Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Art of Creating a "Duo-Temp" Oven in a Wood Cookstove

I think that I have an oven fixation.

There, I admitted it. 

Even when looking at a modern range, the first thing that I'm interested in is the oven.  In fact, when we were at the Iowa State Fair this summer, I spent what my wife and her family considered an interminable amount of time touring travel trailers, but I was only interested in the trailers that had stoves with ovens on them.  I wouldn't even consider buying a camper if its stove didn't have an oven.

Oops.  Sorry, I'm getting carried away.  I wasn't actually considering buying any of the trailers which had ovens in them either.  Our budget would certainly not allow such a thing. 

It's just that cooktops hold no real fascination for me, which I think is why I'm not very interested in cooking on woodburning heaters.  If I had been satisfied with that, our old Englander woodstove would have placated my appetite for cooking on wood quite sufficiently.  I'll admit to being intrigued by watching the Youtube videos of Misty Prepper doing a lot of cooking and even baking biscuits on top of her Fisher woodburning heating stove, but for me a cookstove isn't a cookstove without an oven.

That said, it can sometimes be a bit frustrating to me that both of the working cookstoves here only have a single oven.  The first two stoves that my mother cooked on in her married life were both equipped with two separate ovens.  My grandmother on my dad's side had two ovens on her stoves for the last twenty-six years of cooking that she did, and my grandmother on my mom's side is famous for cooking in two different ovens simultaneously.  In fact, for Thanksgiving 2011, Grandma was cooking in three different ovens all at once--and she wasn't even hosting the dinner that year!  Obviously, I'm used to having some "oven flexibility."

Of course, the advantage to having two different ovens is twofold: a) more space for more foods, and b) the ability to cook at two different oven temperatures.  The acquisition of the stovetop oven last fall certainly helps with both of these, but I had been creating a "duo-temp" oven using the single built-in cookstove oven fourteen years before purchasing the stovetop one.

I formed the idea for this trick after I remembered a conversation that I had once had with a saleslady at Kitchen, Bath & Home in Ames, Iowa.  While I was in college at Iowa State, I would occasionally take some time to visit historic downtown Ames.  Of course, I was drawn to Kitchen, Bath & Home because they had a beautiful red AGA cooker in their front display window.  One Saturday morning, I ventured inside the store and spent a pleasant half-hour visiting with one of the salesladies about cooking on an AGA.  Naturally, I told her that what I really wanted was to cook on a woodburning range, but she was a dedicated employee and did her best to persuade me that an AGA would make me every bit as happy. 

In the course of our conversation, she taught me how one uses the AGA Cold Plain Shelf in the roasting oven of an AGA.  The super-condensed version is that the shelf is inserted in the middle or toward the top of the oven, and a cooler baking space is thereby created between the floor of the oven and the Cold Plain Shelf, while a hotter roasting space is created in the top part of the oven.

Knowing that the ovens on most wood cookstoves are heated from the top down like the AGAs (for more information about this, see this post), it didn't take me long to try this in the Qualified range.  I can still remember the first meal on which I used this technique.  Mom and Dad and I had supper together in the little house, so it was in the first year that I had the Qualified, and we had roast chicken, baked potatoes, dressing, and escalloped corn--pretty starchy, I know, but so delicious.

What I do is to cover one of the oven racks with aluminum foil.  Then, I place that rack in the middle position.  Since the oven is heated from the top down, the area above the rack will be hotter than the area below the rack.  I don't know what the actual temperature difference is because I've never had more than one oven thermometer to measure both spaces simultaneously, but I can tell you that it has worked every time.

Baking potatoes in the hotter, upper part of the oven while
green bean casserole is cooking in the cooler, lower part of the oven.
I used this technique for cooking our supper last night.  I mentioned in an earlier post that my preferred method for baking potatoes is to cook them for an hour at 400 degrees.  Green bean casserole only has to cook for half an hour at 350.  Thus, the "duo-temp" oven method worked great in this situation.

I have also used this technique at Thanksgiving dinners.  Once the turkey is out of the oven, I put my makeshift cold plain shelf in so that I can bake the dinner rolls down below in the moderate section while I brown the marshmallows on top of the sweet potatoes and dry out the dressing a little in the hot upper section.

A couple of things to keep in mind:

1) I never scrape all of the fly ash from the top of the oven chamber in the flue area beneath the cooktop.  Doing so would probably result in an even larger temperature difference between the two chambers created in the oven by using this method.  I would just be extra careful about the top of the food cooking too quickly in comparison to the bottom.  Some foods can be turned or stirred, though, and that would eliminate this concern.

2) Using this method renders the reading on the oven thermometer useless except to give you a general idea of how hot the oven is.  Since most oven thermometers are in the middle of the door right about where the foil-covered rack is going to land, they are only going to present a happy medium between the two temperatures of the upper and lower parts of the oven.

As usual, I hope that this little hint helps someone else make his or her wood cookstove cooking adventures more successful.  If you are a wood cookstove cook who does something similar or has something more to add, please take advantage of the comments section below.  Happy cooking!


  1. I found your blog a few weeks ago and have to say I have very much enjoyed going through the old posts. I too have long had a copy of Jane Cooper's Home on the Range, but I have found your photos addressing the particulars of using a warming oven and such, very interesting.

    As for myself, I recently bought a restored Cabinet Glenwood C similar to reader Mark's stove, detailed a few months back. (Indeed, it was a Google search on Glenwood cabinet stoves that turned up your September blog postings to begin with.)

    I am slowly renovating a Maine farm house and have yet to get to the kitchen. The present kitchen once had a cookstove, but in the 1950s, they modernized the place and closed off the chimney. That chimney proved to be too small to refurbish/reline, so I'm going to build a new (probably stainless steel, lined) chimney when I get going on the kitchen. For now, the stove is sitting in my living room because that seems to be the least humid, safest part of the house for it: (Just signed up to Flickr expressly to post that photo....'Hope it works.

    Best regards,
    Stephen B.

    1. I should say about that photo, that the lids and nickel trim are still wrapped in the plastic wrap the refurbisher shipped the stove in, which is why parts of the stove perhaps look a bit strange. My camera phone didn't really do the stove justice.

      As well, I bought this stove second-hand from somebody else that had it rebuilt 15 years ago for a camp house, but never got to installing/using it. Hopefully, my kitchen rebuild will go a bit faster!

    2. Welcome to my blog, Stephen! You were successful in posting your picture to Flickr; I could see your stove plainly, and it is a beauty. Now, I too am anxious for you to be able to complete your kitchen renovation so that you can enjoy cooking on your Glenwood. Looking forward to hearing from you frequently.

  2. Love These traditional ways of cooking. My wife and I cook On a modern electric range, but use only cast iron skillets and dutch ovens . Great pictures!

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I took a look at your fire pokers. They are real works of art. Very beautiful.