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Wednesday, May 3, 2017


While working on my present historical western I realized I only know a limited amount about cooking on a woodstove. I’ve never cooked on one myself, but I do remember my maternal grandmother cooking on one back when she lived on a farm in an old Victorian farmhouse. The stove she used was actually a coal stove. It must have been fancy for its day because it had a warming shelf, a place to put matches, and on the side it had a big tank for keeping water hot. It certainly kept that kitchen warm even in a Pennsylvania winter. The only thing I remember about her cooking on it was when she made a Thanksgiving turkey. She put it in the oven the night before, but I don’t know why or how she went about cooking that turkey. So, to write anything about cooking on a woodstove I knew I needed to dig into some research to make it accurate.

I found out there are two kinds of woodstoves:

Wood heat stoves are used primarily to heat a room or house by burning wood.  They can also be used to cook food, even if they aren’t specifically designed for it.  Any wood heat stove with a large enough flat surface on top to hold a pot can be used for cooking. But foods that need to be baked must be cooked in a pot with a lid such as a Dutch oven.

The other type is the Wood cook stove which is meant to be installed in the kitchen primarily for cooking food with wood, although it does also heat the room.  It normally includes a built in oven for baking, and sometimes has a reservoir for heating water. Even though we’ve come a long way from cooking on wood stoves, they certainly had their positive abilities such as using a renewable resource of wood or even using dead wood for energy. Another positive thing is that in storms when the power goes out and it’s subzero weather outside, that wood stove heats, illuminates, and provides a place for cooking and hot water. Who could ask for more?

Now days seems like everything has to talk to us and have a screen including refrigerators—until a storm takes out the power anyway. Then where are ya? I can certainly see why people who want to live off grid make that choice.

Here are some how-to advice on cooking on a heat stove:

The wood heat stove can be used to cook anything that would normally be cooked on top of an electric or gas range.  Since there are no knobs to adjust the flames, though, other ways to control the temperature would be needed to allow a person to create more heat when frying something in a skillet or less heat when something needs to simmer slowly in a pot.

The key to controlling cooking temperature is to get to know the personality of the stove. (Hopefully, the stove has a friendly personality). Begin by finding the sweet spot, where it gets the hottest on top, where you can cook food the fastest.  It might be necessary to make adjustments in installing the chimney in order to provide more cooking space on top such as having the chimney cook off the back instead of off the top. Somewhere on the top of that stove is where the “sweet spot” is where it’s hot enough to boil water or fry some eggs. It might take some trial and error to find that “sweet spot.”

Build a hotter fire if need be by using thinner logs in the firebox instead of one large one. Thinner logs of 3-4 inches diameter burn faster and are, therefore, hotter.  If you want to cook more quickly, build a hotter fire by using several thinner logs (3-4" in diameter) in the firebox, rather than one large one.  The thinner logs burn faster so they give off more heat.  For the fastest cooking, you want the firebox filled with as much flame as possible to heat the top of the stove.

To speed up cooking, preheat the pan, by placing it empty on top of the stove.  The food will heat faster if the pan and lid are already hot before food is added. Any pots and pans will do on the wood stove.  Cast iron is best, but have also used enamel and stainless steel.  Pans with thinner walls, like enamel, will heat up more quickly and cook food faster.

Use a Lid:  Using a tight fitting lid will trap heat and help food cook faster. Rotating the food may help it cook more evenly so stir that soup or turn the pan periodically to get it all done evenly. I can see where making soup could be a real advantage on a cold day. Those homesteaders could just keep a pot of soup at the ready all day.

Timing how fast food cooks varies depending on how hot the fire is rather than on relying on a cooking time in a recipe. I guess that means when Grams was cooking that Thanksgiving turkey starting the night before, she must have just banked the fire a bit so the oven wasn’t so hot. Once those pioneer women found out how long it took to cook something, they could cook it that same amount of time every time. Maybe they even jotted down that information on their recipes. Until the homesteader got used to how her stove worked, she probably had to check on the food, hear it cooking, or smell it to see when it was done.

Making an Oven for Baking on Top of the Wood Stove:
An oven cooks by surrounding food on all sides with a steady, low heat.  All that’s needed is a trivet that will elevate the food (working like the rack in a conventional oven).  The trivet will keep the food from coming into direct contact with the surface of the stove so that it doesn't overheat or burn.  Cover the trivet with a pot that is big enough to turn upside down over the food to create the walls of the oven and hold in the heat.
I did not mention cooking on an open hearth which was usually in the heart of the cabin. It probably needs its own blog for another day since it required different methods for cooking than either the wood heat stove or the wood stove.

I would, however, like to share some recipes for wood stoves with you from a site I found on the internet titled Authentic Frontier Recipes:

Jerky, ground or chopped fine
Little Fat or Grease
Salt & pepper
Fry the jerky until done.
Remove meat from grease, and add flour.
Add milk, and salt & pepper. Cook gravy. Add meat to gravy.
The amount of each ingredient depends on how much gravy you want.

1 Pint or more of chopped cooked cabbage
Add: 1 Egg well beaten
¼ Cup vinegar
1 Tsp butter
Dash of salt and pepper
Sweeten to suit taste. Simmer a few minutes and add ½ cup of thick fresh cream. Serve immediately.

1/2 a pound of salt pork chopped fine
2 cups of molasses
½  pound raisins chopped well
2 eggs
2 teaspoonfuls each:
clove, allspice and mace,
½ a tablespoonful of saleratus or soda,
and flour enough to make a stiff batter.
The oven must not be too hot. I guess this would be placed in a Dutch oven on top the stove with a trivet under it and a tight lid on top, or in the oven of a wood burning stove with a large log instead of those smaller logs.

Mormon Johnnycake
Here is a form of cornbread used not only by the Mormon immigrants,
as the name indicates, but quite often by most of the immigrants traveling west.
Because of the inclusion of buttermilk, a source of fresh milk was a necessity.
2-cups of yellow cornmeal
½-cup of flour
1-teaspoon baking soda
1-teaspoon salt
Combine ingredients and mix in
2-cups of buttermilk and 2-tablespoons molasses.
Pour into a greased 9” pan and bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes. (some smaller logs for a hotter fire and time by checking on it frequently).
To get a lighter johnnycake include two beaten eggs
and 2 tablespoons melted butter.

A great way to use leftover corned beef is to add a few new ingredients and create Red Flannel Hash. Who knows who came up with the beets, but it really is colorful, and sticks to the ribs.
1 ½ Cups chopped corned beef
1 ½ Cups chopped cooked beets
1 Medium onion, chopped
4 Cups chopped cooked potatoes
Chop ingredients separately, then mix together.
Heat all ingredients in a well- greased skillet,
slowly, loosen around the edges, and shake to prevent scorching.
After a nice crust forms on bottom, turn out on a warmed plate and serve.
If it seems a little dry add a little beef broth.
Try with a couple poached eggs, for a hearty meal.

Soda Biscuits
Take 1lb flour, and mix it with enough milk to make a stiff dough;
dissolve 1tsp carbonate of soda in a little milk;
add to dough with a teaspoon of salt.
Work it well together and roll out thin;
cut into round biscuits, and bake them in a moderate oven.
The yolk of an egg is sometimes added.

Vinegar Lemonade
Mix 1 to 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar into a 12 ounce glass of water.
Stir in 2 tablespoons of sugar to taste.
Note: The pioneers used vinegar for numerous reasons.
One reason was to add vitamin C to their diet.

Fried Apples
Fry 4 slices of bacon in a Dutch oven. Remove bacon.
Peel and slice 6 to 8 Granny Smith apples.
Put apples in Dutch oven with bacon grease,
cover and cook down the apples, but not to mush.
Serve topped with butter or cream and crumbled bacon.
They’re great for breakfast or desert!

Oregon Trail Breakfast
Cornmeal Mush
1 Cup cornmeal
4 Cups boiling water
1 Tablespoon lard
1 Teaspoon salt
Dried currents
Put currents into water and bring to boil.  Sprinkle cornmeal into boiling water stirring constantly, adding lard and salt.  Cook for about 3 minutes.  Pour in bowls and top with milk, butter and molasses.

Black Pudding
Here’s an old ranch recipe courtesy of Winkie Crigler, founder and curator of The Little House Museum in Greer, Arizona.
6 Eggs
1 Cup Sweet Milk
2 Cups Flour
1 Tsp Soda
1 Cup Sugar
1 Tsp Cinnamon
1 Cup Molasses
Mix well.  Pour into 1-pound can and steam for 2 to 3 hours by placing in kettle of boiling water.  Keep covered.
This is to be served with a vinegar sauce:
1 Cup Sugar
1 Tbsp  Butter
1 Tbsp Flour
2 Tbsp Vinegar
½ Tsp Nutmeg
Put in enough boiling water for amount of sauce wanted.
Add two slightly beaten eggs and cook stirring constantly to the desired consistency.

Happy cookin’ y’all!

Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media:


  1. I love posts like this one Sarah. I don't know that I would not burn or undercook food, but I suppose I would eventually learn. Sill the recipes are priceless. I love reading old cookbooks and trying them out on 'regular' stoves. Doris

    1. Doris, I think the last time I did campfire cooking was waaaay back when I was a Girl Scout. The neighbor's dog liked my bologna cooked on my campfire, so it must have been okay.
      I doubt I could cook on a woodstove without a whole lot of practice. But if that's what I had, I'd give it my all. I liked the peculiar names of the food from the west.
      Thank you so much for coming by and sharing your thoughts, Doris.

  2. Enjoyed your post very much. I've tried cooking on the top of a wood stove. At one time I even had one of those little ovens built into the stovepipe. Anyone who thinks it is easy hasn't tried it. It is an art, not a science. I think you are right in needing to learn the quirks of each individual stove.

    As for the recipes, they were great. It reminds me that people back in the day didn't have access to a large variety or a large supply of produce most of the year. They relied heavily on pickled and canned fruits and vegetables. I doubt most of us eat that way anymore. Some of those recipes look like they would be fun to try.

    Best wishes on your upcoming western.

    1. I can relate to pioneer cooking in that Grams did so many things the way they did. She had a huge garden from which she harvested her vegetables to can. Lordy, she canned everything, including fruit and berries, and even preserves of all kinds. She had a cellar with floor to ceiling shelves that held her glass jars from all that canning. She and her lady friends would get together for some of that canning and they shared their produce. I imagine pioneer women who lived close enough must have done the same thing. Friends make the work go faster. My grandmother was Pennsylvania Dutch, so she and her friends often spoke in German. They seemed to have a good time while they worked.
      Thank you so much for coming and commenting, Zina.

  3. Nothing says home cookin' like Pork cake. Now I will admit I do wonder...but probably not enough to try it. This was a fun, educational post. Thanks for sharing your research.

    1. Okay, Livia, I don't know that I'd want to try that pork cake or the vinegar lemonade either, but I think I could get into those fried apples.
      Thank you so much for coming by and leaving a lovely comment, Livia.

  4. Fascinating. Now I want to try and cook over a wood stove. :-)

    1. Keena, do you know someone with a woodstove who will let you practice on their stove? That would certainly be sweet. I would love vacationing somewhere in a tiny cabin with a woodstove and try my hand at life in the woods.
      Thank you so much for visiting me and living a comment.

  5. Sarah,

    Your article took me back to my childhood growing up with a beloved grandpa who lived just a hop, skip, and a spit down the road from me. *grin* He had a wood stove in his kitchen and he used it for cooking, as well as a source of house-heat in the winter. I didn't do any cooking on it without his supervision, but he did teach me the ins and outs of how much wood to put in the stove and how to move pans around in the oven to get even baking results. I often wish we still had that old wood stove.

    1. Kaye, how wonderful that you learned some things about cooking on a woodstove from your grandfather. What a sweet memory. I should have known you would know a bit about cooking on a woodstove.
      Thank you so very much for coming and sharing that memory.

  6. Sarah, thanks for the great information!

    A word of warning for those who want to try cooking on an old wood stove--don't touch the handles or the stove! To say it gets hot is an understatement.

  7. Excellent advice, Tracy. I remember my grandmother saying that very thing.
    Thanks for coming.