Up North and Off the Grid: Cooking with Wood

When I first came to this little log cabin on the shore of the lake, there was an old wood cook stove in the kitchen. Despite the fact that it was July, we used this beautiful relic for making breakfast most days, and for supper much of the time as well.

It was a beautiful stove. It stood high on long, cast iron legs, had lots of ornate iron holding up the warming shelf, and was edged with chrome to offset the white porcelain backdrop.

Baking in this old stove was a joy and a challenge. It would roast the most tender and juicy turkey without the need to do any basting. It would make wonderful crusty loaves of bread – so long as I turned them upside down in the pans for the last ten minutes of baking. The tops browned beautifully, but the bottoms never did. Flipping them over solved the problem. However, this didn’t work for pies…

Twenty years ago when I saw my grandmother for the last time, I asked her about cooking on a woodburning stove. I told her how I liked cooking on the stovetop, which was always hot, and always infinitely adjustable by just moving the pot closer or further from the fire. I told her of the wonderful roasts, and the fine breads I was able to make.

I wanted to know though, if there was a better way to bake. After all, turning the bread over in the pans was not exactly convenient. How could I get the bottoms of the piecrusts to cook?

The solution was simple. Grandma explained that all I had to do was to bake things on the floor of the stove! This came as a big surprise to me. After years of cooking with gas, I would never have considered the possibility of putting anything on the floor of the stove. That’s where the highest heat originates.

Suddenly it all made sense. Thinking about the way a wood cookstove works, I realized that the highest heat is at the top of the oven as the flames pass over it on their way around. When the damper is placed in the “bake” position, the heat of the fire is forced to cross over the top, along the side and down below the floor of the oven before it can rise and escape out the back of the stove and up the chimney.

As soon as I got home I tried it – and it worked! For the next few years I enjoyed cooking on the old cookstove. But alas, the oven finally rotted out. It got so many holes in it I could no longer patch it with pieces of tin cans. It took a lot of wood to get it up to baking temperature, and consequently overheated the cabin, even in the depths of the January cold.

The poor old cookstove was retired to the shed. I had hopes of getting the stove fixed. Surely there is someone who can rebuild the simple steel box that serves as an oven?  Or maybe someone who will adopt it and give it a good home?

I still love cooking with wood, so we bought a new cookstove made by the Mennonites in Aylmer, Ontario. The new stove doesn’t look much like the old one at all. There’s lots of stainless steel instead of cast iron, no fancy legs, no ornate ironwork or chrome. However, it is an airtight stove, and it has a woodbox big enough to hold a fire all night long.

Airtight! That means it uses less wood, heats more evenly for longer periods of time. It doesn’t overheat the cabin, and the stainless steel oven is guaranteed not to rot out.

Best of all – it makes beautiful crusty loaves of bread…so long as I place the pans on the floor of the oven, of course. Just like Grandma taught me.

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