Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Using the Wood Cookstove as a Slow-Cooker

On some cold days, you just don't want to shut the oven door on a woodburning cookstove.  In fact, you simply don't want to do anything that will reduce the radiant surface area of the cookstove.  The cooking method that I'm sharing in this blog post is perfect for those cold days--like yesterday and today--when the fire is going full tilt for heat and you don't want to sacrifice any of it for cooking your supper.

I first tried this almost eight years ago when I wanted to see if I could mimic a Crock-pot with the oven of the wood cookstove.  In a Crock-pot, the heat comes at the food from the sides as well as the bottom of the crock.  I have only used this cooking method for slow-cooking roasts, but it works really well.

First, you must select an appropriate cooking vessel.  Yesterday, I used my three-quart Saladmaster saucepan.  It belonged to Granny, who purchased it in 1963 and used it so hard that the handle fell off years before it ended up in my possession in the late 1990s.  Its handlelessness (I know that's not a word, but I like it anyway.) is precisely the reason that I use it.  You want to choose a vessel that can have all parts of it exposed to heat.  I don't use the lid that actually goes with this pot because it has a handle that would not be oven safe.  Instead, I used an all metal lid that I purchased at a second-hand store in Atlantic.  I have used aluminum foil as a lid, too.

Next, prepare your food as you would for any ordinary slow cooker.  I had chosen a small chuck roast, so I first seared the outside of it in a little butter.  Then I added some beef broth, some dried onions, and some seasonings.

Place the cover on the vessel.

Slide it into the rear corner of the oven closest to the firebox side of the stove.  Leave it there with the oven door open for as long as is necessary to cook whatever you have chosen.  Our small roast was in the corner of the oven from about ten o'clock in the morning to our suppertime at half past six.

In most wood cookstoves, this corner of the oven would be the hottest area because the firebox is immediately to the left, and when the oven damper is in the baking position (where ours stays during cold weather), all of the flue gases travel up the back of the oven on their way to the stovepipe.

To increase the heat, I removed the rack from below the kettle in the middle of the afternoon.  This afforded greater heat transfer to the food by conducting heat directly from the oven floor to the bottom of the kettle.

The roast turned out to be very flavorful, and coupled with potatoes that we baked this way and some homegrown frozen sweet corn, it made an excellent supper.

On the upper side of the roast, you can see two light-colored
places where bubbles had been rising as the roast simmered
in the open oven.
If you try using this method of slow cooking in your wood or coal cookstove, please let me know how it worked for you by utilizing the comments section below.  Happy cooking!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Using Your Wood Cookstove as a Clothes Dryer

I can probably count the number of times we have used our clothes dryer in the last year on the fingers of one hand.  We keep it around for emergencies, but sometimes even an emergency can be handled more quickly in an old-fashioned way.

One such emergency occurred one weekend earlier this month when Nancy and I needed black dress socks for our choir outfits on Sunday morning.  Fortunately, I had thought ahead enough to throw the load of dark dress socks into the automatic washing machine before I went to bed on Saturday evening, but they still needed to be dried on Sunday morning in time for church.  I could have dried the socks in the dryer, but there was no need because we have a wood cookstove!

When we have a small article of clothing that needs to be dried in a hurry, I pin it (or them as in the case of the required socks) to a wire clothes hanger and then hang it all from the handle of the warming oven door.  As the heat rises from the cooktop, the clothing dries very quickly.  See below for cautionary statements regarding this method, though.

Drying socks on the Margin Gem.  I've also dried
underwear this way, but I'll spare you the embarrassment
of having to look at it.

When we were still using the Qualified Range, it functioned as a much better clothes dryer than the Margin Gem.  For one thing, along the front of the range and along the right side, the Qualified was equipped with a guard rail that I frequently used as a clothing or towel rack.

You can see the chrome plated towel racks on
the front and right sides of the Qualified range in
this picture.

You can sort of see to the left rear of the Qualified (by the bellows) that there was a gap of space between the rear of the range and the wall.  This gap was created by the fact that the chimney juts into the kitchen; this is where our Vaughn range boiler now sits.  This space was the perfect spot for our extra tall clothes rack, which was a Christmas gift that my in-laws bought me from Lehman's.  We would put a small clothes rack near the right side. 

Even if the space behind the Margin Gem still existed, this would no longer be nearly as efficient a method to dry clothing because the Margin Gem has a built-in heat shield on the back that causes it to not radiate nearly as much heat (hence its significantly lower clearance requirements).  Also, putting a rack to the right of the stove is also not effective since the water reservoir absorbs the heat from that side of the range.

Blog reader Gary D. from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, modified his Ideal Sunshine cookstove by adding some towel racks which were originally made for Vermont Castings heating stoves.

But now, I must caution you.  Drying clothing or any other thing near a woodburning stove or other heating device can be dangerous!  Here are some things to keep in mind:

1) Clothing or other things drying near or on a hot stove can dry before you know it, and then they become a fire hazard.  I once scorched a wet tea towel beyond salvage in record time on the Qualified.

2) Never leave clothes drying on or very near a cookstove unattended.

3) If you are planning on leaving your stove with clothing drying near it, make sure that the clothes have been moved a safe distance away, using your stove's clearance requirements as a guide.

4) In your calculations of safe clearances, figure out where your racks would land if they fell toward your stove.  I've heard of fires starting because of flammable things falling against woodburning stoves, and no one wants that to happen.

That said, being able to use your cookstove as a clothes dryer has some distinct advantages beyond the savings on your energy bills.  Depending on your geographic location, winter air can be quite dry, so hanging wet clothing around the cookstove adds humidity to the air in your home.  This makes your home feel warmer as well as relieving you of such annoyances as static electricity or bloody noses.

Also, clothes that are hung to dry last longer than if they were dried in a tumble dryer.  The lint in your dryer's lint filter is the result of wear and tear on fabric.

Using your cookstove to dry clothing is another way to get as much good as possible out of these wonderful appliances; just be sure to do it safely.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Lavon's Ginger Cookies

One of the things that I enjoyed the most about my time spent as a local banker over a decade ago was that if I had a question about anything, all I had to do was wait until the right customer came in, and I could get the answer from an expert.  I learned about chuck wagon cooking from a lady who had grown up in Cherry County, Nebraska, for example.  Another lady taught me about potato salad dressing made with sour cream.  I was schooled in our community's history by many older ladies and gentlemen, and I was taught the genealogy of most of the other "old guard" families in our area.

Another thing that was great fun was the fact that several of the older women in the community would bring us various types of food.  Among the things I remember were buttermilk cake, prune pie, rhubarb jam, whole wheat bread, and ginger cookies made from the recipe that I'm going to share with you.

Lavon was one of the prettiest elderly ladies that we waited on.  My grandmother had known her as one of the older girls when she was growing up in the township to the west of ours, and she had always remembered her as being extraordinarily beautiful in her youth, too.  One day shortly before Christmas, Lavon brought us some of the ginger cookies that she had always made for her family for Christmas.  She was in her late eighties or early nineties by that time, and she talked about how she had skipped making them one year because they were getting to be a lot of work for her.  A grandson complained so loudly, however, that she had resumed baking them while she still could.  She told me a little about the process of making the cookies, and I asked if she would share the recipe.

A few days later, she brought in a copy of the recipe in her own handwriting with notes scrawled in the margin, and it was the dearest gift she could have given.  I've scanned it so that you can see it below.

This is a very old recipe, but they are truly delicious cookies with an old-fashioned flavor that just can't be beat.  They also keep beautifully.  I will confess that the first time I made these, I had so many Christmas cookies and sweets that I didn't get these frosted in time for Christmas.  In the holiday hubbub, I forgot about them in a tin on the dining room hutch.  I'm embarrassed to admit that it wasn't until summer vacation that I discovered that they were there, and they were just as fresh and tasty as they had been in the beginning.  I frosted them and enjoyed them perhaps more than I would have at Christmas.

Since Lavon's handwriting is a little difficult to read due to the arthritis and poor eyesight which affected her in her later years, I'll translate for you.

In a heavy, large kettle (the Magnalite kettle that you see in the pictures below is a 5-quart Dutch oven), place 1 cup shortening.  Put this on the fire and let it begin to melt.

Add 1 cup of molasses and stir.

Add 2 cups of sugar, 1 tsp. cinnamon, 2 tsp. ginger, and 1/2 tsp. salt.  (Lavon warns not to add the sugar earlier than this.) 

Stir all of this together well and bring it to a boil.

Once this mixture boils, remove it from the fire immediately.  One of Lavon's notes in the margin warned to not let the mixture continue to boil.  I'm sure that this is so that the sugar doesn't begin to work toward soft ball stage.

Once the mixture has been removed from the fire, add 1 tsp. of baking soda.  Stir this in and watch carefully since it could foam over.

This part is really fascinating to watch.  Once it appears to be done foaming, let this mixture cool until it is kind of lukewarm.

Add two beaten eggs and some vanilla flavoring.

Then add enough flour to make a dough that will be able to be rolled out after it has been chilled.  Lavon said to add four cups of flour, but I find that more is necessary.

Let the dough stand in the refrigerator (or on your cold back porch) until well chilled.  Lavon said several hours or several days would work.

Roll out the dough and cut it into desired shapes.  I use a gingerbread man cutter, but the cookie that Lavon brought us was a star.

Bake these cookies on a greased cookie sheet for 8-10 minutes in a moderate oven.

Lavon frosted these with a thin powdered sugar glaze, but my sweet tooth prefers a thicker frosting.  Either way, these are a very enjoyable old-style cookie.

I hope you all have a Merry Christmas.  We were supposed to have 1-3" of snow this morning.  It looks to me like we've had somewhere over 6", and when it comes on the day before Christmas, it couldn't be more perfect timing.  Remember that the birth of our Savior is the reason that we celebrate at this time of the year!