Saturday, September 27, 2014

Trivets and Simmering Pads: Keys to Stovetop Flexibility

It seems like I have written quite a bit about how to use the oven on a woodburning cookstove, but have written relatively little about using the cooktop.  I suppose this is partly due to the fact that stovetop cooking on a woodburning range is really pretty easy.  In a nutshell, high heat is directly over the firebox, medium heat is the middle section of the stovetop, and low heat is the section of the stovetop farthest from the fire.  All the cook needs to do is slide pots and pans to the location that is providing the desired level of heat . . . usually.

One of the things that can make stovetop cooking a bit challenging is that there are times when the whole cooktop is too hot for things that you want to cook very slowly or gently.  A stovetop which is too hot can be caused by a number of reasons.  The first and probably most common reason is that your fire is serving multiple functions.  For example, if you are baking something that needs a hot oven--say 400-425 degrees or more--or if your cookstove is doing double duty as the sole means of heating your home on a cold winter's night, your fire might be hot enough that the whole cooktop is running somewhere between what would be considered high or medium high heat on a modern range.

In his 1978 book entitled Wood Heat, John Vivian writes, "When there is a good baking fire going, there will be live flame under all lids and the entire cooktop will be hot enough to boil water with the lids in place."  In my experience, the "live flame under all the lids" part isn't true, but the part about the entire cooktop being able to boil water certainly is.

Sometimes you also need a hot fire because of what you are doing on the cooktop itself.  If you are canning--especially in the case of water bath canning--or heating large amounts of water for laundry, you might need a raging fire beneath just part of the cooktop.  What you are trying to cook on the rest of the stovetop might not benefit at all from such an intense heat.

Furthermore, in the case of small cookstoves (see the pic of my brother's), two-lid kitchen heaters, boxwood stoves, or combination ranges where the wood heated cooktop is abbreviated, the heat of the cooktop might be uniformly hot when you need a variety of heat levels. 

This is where trivets and simmering pads come in handy.  By raising a cooking vessel enough that it no longer is making direct contact with the stovetop, they reduce the amount of heat which is being transferred from the stove to the food.  These wood cookstove accessories can be found in just about any shape or form and are generally inexpensive.   I added to my collection of these over the summer, so I thought I would show them to you.

Starting at the top left side and working clockwise, a grate from
the sidecar burner of a gas grill, the new round simmering pad from
the Goodwill Warehouse, a relatively new perforated steel simmering
pad, a "burner shield" still with its original packaging, and the four-
point star that belonged to my Granny.
The square grate that you see at the top left is the grate that went over the top of the sidecar burner on a gas grill.  We live on the road that takes people from the western side of our county to the county trash compactor, and occasionally, some interesting things end up in our ditches because they blow out of the back of pickups on the way there.  Several years ago, a gas grill that was long past its prime had exited its transport in just that fashion, and there were gas grill parts everywhere.  I rummaged through them and salvaged this nifty little piece.  I have used it a few times.  Since it holds a pan about three-quarters of an inch off the stovetop, it can provide a nice warm spot for something to rest, or when placed directly over the firebox, I've seen pots boil while sitting on it too.
The round simmering pad at the right rear was at the Goodwill Warehouse this summer, and I felt that it needed to go home with me.  You buy merchandise by the pound there, so I estimate that I paid about $.80 for it.  I'll let you know how I like it once I've used it.
The simmering pad at the lower right is one that I purchased new shortly after buying the Qualified range in 1997.  I found it in a hardware store in Atlantic, Iowa, and snatched it up in a hurry because I knew that my great-grandmother had owned one just like it.  It is constructed of two perforated steel disks that are fastened together so that there is about a half inch between them.  Originally, it had a handle on it which connected to the little tab that you can see at the very right edge of the picture.  However, the handle had a plastic cover that was not removable, and I found the angle at which it rose to be bothersome for large pots, so I took the handle off.  This pad has seen considerable use and has proven very helpful on our new gas range too.
The "burner shield" with the red and white card still attached to it in the front center of the picture was purchased for a dollar at a local estate sale this summer.  The card says, "Simply place Burner Shield on top of burner and cook as usual.  Protects glass teakettles, sauce pans, casserole dishes, etc."  Obviously, I haven't used it yet, either.
The four-pointed star in the lower left is basically the same thing as the aforementioned "burner shield."  The difference--other than the shape--is that the four-point star is made of a much narrower gauge wire.  This belonged to my grandmother on my dad's side, whom we all called Granny.  She used this little thing daily because she had one of those clear Pyrex Flameware teakettles that were popular in the middle of the last century which she used to boil water for instant coffee every morning.  This little star was a fixture on the Qualified range for years, but has only recently made its way to the Margin Gem.  It has seen quite a bit of use over the years, too.
Other than actually cooking on them, I have also used trivets and simmering pads to keep finished foods warm.  For example, when cooking a large meal where mashed potatoes are the staple, a simmering pad is the perfect place to let the kettle of potatoes rest after they are mashed while the meat is carved. 
Instead of using trivets and simmering pads, I've read about people using regular building bricks on top of their stoves, and I have seen pictures of people using very short pieces of sawed off metal pipes, too.  Clearly, several different options exist, but I'm pleased with my collection here because they won't leave scratches or grit on my stovetop like pipe or bricks might.
If you are a wood cookstove cook, or even a woodstove cook, please let me know what sorts of trivets and simmering pads you use if they differ from mine.  It's helpful to me and to other cooks to have as much information as possible here.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Little Information about Maintaining Dual Hot Water Systems

The trees and the grass in the lawn are still arrayed in the deep greens of late summer, but the corn and beans have begun to turn here, and my nephew (four years old) announced last weekend that harvest is coming soon.

He is indeed right.  The weather turned sharply cooler this week too, so my thoughts are turning toward more regular use of the cookstove.  One of the aspects of having the stove steadily fired that I'm really looking forward to is having it supply our hot water.  I'm looking forward to this because it results in such a savings on our electric bill and because the water that comes out of the tap is so much hotter than what we have our electric water heater set at.

Having dual hot water systems creates for us a unique set of maintenance routines.  Last year, we turned our electric hot water heater off in late September and didn't turn it back on again until late May.  It was the second heating season in which we had turned off the electric hot water heater for an extended period of time.

Before we had installed the Margin Gem with the water jacket system, I was telling my uncle about our plans to shut off our tank-type hot water heater during the winter.  He didn't think this was a good idea at all.  He works as an electrician and has seen a number of vile occurrences in people's homes and said that the inside of a turned-off water heater is the beginning of all kinds of nasty things.  I, however, am unwilling to heat water that we are not intending to use, so I went ahead with turning off the electric water heater. 

What has happened each winter, though, is that the water in the electric hot water heater does sour after about the third month of it being off.  This is not a humongous problem, however.  Both the electric hot water intake and supply lines are equipped with gate valves about a foot above the water heater, so those are both shut off.  When we are far enough into the spring that we are going to use the electric hot water heater, I drain and flush the tank, let it fill again, and turn it on.  Initially, the water does have a slightly objectionable smell to it.  After the water heater has been on for a couple of days, I completely empty the tank again, but since it is hot water this time and I am so frugal, I empty it by washing clothes in hot water in the top-loading automatic washer and the wringer-washer.

Now, because I fear the same situation happening in the water heating system attached to the cookstove, I make sure that we use the Margin Gem at least once a month during the summer season.  We make sure to switch the valves in the water lines so that the water heated by the cookstove is used, thereby circulating fresh water into the system.

I don't want the water in the wood heated system to sour because there is no easy way to drain the system.  The Vaughn range boiler has a tapping on the very bottom of the tank which would have been ideal for a drain valve.  However, due to the low height of the legs on the bottom of the tank and the fact that our tank sits on a marble slab, the plumber could not attach a fitting to the bottom of the tank. 

A photo of our range boiler before it was attached
to the Margin Gem range.

I think that what I'm going to try to do this winter is to occasionally circulate fresh water through the electric hot water heater by setting the top-loading automatic washing machine to the hot water cycle, but washing a load of clothes in the cold water that would come from the turned-off water heater.  I can't use the high-efficiency washing machine in this scheme because it senses the water temperature and heats what has come into the washer to the temperature that it desires according to its setting.  Hopefully, this plan will alleviate the easy but inconvenient task of draining and flushing the electric hot water heater in the spring.

Of course, we use well water here on the farm.  What I'd like to know from my readers is whether this situation as I've described it would happen to people whose homes are served by chlorinated water.  Does chlorinated water ever sour in a turned-off water heater?  If you have a range boiler system which is hooked up to a chlorinated water supply, are you able to leave your wood-fired hot water system unfired for the entirety of the summer without any adverse effects?  Please let me know by utilizing the comments section below.  Thanks for your help!