How to Cook on a Wood Burning Cook Stove (without going mental!)

When I think about things like living off the grid or homesteading, an old wood burning cook stove comes to mind, right away.  I couldn’t live the way I do without one.

How to Cook on a Wood Burning Cook Stove

“The focus of my Ultra-Rugged kitchen!”

Some of my fondest memories of when I was a kid were when I used to watch my Grandmother cooking on the old wood stove. There was something really special about coming down the stairs on the opening morning of duck season and seeing “Nanny” frying up some bacon for me, Ross and Tommy, my two ultra-rugged hunting buddies.  And, on that very stove is where I did a lot of my young cooking, with Nanny at my side.  And, since then, I don’t know how many meals I’ve cooked on my old wood stove… or how many pies I’ve baked.  And, it’s such a riot when I have friends over for a meal and they just “cannot believe” I cooked the whole shebang on the old stove.  Maybe it’s because I’m so used to using it, but I still don’t get what all the fuss is about.  It just takes some practice.  And, well, okay… some knowledge too.  So let’s go!

RD's Rugged Cooking Receipes

“Can you smell those beans?  How about my farts?”

First, you need to understand how these old stoves work.  Most will have the fire box on the left side, so that’s obviously where the “high” section will be.  The further to the right you place your pot or pan, the lower the heat will be.  The reality is though that the far right side of your stove top won’t give you enough heat to do more than keep things warm… very low temperatures.  Simmer, maybe…

There will be a two or three vents on your stove and you must learn how they work.  Regardless of the style of vent, if you leave it open, you’ll achieve more heat on both the stove top and in the oven.  This is because more air (oxygen) gets to the flame and it burns hotter.  There should be a thermostat on the oven door.  But, a warning… depending on how good your stove is, it can be difficult to get the oven temperature up higher than about 425 F.  The more modern cook stoves can handle this task with ease, but with older ones like mine, it can be a bit dicey.  But, it’s not often you need to crank your oven higher than about 400 – 425 F anyway, so it’s not something to worry about.

Moose (or venison) Stew

“Moose stew – Rugged!”

If you’re doing something on the stove top and you want serious heat on your pan (to sear a steak or blacken some catfish for example) you can remove the round lid and place your pan right over the flames.  Hey, Einstein, make sure the pan is bigger than the hole!)  And, this is how you make toast… remove the lid and use a wire toaster.  Making toast works best with low coals rather than flames, which will usually burn your bread all to shit.  You can even grill a steak or some chops on the open flame too.  Just grab the grill from your propane BBQ, or go and buy a heavy duty grill at your local hardware store.  If your chimney or stove pipes are installed properly, you should get a good enough draft so that 99% of the smoke goes up and out, rather than inside your kitchen.

I think it’s so handy cooking on the old stoves.  For one thing, you have a huge cooking surface.  Just the other night, I had about six people over for a Canada goose dinner and all of it was done on the wood stove.  And, I use the overhead warming tray (not all stoves have one, but most do) to keep cooked food warm and for warming the plates and bowls before plating.  I keep my salt and pepper on that shelf too, along with cooking oils and a utensil or two that are being used at the time.  The warming tray is very handy.

Probably the biggest learning curve concerns baking in your wood stove oven.  Again, the newer ones are really good… but, older ones like mine all seem to have their own personality and it’ll take a little while (and a few burned loaves) before you can easily control the heat.  It’s likely that you’ll have to turn the tray of cookies or your cake or bread pan half way through the cooking process because the side closest to the fire box will be hotter, no doubt.  But, once you get your oven figured out, you’ll just love baking in it.  I bake bread, pies and cakes all the time.  (No wonder why I’m getting so goddam fat lately!)

Regarding the type of wood that you should burn in your stove… well, that all depends on what type of wood (trees) you have in your area.  Rule of thumb – you can burn any kind of wood as long as it’s dry.  Hardwoods like maple, beech, oak and ash are ideal and they burn long and slow.  These trees are known as deciduous trees and there are many more types.  Coniferous trees, or “evergreens” like spruce, pine and balsam burn quicker and hotter, so if you want to get a quick fire going to make a fast meal like bacon and eggs or brew some coffee, you could use one of these types of wood.  Poplar, which we have a lot of in my neck of the woods, is probably somewhere in the middle… birch is a common hardwood that’s used.  I use a bit of everything actually, maple, oak, birch, poplar, spruce, pine, balsam, and even some black ash.  But, all of it is seasoned at least one year before being used.  Burning green firewood will create a creosote build-up in your pipes and you can eventually cause a chimney fire.  Not cool… and make sure you clean those pipes every fall, without fail!

How to Cook on a Wood Burning Cook Stove

“Are you drooling now? Venison back straps – Rugged!”

Cut the firewood you plan to use for your cook stove to a smaller size than you would for a conventional stove that you’d use to heat your home.  I cut mine to about 12 – 14 inches in length and most pieces not much bigger around than a beer can.  It’s nearly impossible to split the pieces too small.

It’ll take a little getting used to, but you’ll really need to keep an eye on the fire while you’re cooking.  If you want to maintain an oven heat of 350 F for example, you’ll need to keep putting more wood in the stove regardless of the type of wood you burn.   One more tip concerning keeping the temperature constant… when you remove ashes from the firebox, don’t remove all of them. Maintain a bed of ashes in there and this will help your “new fire” to burn and hold its heat.  If you take all the ashes out of your woodstove, it can be a real bugger getting a good fire going afterward.

One final bit of info for you… the older stoves were meant to do one thing only and that is to cook food.  They don’t give off a lot of heat and they’re certainly not air tight.  The newer-made stoves that often look similar to the older ones do in fact give off a lot of heat (rated to heat up to 2,000 square feet on some models).  So if you’re hoping to buy a stove that you can cook and heat your home with, don’t buy an old one.  Bite the bullet, spend the cash (between $2,500 and $5,000 for a new one) and get a more modern stove.  It’ll still look rugged… so don’t worry.  The only consideration here is that you’ll be cooking on a stove that does put out a lot of heat.  Don’t wear a big sweater… One great advantage of my old stove that doesn’t put out much heat is that I can cook on it in the summer without sweating my onions off.  You’ll also need to check with your insurance company before buying a woodstove.  Some companies will not allow an older stove, one that is not WETT Certified, in your house.  Don’t frig around with this because the insurance company will always get out of a claim if they can legally.  And, so they should.

You could find a used cook stove somewhere… that’ll save some dough so you can buy a new four-wheeler for next year’s hunting season.  Or, instead of hunting, just buy a whole pile of Kraft Dinner if you keep burning all your food.

Pound ‘er down!

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  1. My husband loves to cook and says he would like a wood stove for his birthday. I have never seen anyone cook with a wood stove, but I really love the fact that you cook full meals with a stove. I might have my husband grill me up a steak or make a stew like you do. Do you think that the quality of food is different when it is cooked on a wood stove than with a modern electric one?

    • The Rugged Dude says:

      Some people say that food tastes better cooked on a woodstove and some say it doesn’t. And, I say – the people who say it doesn’t – are wrong!!!!

      And, they’re not rugged like we are…


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