foggiest ideas about how to control a wood fire.  Trust me when I say that baking in a wood cookstove is really not that difficult.  It is, however, a topic that is complicated to write about, so this is the first of a series of posts about how to manage the oven of a woodburning cookstove.

As with many aspects of cooking with a woodburning range, each experienced wood cookstove cook will develop a sytem which works best for him or her.  All I can do here is share what I know works for others and for me, knowing that each stove and chimney behaves differently than the next.  To begin with, though, it seems like it is necessary to first discuss how a wood cookstove oven heats.

As far as I know, what I'm about to tell you is true about all of the cookstoves being manufactured today with the exception of the the Vermont Bun Baker (or Baker's Oven), the Kitchen Queen, and Enterprise-Fawcett's reproduction Queen Cook.   The Vermont Bun Baker's firebox sits squarely above its oven, and from what I've read, the heat and smoke from the fire are routed down around the oven before exiting via the flue.  The Kitchen Queen and the Queen Cook are both designed so that their ovens are heated from the bottom.

The Vermont Bun Baker.  Photo from

A drawing of the Kitchen Queen wood cookstove which
shows the flue path when it is in the baking mode.  Photo
from www.kitchenqueenstoves.com.

Enterprise-Fawcett's Queen Cook.  The
oven is the box at the rear with the nickel-plated
image of Queen Victoria on it.  Photo from

To the best of my knowledge, all the rest of the woodburning cooktoves which are being manufactured today are designed in basically the same way.  Furthermore, this design has been standard in woodburning ranges since the last two decades of the nineteenth century.   From everything that I have seen or read about the new cookstoves on the market currently, the major differences between the stoves of today and the stoves of yesteryear are mostly due to adjustments in the fireboxes, draft systems, and cosmetic appearances.

Generally, the firebox is on the left side of the stove, and the oven damper is located in the middle rear of the stove just under the stovetop.  The oven damper is a little door which, when open, allows smoke and heat to travel in the most direct route possible from the fire and up the chimney.  When closed, the oven damper forces the smoke and heat to flow around the oven before exiting the stove, thus heating the oven.

The following picture is a scan of p. 283 of John Vivian's 1978 book entitled The New Improved Wood Heat, which was illustrated by Liz Buell and published by Rodale Press.  All of the wood cookstoves that I have worked with, cooked on, or fully examined (over a dozen) were configured in the manner illustrated in the top design.  The only difference is that the three cookstoves that I have cooked on regularly here at home--the Margin Gem, the Qualified, and the Riverside Bakewell--all have a baffle centered under the oven.  This baffle extends from the back of the stove to about half way to the front of the stove, forcing the smoke and heat to travel under the oven and toward the front of the stove before taking a left and traveling to the back of the stove and then out the stovepipe.

Liz Buell's illustrations from John Vivian's book The New Improved
Wood Heat.  The shaded strips represent the path that heat and smoke
take around the oven in a cookstove when the oven damper is closed.
The photos below show the oven damper lever on the left side of the Margin Gem, and the middle rear lid of the Margin Gem cooktop is removed to show the actual oven damper itself.

A picture of the left side of the Margin Gem.  The
oven damper lever is the one with the black knob
on the end of it next to where the top water pipe
exits the waterjacket.  When the lever is down like
this, the oven damper is open.

The Margin Gem's oven damper in the open position so that
smoke and heat can go directly up the chimney.

This picture from the post entitled "Perfect Roast
Beef from Your Wood Cookstove" shows the oven
damper lever in the up position.  This means that the
damper is closed and the oven is heating.

The Margin Gem's oven damper in the closed position, forcing
all of the heat and smoke from the fire to be diverted around the oven.

Now, we are very happy with the Margin Gem for many reasons, but one feature of the Qualified range that I miss is that it had a sliding oven damper.  The Riverside Bakewell range down in the summer kitchen is equipped with a sliding oven damper as well.  I prefer the sliding oven damper over the levered oven damper because you can decide how widely you'd like the oven damper to be open.  The following pictures are of the oven damper of the green and cream Riverside Bakewell in various positions.
Riverside Bakewell cookstove's oven damper handle in the "open"

The middle "French plate" or "blank plate" is removed to show
the oven damper in the open position. 

The oven damper handle in the partially closed position.

The oven damper on the Riverside Bakewell partially closed.

The oven damper handle in the position "to bake."

The Riverside Bakewell's oven damper closed for baking.
The Margin Gem's oven damper is either closed or open; there is no in between.  While I do like the added flexibility and control of the sliding oven damper, it is important to note that I have not been inconvenienced at all by the Margin Gem's style of oven damper either.  Many old stoves were manufactured with the same style of hinged oven damper, and I've never read of anyone clamoring about it as much as I just have.  Furthermore, you can also see that when the oven damper is open, the hole that it creates is really not that large, so some smoke and heat still always travel around the oven to exit the stove.

I am surprised at the variety of places that oven damper levers are found on different woodburning cookstoves.  I've taken the liberty of drawing a cookstove with arrows pointing to the various places where I've seen oven damper levers placed.

Each arrow shows a location where the oven damper has been located on
wood cookstoves that I have seen.

Hmmmm.  I suspect that the aforementioned John Vivian might have artistic abilities which are about as poor as mine, thus causing him to have collaborated with Liz Buell for his book's illustrations.  I'm thoroughly embarrassed that all of you now know the limited extent of my talent in the field of visual arts.

The Waterford Stanley cookstove seems to have a pretty unique baffle and damper system which operates on the same basic principles as I have recorded here, but it is manipulated by using a lever in notched dials on the cooktop itself.  A good place to see how all of that works is at a website called Granny Miller.  You can see the article here.

Now that you know how the heat from the fire gets to the oven of a woodburning cookstove, stay tuned for posts on how to control the heat.

Quick Links:  Maintaining an Even Oven Temperature in a Wood Cookstove, Part 2 Variables

Maintaining an Even Oven Temperature in a Wood Cookstove, Part 3: What Other People Do

Maintaining an Even Oven Temperature in a Wood Cookstove, Part 4: What I Do

Monday, January 14, 2013

Enjoying Free Hot Water

What would you do differently if you had unlimited, free hot water?

In the winter, our cold water is really cold.  The screaming-pain-in-your-hands-when-you-wash-them kind of cold.  For as long as I can remember, I have always peeled and washed vegetables in cold water because it seemed a waste of energy to use any warm water for that task.  Furthermore, when using the wringer washer, I would always put straight cold water in the rinse tubs, making rinsing the clothes an experience in torture.  I just couldn't justify using any hot water when it wasn't necessary.

Enter Marjorie the Margin Gem cookstove with her waterfront and range boiler.  It has taken me a while, but I'm breaking my old habits and living more comfortably because we have a lot of VERY hot water.  With the cookstove being fired constantly, we've got hot water to spare, and we're not paying anything extra for it!  I really don't think that we even have any increased wood consumption.  We're not using more water, but we are using more hot water, and there is no guilt attached to doing so.

As you can tell, I'm very happy about that.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Wood Cookstove Potato Soup

Since we are now past the holidays and into those long, dark, cold months of winter (don't let my word choice fool you; winter is my favorite season), now is the perfect time to be cooking those cold weather comfort foods like potato soup.  I suppose that there are as many methods of making potato soup as there are people who cook it, so I will merely share what I do.  I apologize from the beginning about the lack of exact measurements.  If you've been following this blog for any length of time, you know how I am sometimes.

First I start by peeling and dicing several potatoes.  A rough estimate of how many would be one medium size potato per person who will be enjoying the end product.  I don't get really fussy about how neatly the potatoes are diced.  I just quarter them and then begin slicing each quarter in roughly 1/2 inch cubes.  At this point, I would like to interject that I admire my sister-in-law.  When she cuts up her vegetables for her potato soup, she is maticulous, and they look beautiful.  You can see her version of potato soup here at her blog.  I think I should hire her to be my photographer, don't you?

Back to my soup.  I cut up two or three ribs of celery (depending on my mood), a couple of carrots, and a medium sized onion.  All of that goes into the soup kettle with the diced potatoes, a tablespoon or two of dried minced garlic, some salt, and just enough water to cover everything.  Bring this to a boil directly over the fire.

The beginnings of potato soup.

While that begins to cook, begin frying a few slices of bacon.  For this batch of soup, I used the oddly shaped end pieces of the bulk bacon that we had purchased on sale a while ago.

The vegetables coming to a boil over the firebox while bacon
cooks and bread rises.
After the vegetables have come to a good boil, you can move them from directly over the fire to medium heat.

The soup kettle has been moved over to less intense heat, and the bread
is now in the oven.  Hey, how do you like my new red Lodge kettle?  It
is porcelain on cast iron, and it was a Christmas gift from my in-laws.
When you are frying the bacon for this soup, be careful not to do it over heat that is too intense.  You want to fry the bacon until it is crisp, but don't try to hurry it along so much that it gets too hot and smokes.  You'll see why in a minute.  Once the bacon is cooked, remove it from the skillet to cool.  Remove the skillet from the stove, too.

Once the vegetables are tender, add milk to the water that they have been cooking in.  I added a good quart to this batch because I was making soup for six people.  Move the pot back over to the fire to bring it back to a boil after the cold milk cooled it off.  While it is heating, you'll want to stir it occasionally and begin to make your thickening.  I combined 2/3 c. flour with enough additional cold milk to make a fairly thin mixture.

The soup is heating over the firebox after the addition
of the cold milk while I mixed flour and cold milk for
Add the flour and milk mixture to the soup kettle, stirring it in thoroughly.  You'll need to stir frequently from this point on since you now have the flour in the soup.  You don't want it to stick on the bottom of the pot.

Now, about this next part . . . .

What do you say we make a deal?  I'll tell you how to make good potato soup as long as you promise not to tell my doctor my secrets.  Seems fair to me.

See, I wrote earlier that you don't want your bacon to cook so fast that it begins to smoke because you don't want your bacon drippings to take on any off flavors which result from them getting too hot.  This is important because you are going to pour your bacon drippings into the soup.  Just remember, we have a deal: no tattling!

Pouring the liquid gold into the soup.
I know that I should feel guilty about this, but other potato soup recipes call for cream, cream cheese or other cheeses, or canned soups--all of which are sources of fat.  This bacon grease and any fat still on the bacon are the only fat in this soup, so I'm not feeling too bad.

Crumble the bacon into little pieces and throw it into the soup.

Sorry this picture is on its side.  I'm having trouble with blogger
today.  It's making uploading pictures a difficult process.
At this point, you need to season the soup to your taste.  I add onion salt, celery salt, garlic salt, and ground pepper--with the emphasis on the garlic salt.  You do what you want, but don't be afraid of the garlic salt.  I think the potatoes need it.  Then, keep the soup over the firebox and stir pretty much constantly until the soup comes to a boil again.  This will ensure that the soup thickens and doesn't taste like raw flour--which is only a desirable flavor in cookie dough.

Unfortunately, this meal was taken immediately over to my in-laws' home to be eaten for supper, so I neglected to snap a photo of the finished product.  I mean, of course, that it is unfortunate that I didn't get the photo.  It is not unfortunate that we took it to my in-laws.  Food always tastes better when eaten with lots of people, and besides, I got compliments from my wife's grandmother about this recipe, and she is a fellow foodie.

Hope you enjoy this as much as we did!