The Tools We Use: Part I: Making Dinner without a Conventional Stove

Sharon March 18th, 2008

Putting up your own food, storing food and cooking it in a crisis caused or voluntary low energy life does require some specific tools, some of which you buy, some of which you can make.  This is my attempt at a review of these tools - I’ll start by focusing on Cooking Tools, and then move on to grain grinders, pressure canners, dehydrators, etc…

 First, for cooking.  What do you do when the power goes out?  If you are going to store something better than surplus MREs (yuk!), you need a way of applying heat to food.  In the simplest sense, you could store a charcoal grill and some carcoal, build a cement block fire pit and store some wood, or cook over an open fire.  But if you’d like some alternatives above and beyond this, preferrably something with lower emissions than an open fire, you have a host of choices.

Note: In the case of all these tools, I’ll often be linking to sites that sell them.  I have no connection with any of these sites, nor any investment in what you buy.  The only exception to this is that Sustainable Choice who advertises with me (see the sidebar) does sell the SunOven.  I like to think that this doesn’t bias me overmuch, though ;-). 

 The most traditional emergency backup method would be a Camping stove of one sort or another - there are an assortment available here.  They use various fuels to heat food - these are an interim solution - most do not use renewable fuels, but a good backup to have if you are storing for a short term emergency.  I don’t have one, and while I have used a couple of these stoves, can’t particularly recommend any one.  Here, however, are some reviews: and here:

Next best option would be a biomass (wood usually, but you could use other options - pine needles, corn, etc…) powered rocket stove or efficient wood cookstove.  Cookstoves are most valuable where both heating and cooking are needed simultaneously, while rocket stoves use little energy and produce tiny emissions and lots of heat.  The best resource on both of these is this source, The Aprovecho Research Institute - they’ve done an enormous amount to deal produce low fuel, high output stoves.   They have two paper publications: _Capturing Heat_ and _Capturing Heat Two_ that emphasize low input, low emissions home made solutions to cooking and heating.  These are great publications and highly recommended.

 The benefits of these solutions, unlike camping stoves, is that they make sense for everyday.  That is, my own feeling is that reducing our cooking energy emissions is important enough that we should be looking not just for emergency solutions, but whenever we can, for low impact ways to cook everyday.  Besides, a crisis isn’t a great time to be trying to figure out how to use something you’ve barely touched before.

I have used two wood cookstoves, and liked them both.  We initially had a Baker’s Choice, bought used from a friend.  It was a bit too small for our large house, and didn’t hold heat as well as a heavier, cast iron stove would have, so we replaced it with a Waterford Stanley (also slightly used), which we love.  Both are available through Lehmans, which also has a great deal of useful information about cookstoves

Cooking on a wood cookstove does take some practice, but if you are going to heat with wood anyway, cookstoves make an enormous amount of sense - and they are a lot of fun to use.  We love ours - and it doesn’t take that much experimentation to get good with it.  I would recommend that most people who are thinking about a wood backup heat method seriously consider a cookstove (assuming you live in a reasonably cold climate), since it will cut your cooking energy as well.  For me, living where there are no gas lines, this is especially valuable, since electric stoves are terribly inefficient.  If you live where it is cold (most people who live in fairly warm places should probably just invest in insulation and have a rocket stove), and don’t already have a wood or masonry stove (I won’t discuss the latter here but if you can afford one, masonry stoves are definitely the way to go), consider a cookstove. More info here:, but I’ve found a number of them new. 

You can cook on a regular woodstove if you have one - soups and stews will simmer beautifully, and if you have metal working skills, or can hire the job out, a sheet metal oven (basically just a square metal box with some racks inside and a door) can be made to go on top of a woodstove and allow you to bake.  I’m told it usually doesn’t bake bread real well, but works for cookies, biscuits and other small things.

An outdoor masonry oven is a great tool as well - these are made of clay, bricks or even mud, and can produce a great deal of food with small quantities of wood or other readily available biomass.  They cook outdoors, but because they are sheltered and enclosed, you can cook in them even in very cold weather.  Aprovecho has some material on this, but the most detailed option is Kiko Denzer’s excellent book _Build Your Own Earth Oven_ - this project is doable even for the unhandy, and provides not just a good backup heat source, but a low-impact way of cooking every day.  Because the mass of the stove holds the heat well, it can be used for multiple cooking ventures - you can start by baking pizza and as it cools bake bread, cook a casserole and even dehydrate at the end of its warmth.

 But even better than a wood cookstove or other biomass stove is  solar oven.  These are wonderful, wonderful tools, that can be used by everyone, in every climate.  If you live in a warm place, say much south of the Mason Dixon, and make or buy a good oven, you probably can use solar oven for cooking any time it isn’t pouring.  For those of us who live in more northerly places, solar ovens may not be quite as ubiquitous, but you can use them an awful lot of the year - on sunny warmish days in January and consistently from April until October.  They are great tools and given that they are 0 emissions, everyone should have an use them.  We try and have ours at least preheating water for tea or washing even when we aren’t cooking anything.

I’ve made several, and they work very well indeed.  There are links to plans to make your own, or you can buy a SunOven from Sustainable Choice (click on the link on the side) or if you’d rather buy from someone who doesn’t advertise here, they are sold by Lehmans and Real Goods   There are other brands as well, including this one.  The gentleman selling these claims that he recently cooked salmon casserole while the oven sat in a snowbank on his porch in Ontario in March, which is impressive - he is, however, selling them so YMMV - generally speaking, for warmer places, homemade will do you just fine.  It is in the coldest reaches, that when  you want to stretch the usage, you might have problems getting and retaining the heat you want, and thus, might find the commercial ones more valuable.  They also probably will last longer.

These aren’t ways of generating heat, so much as ways of reducing heating energy.  Pat Meadows has a wonderful and very complete description of how a Haybox Cooker is used here: #2007/06/report-on-my-new-haybox-cooker-success.html.  Essentially, haybox cookers reduce total cooking energy by containing it.  This is a very wise and useful strategy, again, essential in an emergency, but just as good every day.

A pressure canner is another invaluable aid to reducing cooking fuel usage - they can speed up the cooking of foods like magic.  I have a Kuhn Rikon, and love it - I’d like another for fleischig (meat) foods in my kosher kitchen.  There are reviews and detailed information here: and

Finally, you might find useful this list of strategies to reduce cooking energy - both in a crisis and in day to day life.

 Ok, more to come!


4 Responses to “The Tools We Use: Part I: Making Dinner without a Conventional Stove”

  1. Sarahon 18 Mar 2008 at 12:46 pm

    Are there any indoor-use options available that don’t require kitchen renovation?

  2. Sharonon 18 Mar 2008 at 5:46 pm

    Hi Sarah - A Coleman stove wouldn’t require a kitchen renovation, and a woodstove just requires a place to put it and the pipe.


  3. Sarahon 19 Mar 2008 at 9:42 am

    You can use Coleman stoves indoors? I’ve seen dire warnings about doing that before. Are there some kinds that you’re not supposed to use indoors?

    I don’t think we have anywhere to put a wood stove that isn’t where the gas stove already is :-( And the landlord would object if his stove went away.

  4. Sharonon 19 Mar 2008 at 10:00 am

    Sorry Sarah, I should have been clearer - I was thinking of Coleman’s Sterno stoves. Coleman says no here about its regular stoves:, although I’ve heard several other sources say that if the stove is butane (not propane) and you use it in a well ventilated area, you should be ok. I would have a CO detector if I were going to do that, though, and be very careful. I’d err on the side of caution here - my mistake. You can use Coleman Sterno stoves indoors, though - they are perfectly safe.

    You might also look into the kerosene stoves used by the Amish - they don’t require electric and can clearly be used indoors (since they do use them indoors) but I’m not familiar with brands or sources - I’ve just seen them in amish homes.


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