The centerpiece of my kitchen is our wood-burning cook stove. It’s a big stove, standing over five feet high and almost three and a half feet wide. It has an oven, a warming oven, a solid copper water reservoir with a tap, and a large cook top surface with six lids. We keep a fire burning in this stove non-stop through all the winter months, and it provides enough heat to keep one entire floor of our house warm and cozy despite our extremely cold outdoor temperatures.
We bought this stove several years ago from an area merchant. We loaded it into our small truck to bring it home ourselves, and with the help of a mover’s dolly, my husband and I got the stove into our house. Now, looking back, I wonder how we were able to manage the weight. Perhaps it helped that we had not read the instruction manual’s warning that the stove was very heavy and at least four men would be required to move it.
Our stove was manufactured by the Elmira Stove Works company in Canada, and it is a replica of the cook stoves that were manufactured and sold in the 1800’s. Most of the stove is black cast iron, although it also has a lot of shiny nickel trim… that trim got a good polishing just before I took this photograph. Can you see the heart outlines on each of the legs of the stove? I bought the salt-glazed pottery jar and keep it on the stove because it has that very same heart outline in cobalt blue.
I have learned a lot during the years I have kept fires in this stove.
- I have learned that wood stoves can be messy and that cooking or baking with a wood stove is nowhere near as easy as setting an oven thermostat or turning on a burner. There are ashes to clean out, wood to bring in, and the fire must be maintained and fed on a very regular basis.
- I have learned that trying to start a fire in a cold stove on a very cold day can be a frustrating and smoky experience… so I have learned to burn some twisted newspaper first for a quick hot heat that will warm up the air in the chimney and create a better draft.
- I have learned that creosote can be formed any time that wood is being burned, especially if the wood is not dry enough and if for some reason the wood does not burn at a high enough temperature. I have learned that the best way to avoid a creosote build-up is to open up all the dampers at least once a day and let the fire burn really hot… and that the chimney must already be clean, or the hot fire may end up in the chimney instead of in the stove! The informational pamphlet that came with this stove said that the old recommendation of burning a handful of rock salt each day to prevent creosote build-up doesn’t work, but that the old idea of burning dried potato peels does. So when I peel potatoes, I dry the peels on a cookie sheet in the oven first, then burn them. Also according to the pamphlet, another idea that will supposedly help prevent creosote build-up is the regular burning of an aluminum can. I have not tried that one yet (and do not intend to).
- I have learned that I need moderate or hot heat for top of the stove cooking, and that the best wood for this is hard wood split to around three inches square… except for top of the stove SLOW cooking, like for stews, when unsplit larger diameter hard wood is required.
- I have learned that for baking, at least a four-inch bed of coals and unsplit three-inch diameter hard wood is needed to maintain a steady, even heat. I have also learned that it takes about an hour and a half to go from a cold stove to an oven that is hot enough to bake, and that once the fire is established with a bed of glowing red coals and the oven damper is shut, it takes about thirty to forty minutes more to get the oven up to the correct temperature. Which means I have learned how very glad I am to also have a modern thermostatically-controlled range and cook top in my kitchen.
- I have learned that the warming oven is perfect for incubating yogurt, rising bread, and drying mittens, and that a few citrus peels or cloves left in the warming oven will fill the kitchen with the most wonderful aroma. And I have learned that the warming oven is also good for warming plates and keeping food warm!
- I have learned to place a small washed rock wrapped in a piece of old, clean towel in the water reservoir because we have hard water from a deep artesian well. Mineral deposits from the water collect on the cloth and not on the copper inside the reservoir. I replace the cloth periodically.
- I have learned to season the cooking surface of the stove the same way I season cast iron cookware to keep it from rusting and to keep the surface clean and shiny. In a pinch, rubbing a piece of wax paper over the hot surface works too. I have never blacked the cast iron surfaces of this stove.
- I have learned to rely on a standalone oven thermometer inside the oven because oven door thermometers on wood cook stoves are notorious for being unreliable. I have decided not to rely on the old method of placing a piece of paper inside the oven for five minutes and judging the oven temperature by how dark the paper becomes, but for anyone willing to gamble… a paper that turns chocolate brown in five minutes indicates a quick oven that is hot enough for biscuits and muffins… a paper that turns a dark yellow is the right heat for bread… and a paper that turns only a light yellow is just right for baking cakes.
- I have learned that the water reservoir is not only a source of additional hot water, it also makes a wonderful humidifier. I have never used it for canning or incubating cheese, although the instruction book says that both are possible.
So this is our kitchen wood-burning cook stove. We love its substantial beauty and the unique tone it sets for our kitchen. And nothing can quite compare with the warmth and the sound of a crackling fire, especially on a cold winter day.