Alternative Cooking Fuels
By Dana Benner
Photo by Clark and Company
Disasters happen all the time, and storms take out power. An outage could be caused by a severe ice storm, a tornado, a hurricane, or even a driver who takes out a utility pole. Whatever the reason, there’ll be times when you’ll be out of power. It could be out for an hour, or it could be out for days. Regardless, you’ll need to be prepared.
The middle of an emergency isn’t the time to worry about how you’ll cook food. I always have multiple backup plans for this reason. Within my stock of supplies are five different ways to cook: propane gas grill, portable propane camp stove, Sterno stove, charcoal, and biomass stove. In this article, I’ll expand on each of these cooking methods and list their pros and cons. All of these methods require some kind of fuel, so you’ll need to have some handy.
Propane Gas Grills
For short-term usage, I usually turn to my propane gas grill. With its large cooking surface, it’s great for preparing big quantities of food, especially when you have to cook everything that’s going bad in your freezer.
Photo by Adobe Stock/Ewa Cieszy?ska
Many of us have a propane grill at home because, after all, grilling is an American pastime. With that said, how many of us have extra tanks of propane in case of an emergency? I’d bet not many. Most people don’t know the amount of propane they have in their tanks until they run out during a cookout. In an emergency situation, you won’t have the luxury of running down to the store to fill your tank. If you’re going to rely on this method to cook and boil water, you’ll need to have extra fuel on hand.
With a propane grill, you can cook large amounts of food at one time. Propane is also widely available. But, propane is volatile and unsafe to use indoors. Propane is also an asphyxiant. An open tank of propane can quickly replace the oxygen in an enclosed area, thus causing asphyxiation. For these reasons, always use propane outdoors.
Portable Propane Camp Stoves
Photo by Tracey Gordon
These stoves are so great that I actually own two. I’ve had one for more than 20 years, and the other is a new Camp Chef Everest. Portable propane stoves are available under many different brand names, and while the models vary in price, they’ll all do the job. Portable propane camp stoves come in a variety of sizes, from the double-burner models to easily packable single-burner types.
Portable propane stoves are popular with campers, making the fuel readily available. Just about every sporting goods store, hardware store, drugstore, and grocery store carries the fuel, and — even better — it often goes on sale. Because the fuel comes in sealed canisters, it’s easy to store, though still best kept out of the house. Like the propane in your large tanks, though, the propane in these canisters is volatile, so handle with caution. For the same reasons as a propane grill, these can’t be used indoors.
Sterno stoves are made of small aluminum panels designed to reflect heat inward. They’re lightweight and foldable, and while they won’t cook a steak, they’re perfect for heating up water or cooking a couple of hot dogs. When I was growing up, everyone had a few cans of Sterno set aside for emergencies. Despite struggling in a market dominated by propane and butane fuel, Sterno canned fuel is still available and is a great source of fuel to stash away for emergencies.
Cost is both a pro and a con for Sterno stoves. The cost to buy the fuel and the stove isn’t that much, but Sterno is an inefficient fuel, making it expensive when considering the British thermal unit (Btu) output. Nevertheless, I really like Sterno, and I keep it on hand. A container of Sterno fuel is about the diameter of a tuna can and only a little taller, so it takes up little space. Folded, the Sterno stove will fit right into an emergency pack. Sterno is easy to ignite, yet, unlike propane, it’s not explosive. Lastly, it’s the only method I’ll discuss that can be safely used indoors. Sterno will evaporate over time, so you should check it every six months or so. While I wouldn’t rely solely on Sterno fuel in a long-term emergency, I definitely keep it on hand in case I need to cook indoors during a blizzard.
Photo by Getty Images/Mumemories
Charcoal stoves haven’t changed much over the years. No matter the maker or style, they’re little more than a metal container that holds lit charcoal, with a grill top over the coals. Many people have forgone the use of charcoal with the advent of the propane grill, but for long-term use, only wood beats charcoal. Charcoal is, by far, the least expensive commercially available emergency fuel that you can have on hand. Charcoal can be stored for extended periods of time, as long as it’s stored in an airtight container. Because it’s carbon-based, charcoal will absorb moisture, making it hard to light, if it lights at all. Bags of charcoal are readily available at most stores, and the best time to buy them is at the end of the summer grilling season, when retailers are trying to get rid of existing stock.
Never use charcoal indoors. Of all the fuels I’ve mentioned, charcoal produces the most carbon monoxide. It also stays hot for a long time, making it a fire hazard. Make sure all the coals are fully cooled before disposing of them, and make sure you dispose of the ashes in a metal container, just in case there’s still a hot coal.
Photo by Eric Krüger
Biomass stoves, such as the Solo Stove Titan, are probably one of the best devices for cooking in a survival situation. Whether you’re at home or in the wilderness, a biomass stove will do the job. There’s no fuel that needs to be carried or stored. All you have to do is start your fire and add some sort of biomass to the stove, such as pine cones, sticks, leaves, wood pellets, and more.
The Solo Stove Titan is lightweight, weighing in at 16-1⁄2 ounces; it’s compact, measuring only about 8 inches tall when fully assembled; and, when not in use, it stores neatly in its own bag. It’s made from 304 stainless steel, which makes it easy to keep clean, and it burns clean, leaving behind nothing but a little ash.
Because of their design, biomass stoves do burn hot, which causes the fire to need a constant supply of fuel. Like propane and charcoal stoves, biomass stoves can’t be used indoors.
Alternative Cooking Best Practices
All of these alternative cooking methods are only as good as the fuel you use, so make sure to always have a large supply on hand. You never know when you’ll need it.
Whenever propane goes on sale, I make sure to stock up. I keep my big grill’s large tanks topped up, and I purchase portable tanks when I can. I keep multiple bags of charcoal on hand and never pass up a chance to get more. It’s better to have “too much” than not enough. When it comes to cooking, you need to do it in the most efficient manner possible, so: Don’t start your stove until you’re ready to cook; plan meals ahead of time; consolidate as much cooking as possible; and extinguish the cooking source as soon as you’re done. You should also alternate the fuel sources you use. Save your propane for colder, snowy months, and use your biomass stove during summer. Sticks and other biomass fuels are harder to find under several feet of snow.
When it comes to alternative cooking methods, there’s no such thing as one size fits all. If you’re preparing for those times when the conveniences of the modern world aren’t available, whether short- or long-term, it’s always best to have multiple ways of doing things. Having the proper tools on hand and knowing how to use them will help to ensure the survival of both you and your family.
Resources for Starting a Fire
Photo by Getty Images/Oleksandr Yuchynskyi
If you’re cooking over an open fire or using a charcoal stove, sometimes getting things to light can be a real chore, especially if the wood or charcoal is damp. Survival programs want you to use friction devices of some sort to get your fire started. Although this is something we should all know how to do, there’s a much easier method. For a quick and effective way, use a butane lighter or a match and a fire-starting product. Many options are on the market, but I like to use Lightning Nuggets. This product is nontoxic and is made from sawdust and paraffin wax. These fire starters burn hot for 15 minutes, and they’ll ignite even damp wood or charcoal.
Dana Benner has been writing about the outdoors and rural life for more than 30 years, and believes preparation is the key to success as an outdoorsperson and homesteader. His work has appeared in regional, national, and international publications.
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