I use a cook stove for about 7 to 8 months out of the year. A cook stove is a lot of work, but from my point of view it’s a lot of independence and security too.
No matter what the weather brings or what happens with energy costs, I will always be able to heat my home and cook for practically nothing as long as I am willing to pick up sticks in the front yard and split wood. And if I should grow too old to split wood – I can always burn coal.
My stove is a traditional Waterford Stanley and it is a modern solid fuel stove. A Stanley will burn peat or wood, and with a change of firebox liner it will burn coal. The design of my cook stove is from the 1930′s and the stove was manufactured in Ireland. My stove not only cooks but helps to heat my home. It also has a place in it to plumb a pipe for hot water if I want.
All cook stoves have individual differences but work basically the same way. Generally, cook stoves are similar to other wood fired appliances. They are connected to a chimney, have a firebox, have some way to clean out the ash and air to the fire is controlled by some type of baffle(s) or damper(s).
Cook stoves unlike regular wood stoves have an oven. The oven in a cook stove is simply a box within a box.
Some cook stoves have a water reservoir attached to the side for hot water. A water reservoir is handy but must never be allowed to run dry because it will ruin the silver solder seams and cause the reservoir to leak. Many cook stoves have a top compartment called a warmer. The warmer is used to keep food or plates warm and for dehydrating food. I use it to defrost food and warm up my hat and mittens during the winter.
The top surface of a cook stove is called the hob. There are round plates on the hob called “eyes” that are removable for cleaning out soot and ash. They are not burners.
With some cook stoves (not mine) the eyes can be removed while the stove is in operation. Stove eyes are removed to add small pieces of wood directly to the fire and to seat a pot into the hole for more heat if you need it to cook faster. The eyes are lifted off with a “lifter”.
On a cook stove the entire hob is used for cooking. The part of the hob that is directly over the firebox is the hottest part of the stove. In the picture below the skillet with the blue lid is directly over the firebox as is the covered pan behind it.
When cooking on most cook stoves, the pots & pans are moved from the left to the right to control the cooking temperature. The left side of the stove is the hottest part and the right side of the stove is the coolest. Stove temperature is regulated in a few different ways; by type and amount of wood, amount of air that the fire receives and size of the fire. The type of wood used in a cook stove has a great effect upon how hot and how long the fire will burn.
Small, dry pieces of wood are best for fast fires. Poplar or pine burns cool and is considered “summer wood”. It was used quite a bit during the canning season years ago in summer kitchens. It burns quick and will leave a lot of ash. I use maple and sometimes cherry for my everyday cooking. Maple will build heat fast but the heat will not last. Hickory or oak burns very hot and throws off a lot of heat. Both woods make a good fire for frying or rapidly boiling water. Oak and hickory do tend to overheat the stove and will make the oven too hot for most baking or roasting. Some cooks will avoid oak and hickory because they tend to burn out a fire-box. My favorite wood for rapid heat is apple wood.
The cook stove’s temperature can be controlled by how much air the fire receives. If I need a quick burning fire I will open the bottom or firebox damper to allow more air to the fire, and if I need a long burning fire I will close the damper. If I want to hold a fire from one meal to the next, I simply put a large piece of wood into the firebox after I finish cooking and close the bottom damper (the big circle thing on the door is the damper).
The wood will burn, but burn very slowly. When it’s time to cook again, I open the firebox damper to give the fire more air and add wood to start the fire burning hot again. If I need to let off heat from the firebox and cool the stove down I open the chimney damper and allow the heat to go up the chimney.
For most cook stoves it takes about 15 or 20 minutes for the hob to heat up and be ready for cooking when first started. For baking the stove usually needs at least 45 minutes to 1 hour before the oven is ready.As a general rule, if the top of the stove is hot enough to boil water the oven will be hot enough to bake. Over the last 150 years or so, many ways have been handed down for cooks to determine cook stove oven temperature. Old timers would sometimes judge oven temperature by how long it took a piece of white paper to turn brown, a hair to singe or how long they could hold their hand in the oven. Oven temperature is controlled by a separate damper(s) that works to hold the heat in the area that surrounds the oven. If I need to use my oven I will get the oven temperature to within 25 – 40 degrees of where I want it and then close the oven damper.
After about 10 – 15 minutes with the oven damper closed, more heat will have built up in the oven, and the temperature will be just about right and hold steady. If I need to reduce the oven temperature fast, I just open the oven door and allow heat to escape. Once the oven temperature is where I want it, I can maintain the temperature by adding just a couple of small pieces of wood whenever I see the temperature start to fluctuate.
It’s important to keep in mind that a cook stove oven doesn’t heat the same way a modern electric or gas range will. Heat collects at the top of the oven. This is good for breads – but a disaster for cakes. A trick that is used to prevent a cake from burning is to place the cake on the bottom or floor of the oven and a pan of water on the top shelf. The pan of water collects the heat and acts as a barrier to the top of the cake. Also, the side of the oven closest to the firebox will be hotter and food needs to be turned often while baking or roasting so that it doesn’t burn on one side.
A well made cook stove will last more than a lifetime. Cooks stoves are very safe if they are well cared for and common sense is used. It is important that a cook stove be cleaned and inspected regularly. Built up ash under the hob and around the oven will reduce the temperature of the hob surface and oven.
The ash and soot needs to be cleaned out from underneath the oven and the hob frequently and any ash along the interior sides of the stove needs to be swept out. Generally, cook stoves are cleaned from the top of the hob, then along the interior sides and then ash is raked out the bottom at the soot door. A soot rake is used to get to the back of the stove and to all the hard to reach areas.
I clean out the interior ash and soot from my cook stove about every week or so. Some people will clean more often. The chimney thimble and stove-pipe that service my stove are cleaned and swept out
about 2 or 3 times during the wood burning season. I occasionally will knock gently along the length of the stove-pipe when it is cool, to knock off any collected creosote or ash that may build up between cleanings. Any debris that falls off the stove-pipe, falls downward and will collect under the hob where it can be swept out during routine cleaning. If chimney fires are to be avoided it’s important to keep all parts of a wood burning appliance very clean. I think cleaning a cook stove is probably the worst part of owning one. It is a very dirty job. A heavy-duty brush, newspaper, rags, rubber gloves and a bucket of ammonia water are necessary. I wear old clothes and rubber gloves when I clean out my stove because soot will stain cloth and is hard to remove from the skin. And speaking of chimneys and cook stoves – a chimney subject to down drafts can make some days miserable. My kitchen chimney is subject to downdrafts. And because my cook stove is not an airtight design it will smoke and puff on a windy day when the wind blows hard from the southwest.
And just so you know, not all modern cook stoves have an old-fashioned or nostalgia design. There are quite a few modern and beautiful contemporary designed cook stoves. I chose my stove because the hob is 34″ high which is more comfortable for me to work at (I’m tall), and requires a very small wall clearance.
I also chose it because it is solid cast iron and retains heat for a long time. If you are considering buying a used cook stove keep in mind that antiques look great but may have cracks or other problems. Many good cook stoves from the 1940′s and 1950′s are still out there and some are in pretty good condition and are very reasonably priced. Cook stoves are some effort and trouble, but for what you get back I think they’re more than worth it.