Wood Cook Stoves: 19th Century Tips and Tricks for the Modern Homestead

Reader Contribution by Joel Johnson
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Ovens of stone, brick, and clay are nearly as old as agriculture itself. Archaeological evidence of oven use in modern day Syria dates from the Neolithic Period—roughly 9,000 years ago. While little is known about what those ovens looked like, or how they were used, 5,000 years later the picture starts to clear up.

4,000 year-old wooden statuettes from Ancient Egypt clearly depict baking activities. One of the most notable images is a relief found in the 5th Dynasty tomb of Ti at Saqqara. Bake oven designs used by ancient Egyptians, Jews, and Romans often bear a surprising resemblance to modern recreations—a reminder that food is history, and vice versa.

The wood cook stove as we know it requires a fast-forwarding of another four millennia. The earliest metal wood-burning stoves can be dated to the 16th-century in Europe where the cook stove’s modern evolution began. Benjamin Franklin’s improvement on the open-hearth fire (a three-sided box of iron aptly known as the Franklin Stove) in the 1740’s is credited with producing higher room temperatures while using only one-quarter of the wood required by an open fireplace.

Of course, it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that iron stoves became more widely available and affordable. Even when they did, the transition took some time. In 1823 Robert Bailey Thomas, founder of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, noted that although wood stoves represented a major saving of fuel and labor, “many people are so prejudiced against them that they will scarcely look at one.” Innovation and practicality eventually won out over tradition and the wood cook stove became a staple in 19th (and many 20th) century kitchens.

At Fort Nisqually Living History Museum in Tacoma, WA, a reproduction kitchen boasts an original cast iron cook stove manufactured in Portland, Maine in 1854. Though treated with care, the stove gets a regular workout as interpreters and volunteers hone their heritage skills.

Quin-Anne Hinrichs, a volunteer cook at the museum, was actually surprised at how easy it was to work with a cast iron stove after years of open-fire Dutch oven cooking. However, one of the challenges wood cook stoves present is the lack of precise information they provide. “Nowadays we’re used to being told to preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, or 380 degrees,” Hinrichs says. “Really you need a slow oven, a medium oven, or a quick oven.”

To determine temperature, Hinrichs employs a time-tested practice. “You stick your hand into the oven and you see how many seconds you can leave your hand in there,” she explains. “If you can leave your hand in there for five seconds that’s about 350-375°. That’s a moderate oven, which is pretty much what you cook almost everything on. If you can leave your hand in there for 10 seconds, that’s down near 325°. If you stick you hand in there and bring it back saying, “Wow, that’s really hot,” that’s probably up near 400°.

For cooks unwilling to put a hand in the fire, as a general rule, “If you can keep boiling water on top, it’s hot enough to cook with in the bottom,” Hinrichs offers.

Years of use and the damp conditions of the Puget Sound have made a visible impact on Nisqually’s stove. As the antique iron rusted, a red sheen was constantly visible on the cooktop. Last year, Lead Historical Interpreter Nancy Keller-Scholz was tasked with enhancing the museum staff and volunteers’ care of the stove.

She recommends a “thorough cleaning of [the] stove top after every use with a wire brush, then using unsalted lard to grease the cooking surfaces only, as well as using stove blacking about once [a] month on the entire stove.” This routine, Keller-Scholz explains, “keeps the rust off of the stove top, keeps the iron seasoned with the lard, and the other parts of the stove protected from moisture as well.” Combined with regular removal of ashes and cleaning of the stovepipe, the Fort Nisqually cook stove is conditioned for many more years of use and interpretation.

A century after Fort Nisqually suspended operations on the Puget Sound, the energy crisis of the 1970s led to a shortage of petroleum fuel throughout the country. Rising costs encouraged American consumers to consider alternative fuel options, sparking a resurgence of interest in wood cook stoves, not only in the kitchen, but also as a primary source of home heating. A New York Times article highlighted the extreme creativity of retired mining engineer Oscar Jarrell who gathered his wood free from the local dump.

While the reduction of petroleum dependency was applauded, the widespread use of wood fuel during this time also brought concerns of air pollution and public safety into the public eye. “Smoke from wood burning stoves and fireplaces can be a significant source of air pollution, negatively impacting public health and the environment,”The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (NHDES) reports. In addition to the release of chemical compounds in wood smoke, the major concern surrounds fine particulate matter, which is easily inhaled deep into the lungs and can lead to serious respiratory damage.

The solution lies in minimizing the output of smoke. “Smoke from wood stoves is generated primarily by incomplete combustion,” explains the NHDES, “which can be caused by a number of different factors related to the wood stove’s efficiency.” More efficient stoves facilitate more complete combustion and therefore less air pollution. When properly operated with seasoned firewood, EPA-certified stoves reduce smoke emissions by up to 90 percent.

As concerns over fuel costs and air quality remain extremely relevant, modern, low-emission stoves seek to provide a balanced answer. “Wood cook stoves are making a powerful come back as customers are [once again] beginning to appreciate the value of renewable energy & independence,” comments Eugene Bryskine of GrillsNOvens LLC, a US retailer of Italian crafted wood cook stoves. Bryskine notes that “Even though most of our customers are living ON the grid, many would like to secure themselves against a possibility of a blackout by getting a stove that can heat, cook, and bake at the same time.”

While nearly everything else has changed, the wood cook stove remains the time-tested answer to home energy independence. Add in the 9,000 years of nostalgia that surround a crackling fire and a warm loaf of bread, and it’s no surprise we keep coming back to the iron hearthside.

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