Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Time to light up the stove

Fall has officially arrived here on the homestead. We have fired up the wood stove.

Woodstoves have been a part of my life since I was a baby. I love the heat they give and I love cooking on them. In 1983, we had a huge windstorm in Seattle, on Thanksgiving day. Power went out over much of the city, and thousands of turkeys spoiled half-way through cooking. We invited everyone we knew to our house. We were newly married and had only an old two-burner Monarch "trash burner" woodstove, but we were able to feed 28 people in noisy, crowded comfort. Thanksgiving dinner was chili and sourdough pancakes by oil lamp light.

Our wood cookstove provides heat, hot water and cooking for the family pretty much from the onset of the rainy season till that point in spring when it doesn't seem worth the effort to keep it lit. It's a huge thing, we got used for about half the original price. We keep it fed from the woodlot that occupies the West and North edges of the property. Well, about half-fed. The 5 acres of woods produces about 1/2 the wood we need. The rest has to be purchased. I cut the standing deadwood, then the kids and I buck it to length and split it. This year we're stacking it in the new greenhouse, and it seems to be doing a great job of keeping the wood dry and accessible.

A woodstove is great for cooking on. The large, flat top is perfect for cooking things like eggs and pancakes. Cooking bacon, sausage, and anything else that generates grease without a pan, however, is a Very Bad Idea. The temperature of the stovetop varies with the distance from the firebox. So rather than changing the heat by changing the fire, you cook by moving the pot to a different part of the stove.

The oven is another matter. It can't be moved, and the smoke bypass, which forces the smoke around the oven, is not amenable to fine control. Instead, you have to keep an eye on the oven temperature and adjust the draft or the fire to to compensate for any variation. It's not as hard as it sounds, since most foods don't care about the difference between 325 and 375 degrees. For those that do, I would honestly just use the summer (electric) stove. Our oven is oversized, can hold two turkeys or two hams and easily reaches 400 degrees.

The "warming shelf" is nearly useless. It's too narrow to hold a pot or pan, and too hot to keep food except maybe salt on. I keep the kindling there. It doesn't wind upon the floor and says nice and dry. The hot water reservoir on the side is at once convenient and inconvenient. It's nice to have "instant hot water" available all the time. The downside is that it has to have water in it all the time (or else the steel warps) . The only outlet is at the bottom of the stove, really out of the way. I've been looking for a small hand pump to mount in the cover, but they all seem to have plastic parts. Given the hot environment, that might be a bad idea.

Managing a wood stove takes some getting used to if you've not done it before. Fortunately this one is airtight so I don't have to get up and feed it at 3 am like previous stoves we've had. Instead, I load it up before going to bed, and close the drafts. In the morning there's a bed of coals. I just open the drafts and drop in some wood. The fire lights itself. This is a good time to get back into bed, especially when the weather's cold. 15-20 minutes later, it's putting out enough heat to boil a kettle and maybe make some oatmeal or eggs.

It's way too easy to let the fire die in the mid-afternoon. You're warm, the house is warm, you're thinking about other things. It's difficult with wood cookstoves generally and this stove in particular to get a fire going. The smoke path is long and complex and until the chimney is warm (and providing a draft) there's very little air movement in the firebox. It's best to load it and damp it down just like at night. That way you have the firebox loaded up for making dinner besides.

Woodstove time means fall. The canning is done, the wood cutting is done, it's time to settle in to a warm, comfortable winter.