Tips for Cooking on an old wood stove

These tips accompany the story Secrets to a Long Life by Gladys Bond.

There are many variations of wood stoves. They come in various shapes, sizes, dimensions, wall thickness and styles, but in the Flinders Ranges the solid and reliable cast iron Metters style is the most common found in older homes. Many families rely on them for cost effective winter heating and cooking.

Generally wood stoves have front doors that allow you to load wood faggots, cooking hot plates that can be removed to load more wood, a flue with dampers, and ash boxes. The cooking utensils for the stove should be solid cast iron metal pots and pans with lids, carry hooks and lifters. Thin stainless steel and aluminium pans aren’t really suitable as they blacken quickly and can distort from the heat. Dutch oven pots and heavy pans are best for the stove top. In the oven you can use thicker style roasting pans and cake tins. Don’t forget that you also need metal utensils and some resting tiles for hot pots.

This old cast iron wood stove has outlived the cottage in which it was installed, probably in the 1920s.

You need to season your pots and woks. To do this, ensure they are clean, and then heat them on a hot stove, coating them with oil to a smoking temperature. It will blacken your pots but will also provide a tough coating that protects them.

Cast iron wood stoves require some time and practice to get to know. You need to know the different wood types – fast burning woods to cook something hot and quickly. Harder wood types burn slower and longer and are better for slow cooking stews and breads. In many ways it is similar to cooking on a campfire – the longer burning coals of hard wood keep the oven burning slow and longer.

The other factor that affects heat are the dampers. Opening it introduces more oxygen, allowing the wood to burn faster and hotter, and the smoke to escape more quickly. There are usually two dampers, one on the flue, and the other on the firebox. The fire should be started with all of the dampers open, and these are adjusted once the fire is going.

Cooks have various methods of lighting the fire in the stove, but commonly you start with crumpled newspaper, then adding kindling (twigs and dry pine needles), then progressively larger pieces of timber. Like any home fire, do not use any treated or painted timber, and firelighters should be avoided as well as they can make the food smell of kerosene!

Many people keep a flat bottomed kettle filled with water on the wood stove, to improve the air humidity (as the wood stove can dry the air) and it means you always have hot water for a cuppa.

Metters Advertisement from the 1920s

Keeping an even baking temperature requires know-how, constant vigilance, and a ready supply of firewood. Most old-time recipes do not specify exact cooking temperatures and times, but simply suggest using a “slow,” “moderate,” or “fast” oven. That’s because very few of the old wood-stove ovens had temperature gauges.

Adding new wood actually cools your fire briefly until new fuel ignites, so keep an eye on it and add new fuel when it is needed rather than letting the fire die down too much. If your stove gets too hot, you may need to cool it. Close a damper until the fire slows, or add a few sticks of green wood. Some people soak a handful of dried sticks for this purpose.

Metters No2 Wood Stove

There are lots of tips for working out the temperature of a wood stove, if you don’t have an oven thermometer. A simple one is to throw some flour onto a baking tray and put it in the oven for a few seconds. If it goes brown the oven is very hot, if it is starting to change colour it is warm. A piece of writing paper will curl up brown when it’s at the proper heat for baking pastry. If you hold your hand flat over the cooking surface, and find it’s too hot to do so for more than three seconds, it should be hot enough to cook. Even if you think the temperature is right, you need to maintain it and you still need to check visually for how the food is cooking. For instance, when biscuits should begin to brown, you can insert a wire cake tester or fork into a cake to test it for doneness. If the wire cake tester or fork comes out clean without batter or crumbs attached, the cake is done. Most of the old fashioned recipes are quite forgiving, and with practice you will get to know the stove, the fuel and your recipes!

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