By Gail Reynolds, Missouri – Among the most common of homestead essentials is learning how to cook on the wood-burning cook stove. For most Countryside readers, the ultimate focus of the entire year’s worth of energies and toil is geared toward “cooking up ways” for the clan to comfortably survive year-round as self-sufficiently as possible.
While every season has designated activities and the instant gratifications of homestead essentials associated with them (summertime’s harvest and enjoyment of fresh veggies from the garden you cultivated, or autumn’s sale of the pumpkins from your patch), for Jim and I here at Timberlakes Farm (tucked so deep into the rural woods of the Missouri Ozarks that most folks can’t find us), nothing quite so exemplifies the rewards of our simple homesteading efforts than the winter months. During the cold-weather season, all the ingredients of a year well-labored and well-lived seem to blend together in a comfortable and cozy fashion at the heart and hearth of our log cabin—the wood-burning cook stove. No matter how cold or how egregious the elements may be outdoors during these cold-weather months (while sometimes grumbling throughout our chilly chore-duty, “What in the heck are we putting ourselves through this for?”), the wood stove’s waiting to greet us when we step inside the door.
Not only does it welcome us “home” with a bear hug of warmth, it also beckons us into the comfort zone, with the aromas of dinner simmering on its top-plate ready to be served when we’re ready to eat! Over the years (closing in on 25 now) we’ve developed quite the symbiotic relationship with this stove—a regular no-frills no-thrills ordinary Federal Airtight. Simply put: We feed the stove with the firewood that we’ve harvested and cut, and it feeds us back working double duty around the clock to heat our home and cook our meals.
First Wood Stove Experiences
Back in the olden days, I had a small wood-burning cook stove I called “Alfie,” and that should date me pretty fine (a 1923 model with oven and actual cooking plates and all). That’s where I got the handle on—and learned to love—my first set of homestead essentials, including cooking on a wood-burning cook stove.
We built the log cabin, and Jim, with a few good strong buddies in tow, erected it from the ground-up, with the aid of wheelbarrow-mixed concrete footings and wood he harvested from our forest. The logs were transformed into saw milled 6 x 6 logs. Then we purchased the first of our homestead essentials — a wood-burning cook stove specifically for providing the only source of heat for our 2,000 square-foot living quarters. Little did we realize then that we would be able to turn out meals of the finest kind on its flat stove top surface.
How the Heat Wood Stove Expanded to a Cooking-Energy Source
At first, I shied away from using the heating wood-burning cook stove for cooking purposes. After all, I was used to “Alfie,” and I didn’t even entertain another wood stove cookery choice. But, because ever since 1969 (okay, so now you know my age!) I’ve embraced JD Belanger’s self-sufficiency concepts and homestead essentials, and followed them to the “letter.” (By the way, they really, really do work—I’ve banked a lifetime of it and there’s still some money in that bank!) I began to view our efficient wood stove, which was cranking out so much heat dependably hour after hour, as a possible food-cooking vessel, as well. In the beginning, I just simply experimented now and again, after all, we did have the electric stove-top range and oven for backup, if things went awry. But, oh my goodness gracious, the results turned out to be incredible, and for the last decade at least, all of our family holiday meals have been cooked to perfection on this wood stove. It’s turned out to be so cool, in such a heart-warming fashion! During the holidays, everybody gravitates to this silly little wood stove anyway.
On Thanksgiving, all the clan is standing up beside it, warming their winter-socked toes and relaxing while they wait for the big feast. At Christmas, on Jim’s handcrafted stonework mantle behind it, hang embellished and personalized Christmas stockings, completely stuffed with Santa’s promises.
The Little Wood Stove Helped Us to Survive
Here’s the crazy thing: all the time we are preparing for the future with these homestead essentials, even though we can’t perceive what the future has in store. Little did we know that not only would this stove be an energy-efficient heat source, but would double-truck as a cooking source. But then this efficient little puppy took on the starring and critical role in our survival this past January when a major ice storm left us without power for a total 16-day run. While others throughout a massive part of southwest Missouri were relegated to leaving their homes for temporary shelters during this crisis, we were pretty darn lucky!
The wood-burning cook stove gave us a light source to read by and comforting warmth. It boiled water for our drinking, cooking, bathing and washing clothes by hand. And on top of all that, the wood stove cranked out super meals while we were out busy chain-sawing our way out of our front and back doors, up our rural and then major roadway and highway veins and venues (and helping our neighbors do same).
How to Cook on Your Wood-Burning Cook Stove
Cooking on an ordinary wood stove surface is much easier than you might think and although it’s a lengthy process (similar to a slow-cooker), bear in mind that the meal is cooking itself (also similar to a slow-cooker) and doesn’t require your constant attention. Essentially you just have to adjust the pots and pans to match the heat sources underneath. In other words, if you want to fry, sear or bring foods to a bubbly boil, you’d be placing your cook pot or skillet over the hottest part of the stove top (on our stove, it’s directly over the center plate). If you want something to just simmer, you simply move or place the pot nearer one of the top edges or a cooler part of the stove top. Using a cast iron trivet works well for this, too, especially if you have a small or bi-level stove top.
A good way to find out your stove top’s various temperature spots, especially if you’re just beginning to experiment with this type of cooking, is to place a pot of water or tea kettle on the stove and check how it’s doing as you move it from spot to spot. A whistling teapot is a good barometer, because it lets you know almost immediately where the hot and cool places are.
If your stove top seems to heat fairly evenly, you adjust the fire to create varying degrees of heat in the center of the stove top or one side or the other.
All and all, though, it’s fairly simple and worth your experimentation, particularly if you’re already heating with wood, whether in a free-standing stove or even a fireplace insert with a flat top surface.
Of course, a bonus about cooking on a wood-burning cook stove that’s already providing efficient heat is the money-saving factor. But the greatest rewards come from two things: (1) The ease with which the stove does all your cooking (technically, it works just like a big crock pot or slow-cooker, especially if you use cast iron pots, skillets and pans with cast iron lids); and (2) the pleasure of smelling, watching and sopping up the goodness of the foods you harvested, raised, hunted, fished, gathered or cultivated come to full life on top of your wood stove. When it comes to homestead essentials, I’ve discovered that you can cook just about anything and everything on top of an ordinary wood stove!
With the right cookware (and I do stress the cast iron) you can even bake cakes, make up some skillet cornbread, and turn out biscuits. More importantly, if you can get hold of a cast iron roaster that has a latticed top, you can also roast red meats, pork, chicken, turkey and wild game. Soups and stews, of course are an absolutely delicious given. If your mouth is watering and you’re ready to get started, here are some easy tried-and-true homestead essentials recipes for you to experiment with.
* I’ve only outlined some of the many things I’ve learned to cook on a wood stove stove top. But I’ve got a whole slew of them up my now-41-year-long woodstove-cookery sleeve. If you have a special favorite you want to cook, e-mail me. If I have it in my repertoire and experience, I’ll happily share it with you anytime! By the way, I always cook for four (never did get over the girls—now 40 and 37 with families to boot—growing up and leaving home. And then, there could always be company showing up. So adjust/multiply according to your family and serving sizes.
Ham (or Coon, Chevon, or Venison) And Beans
• 1 ham bone with a good amount of meat on it (or packaged chunks of ham in an amount to your liking), or 1 leg portion of raccoon, or 1 leg portion of chevon, or 1 small venison roast
• 1/2 onion, chunked
• Sprinkle of garlic powder, or a tablespoon of minced garlic
• Few shakes of pepperFew shakes of salt1 teaspoon lemon juice or a few shakes of dried lemon-pepper1 bay leaf1 teaspoon dried sage or a few shakes of dried savory1 package of dried beans (I prefer white, but brown beans are great too.)
• 1 teaspoon lemon juice or a few shakes of dried lemon-pepper
• 1 bay leaf
• 1 teaspoon dried sage or a few shakes of dried savory
• 1 package of dried beans (I prefer white, but brown beans are great too.)
In a large pot, place meat plus seasonings and enough water to cover. Place pot with lid on hottest part of your stove top and allow to boil or hard-cook for 2-3 hours, or until meat just becomes tender to a knife or fork pierce (add water occasionally to cover, if necessary). Add beans and water to a level at least 1/2 that higher than the ingredients and allow the mix to continue to boil or hard-cook for about an hour (add water if needed).
At this point add the chopped onion, move the pot to a slightly cooler spot on the stove top and allow the beans to cook (can be bubbling, but not at a hard boil) for 1-2 hours until they become tender. Again, beans can be tricky, so add water occasionally, if needed.
Season to taste and serve hot.
Homemade Hearty and Heart-Warming Chicken Soup
• 1 whole chicken (hopefully one you raised and dressed)
• 1 tablespoon chicken boullion powder or paste (or 2 cubes)
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• Shake of black pepper
• 1 teaspoon sugar
• 1 cup sliced fresh carrots (or 1 pint canned or frozen)
• 2 stalks celery, sliced into rounds
Place chicken in cast iron pot (with lid) with enough water to cover. Add salt, pepper and sugar. Place pot on hottest part of woodstove top and allow to boil for approximately 30-45 minutes. Add the carrots and celery, move pot to a cooler part of stove top and allow the soup to simmer until chicken (while still remaining firm) is tender enough so that the thigh joints separate easily from the body. Remove chicken, and place in container to refrigerate until cool enough to handle. Continue to cook vegetables until tender.
Once chicken is cool enough to handle, remove meat from bones. Just before serving time, transfer the chicken meat to the pot and allow to simmer for a short while until chicken has warmed to the soup temperature.
Serve hot, maybe accompanied by your favorite homemade bread recipe.
Beer Deer (or Beef) Roast
• 1 venison roast (or beef roast)
• 4 bacon strips1 can beer
• 2 beef boullion cubes (or 1 tablespoon beef boullion powder or paste)
• 1 whole onion, cut into 8 chunks
• Generous sprinkle of garlic powder or 1 tablespoon minced garlic
• Sprinkle of pepper
• Generous sprinkle of dried herbs (sage, oregano, marjoram, savory—you pick)
• 1 bay leaf
• 2 tablespoons grated horseradish (for sauce)
Place roast in cast iron roasting pot or Dutch oven. Pierce top of roast with a knife and insert the bay leaf. Tuck onion pieces around roast, then pour can of beer over all. Sprinkle roast with garlic, pepper and herbs.
Drape bacon strips over top of roast. Place roasting pot or Dutch oven over hot part of stove and allow to reach a boil; then move to a slightly cooler part of stove top and allow to simmer (still bubbling). Cover and cook until meat is tender to a fork or knife pierce. (Depending upon size of roast, this can take up to 3-4 hours, but it’s worth the wait!)
Once roast is done and tender to your liking, remove from pot and let sit on cutting board or other surface for about 10 minutes before cutting into slices.
While roast is setting, add horse-radish to the juices in the pot and simmer, stirring at least once or twice to fully combine.
Serve slices of roast drizzled with the warm sauce.
Beef or Venison Stew
• 1-2 pounds beef or venison roast, cut up into stew-meat-size chunks
• About 1 cup flour (white or whole wheat)
• 1 large onion, chunked and separated into two equal parts
• Vegetable oil, butter, or lard
• Few shakes of salt
• Few shakes of pepper
• Garlic powder or minced garlic
• A couple tablespoons dried herbs (oregano, sage, basil, marjoram, savory—your choice)
• 2–3 fresh potatoes, cut into quarters (or 1 quart canned potatoes)
• 2 cups vegetables of your choice (fresh, canned or frozen carrots and green beans)
• 1 pint stewed/canned tomatoes
• 1 packet brown gravy mix (or 2 tablespoons beef bouillon powder or paste, or 4 cubes beef bouillon + 2 tablespoons flour) dissolved in small amount of water to fully mix
• 1/2-1 cup mushrooms (canned domestic, or dried/frozen wild)
In a deep cast iron skillet placed over the hottest part of your stove top, melt the vegetable oil, butter, or lard (enough to cover the bottom surface scantly).
In a plastic bag place the flour, salt, pepper, garlic powder or minced garlic and herbs. Shake to combine. Place meat chunks inside the bag with flour mixture and shake again to fully coat. Brown meat in the hot oil/butter/whatever and while browning, stir in 1/2 of the chopped onions.
Once meat is browned, add in the tomatoes, all of the vegetables, the mushrooms and stir in the dissolved brown gravy/beef bouillon to fully combine.
Allow this stew mixture to come to a bubbly boil on the hottest part of your stove top; then move to a spot where the stew can simmer for 2-4 hours.
About 10 minutes before serving, add the other half of the chunked onions.
Christmas Goose Recipe (or Thanksgiving Turkey)
• 1 large (preferably wild, but domestic is okay too) goose or turkey (skinned)—your choice of size to feed your crowd
• 1 onion, cut in half
• 1 stalk celery, cut in half
• 1 bay leaf
• A few slices of dried apple, if you have it on hand
• 2-4 pats of butter
• 4-8 strips bacon
• Minced garlic or garlic powder
• Sprinkle of salt
• Sprinkle of pepper
• Sprinkle of dill seed
In the cavity of the goose or turkey, place the onion, celery and dried apple slices (optional) and 1 strip of bacon.
Place turkey or goose in a large cast-iron roaster (dabbed with a few pats of butter) situated over the hottest part of your stove top.
Sear all sides (making them slightly browned only on the very top surface, not deep into the flesh) of the bird, turning to make sure all surfaces have been covered.
Once the bird is completed seared, turn it breast side up, sprinkle it with the seasonings, and place the remaining bacon strips over the top. Add enough water to reach a height of about 1-inch from the bottom of the roaster.
Allow this to cook on the hot part of the stove top until it bubbles, then place a solid lid on the roaster pan and shift it to a cooler spot where it can cook and simmer (it’s okay if it’s still bubbling slightly, but you don’t want it to be sizzling—and make sure you’re not scorching the bottom of the fowl).
Allow the fowl to cook for a long time—maybe even up to 6 hours—checking occasionally and turning it over once or twice (breast up/breast down) to ensure thorough doneness.
Depending upon the fattiness of the particular bird, you may have to remove some of the cooking liquids and juices. Save them back in a separate pot to make your favorite gravy later.
Once the legs can be easily moved away from the body cavity and the juices (upon piercing with a fork or knife) run clear, the fowl is done. You may cook it somewhat longer, as long as you have a secure lid in place.
Serve hot with your favorite traditional sides (which can all be cooked on your wood-burning cook stove as well) and gravy mix.
Country Potato Soup
• 1 large onion, chopped to medium-size chunks
• 2-3 tablespoons margarine (or 2-3 strips of bacon)
• 4-6 potatoes cut into 1-inch chunks (skin on or skin off, your choice)
• 2 tablespoons minced garlic or generous dose of garlic powder
• Sprinkle of dill seed or dill weed
• 1/2 cup milk
Place a good-sized cast iron pot or Dutch oven on the hottest part of your stovetop. Melt the margarine or fry the bacon. Once all is melted or fried (transfer the bacon to a paper towel to drain), put in the onion chunks and garlic and cook until onion is translucent, but not brown.
Add the potatoes, dill weed or seed, salt and pepper, and cover with water.
Allow this mixture to come to a boil on the hottest part of your stovetop. Once it starts bubbling, move the pot to a spot on your stove-top where it can simmer. (With pota-toes, make sure there’s only a slight bubbling otherwise the taters will burn on the bottom and you’re out of soup—literally!)
Travel over to the woodstove occasionally to stir up the soup mixture and to add water, if needed.
If you like a thin potato soup, you’ll be ready to add the milk when potatoes are fork-tender. If you like a thicker soup, wait a little longer.
Whatever your preference, when the soup reaches your desired point of readiness, move the pot to the very coolest part of your stovetop, add the milk, stir, and allow to slow-simmer for just a short while until all ingredients are warmed to your desired serving temperature.
Serve hot or very warm.
Mock Clam-Fish Chowder
Got some fish fillets that are gathering a little more freezer-burn than you find acceptable? Chop them up into small bits and allow them to thaw. Turn out the same recipe for Potato Soup above, but add some slices of fresh celery along with the potatoes.
Then, just a few minutes before the soup is done (before you add the milk), toss in the fish bits and about three squirts of Worcestershire sauce (and if you happen to have some canned or frozen minced clams or mussels, by all means add them).
Presto! Pretty fancy homestead eating!
Pork Roast Dinner
• 1 pork roast of the desired size for your family
• Several dried sage leaves or bay leaves
• Several split cloves of garlic or minced garlic or garlic powder
• Sprinkle of salt
• A couple sprinkles of pepper
• 4 potatoes, quartered (skins on or off, your choice)
• 4 carrots, sliced in half crosswise, then sliced in half lengthwise
Pierce a few holes in your pork roast on all sides, and tuck in them the sage (or bay) leaves and alternately, the garlic (split cloves, minced or powder).
Now, in a hot cast iron Dutch oven or fairly good-sized cast iron skillet situated over the hottest place on your stovetop, sear all sides of the pork roast. Make sure that all of the surface is very nicely browned and sealed.
Remove the roast from the cooking vessel temporarily, and drain off the fat and juices, transferring them into a pot to make gravy later. Refrigerate and chill this pot, so that you can skim off the heavy grease layer from the top before you start the gravy. Replace the roast in the pot or deep pan, add water to about 1-2 inches from the bottom, pop a secure lid on it, and move the cooking vessel to a place on your stovetop where the water/juice mixture is allowed to bubble somewhat but not hard-cook. Let the roast cook for at least an hour or so, and check periodically for doneness with the pierce of a sharp knife (down to about halfway through the meat). Once the juices are running pink (not red) add in the veggies and allow the roast to cook for about 1 hour more. Add more water if needed.
Keep covered and allow to simmer until the juices of the pork roast run clear and the vegetables have reached a fork-tender point. While the roast is finishing up, whip up your favorite gravy mixture with the juices and drippings you’ve saved (with the grease layer already skimmed off!) on your stovetop.
Cut the pork roast into serving slices and serve with the veggies and gravy either drizzled over the slices or served in a gravy bowl.
Pizza on the Wood Stove? No Way!
Hey, this is one I learned during the long-term icestorm power outage, when I was trying to use up all my frozen goods before they went bad. Now, we did have the tremendous record-breaking ice storm so I could store my meat buried in the ice (tons of it everywhere), but the doughy-stuff (like pizza), I knew had a very short shelf life.
After my experience (and success), I think all of my pizzas will be cranked out on the wood stove.
In the traditional oven, I have a tendency to not watch the little suckers too carefully, and they have a tendency to get overdone. On the woodstove (popped into a cast iron skillet with or without a lid from time to time, depending upon the pizza type) they turn out perfectly! Sometimes I buy the generic frozen pizza on sale because I could never create them as cheaply from scratch, and then add my own ingredients. Also, I mystery-shop on the side, and freeze the ready-made pizzas I have to purchase (and am reimbursed for) just for my opinion on the taste sampling. Other times, I buy the basic pizza crusts, freeze them, and build my own! Here’s what I did with each variation.
Frozen, purchased, ready-made: In a large cast iron pizza-sized skillet, I placed the pizza (which I allowed to thaw to room temperature, courtesy of the wood-burning cook stove) covered with a secure cast iron lid, on the hottest part of my stove top for 5-7 minutes, then quickly popped it over to the very coolest part of my stove top to melt the cheese. Covered all the way through, an already-done frozen pizza was better than an oven re-heat could even come close to!
Grocery store frozen, never-been-cooked pizzas: I did these technically the same way as the ones above, only left them on the hottest part of my stove top a little longer (I kept checking the bottom crust—with a flashlight—to evaluate its ready-to-burn properties), and then transferred the covered skillet to a lower-heat location. At that time, by the way, I topped it with some frozen cheese and sliced cherry tomatoes that were ready to spoil, and it turned out absolutely perfect.
Bare-bone pizza crusts: These I placed in the same pizza-sized cast iron skillet on the hottest part of my wood stove. Only this time, I cooked the crust on both sides—bottom side first, top side second. Then I topped the bare crust with all of the ingredients I could find, and didn’t care to let spoil (those same frozen tomatoes, some frozen jalapeno peppers, frozen bell pepper slices, plus generous sprinkles of dried Italian herb mixes, and cheese, of course), and allowed this to heat on that high point for another couple of minutes. Then I transferred the skillet to a lower heat level to finish it off.
Dove to Love—Simmered to Top-of-the-Wood-Stove Perfection!
• 8-12 dove breasts, cleaned and skinned
• 4-6 strips of bacon, cut in half lengthwise
• Generous tidbits or sprinkles of lemon juice (or lemon pepper), garlic (minced or powdered)
• 1/4 onion, very thinly sliced
• Crumbles of dried bay leaf or dried sage, if they are available
• Sprinkle of salt and pepper
• A sprinkle of the dried herb of your choice (bay, sage, or basil would be my favorites)
In each dove cavity, place a small slice of the onion, a sprinkle of lemon juice (or lemon pepper) and some garlic.
Wrap each dove with one of the length-wise bacon strips, covering as much surface as possible. Secure the bacon strips with either a toothpick or some string.
Place your doves in a circle in a cast iron roasting pan or skillet, and place over the hottest part of your stove top. Sear them only for a short while on all sides, just until the bacon is about 3/4 done.
Sprinkle the doves with the salt, pepper and dried herbs, and allow to cook for just a few (2-3) minutes on that hot stove top.
Pour in some water, about 1/3 to 1/2 way up the height of the doves, cover the skillet with a secure cast iron lid, and move the skillet to a cooler place on your stove top. It’s okay if the liquid bubbles. It’s not okay if it’s boiling like crazy and burning the bottom of the doves.
Once you equalize the stove top cooking temperature to a low simmer, check periodically for the moment when then you can separate the top of the dove breasts from the center bones.
Serve hot and immediately. These are so incredibly delicious!
Originally published in the November/December 2016 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.