Why go to all the trouble?
Fires are a lot of work. Gathering wood is a big chore. Chainsaws are loud and scary. Splitting logs is backbreaking. No wonder modern man uses alternate ways to heat and cook. Fires make a big mess too. Leaves and bark scatter across the floor and then there's taking out the ashes. Bending over a low hot fire is a back strain. Dust coats everything. With all the obvious drawbacks to woodstoves, many people think it's well worth the time and effort.
Some of us who already went to all that trouble to get some good coals going think the natural next thing to do is to cook something on it. I'm one of them. I have an additional reason too. This is my only stove, it heats my home. I live in interior Alaska and all winter I have to keep a fire going 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Eating food cooked on a woodstove or over an open fire is a much anticipated event. That's because some things take a lot longer to cook over wood flames as compared to a gas or electric stove and oven (or a microwave). But if you've got fire, patience and a few good tools, you can cook and bake many of your favorite meals.
I have a small Drolet Hunter's woodstove designed for small cabins and large tents. It used to hold a fire for about 4-6 hours. The manufacturer advises against using this model for full-time use. I've been burning it steadily in my tents since August 2006 and it carried me through two winters that dropped down to 50 below zero. It's now showing signs of splitting apart at the seams. It's been an awesome stove that overperformed it's intended mission, and it was well worth the $200.00.
For baking I now use a Camerons' Smoker. Designed for cooking fish over a campfire. This little cooker is the best garage sale find of last summer. It's a big pan with inside racks and a handle, about 10x15 inches and maybe two inches tall with a piece that slides over the top.
Not intended as a cookbook, this Instructable includes a sampling of a couple of the recipes I've made that were edible.
Step 1: Making Fire
Firewood can be anything from small sticks to round logs. Some woods burn much faster and hotter than others. Smaller pieces of wood will heat up quickly and die out just as fast, unless you have a way to control the fire's air intake.
Gather your wood ahead of time so you can stack it near the fire to dry it overnight. Keep a small axe handy with a piece of floor board to chop kindling right there on the floor by the stove. If you're going to do this for any length of time it's a big help to have some kind of a cart or sled to pull loads of wood back to your hearth. I've spent years studying cart designs because I got sick of hauling loads on my back or in my arms. Today I use a RubberMaid dump cart that retails at Cotsco for $100. I've also used wheelbarrows, garden carts, kid's wagons, plastic sleds and luggage to haul wood back to my camp.
Coal and other wood burning substitutes work just as well too. In some parts of the world they burn dung and grass. The main thing is a steady source of heat and a hot space to place your pots and pans.
Starting the fire
Box matches work best, they're called kitchen matches for a reason.
Paper -- has a tendency to float away while it's still burning. It's not the best way to start a fire unless you have a metal spark screen to put over it or have a really tall smoke stack. Glossy paper gives off nasty fumes, and some paper just won't ignite enough to catch the wood.
Kindling -- small sticks, wood shavings, leaves and bark all work if it's dry. I used to keep a bin full of firestarter materials near the stove that became a paper garbage can.
Wax -- Thanks to my sister in Valdez, http://fishtaxi.blogspot.com starting our fires now couldn't be easier. She showed us how to save all our egg cartons and fill them with leftover wax saved from burnt candles. (There are other Instructables on this same topic).
Homemade Firestarters -- If the coals in our stove die down too much or we've just cleaned out the ashes and are starting fresh, we tear off one "egg" and put it under and between some wood. Once lit with a wooden kitchen match, this little flame stays going long enough to catch even good sized logs. This can be modified to recycle anything that's burnable; cardboard cut into 1 inch strips and dipped in melted wax and dried are in my emergency pack. The only problem with this method is the scarcity of cheap wax, candles can be expensive these days. I also carry a flint and magnesium shaving bar in my purse, but this is only for emergencies.
Kerosene-gasoline-diesal -- Never use liquid fuels to start a wood fire unless you know how to do that and are prepared to deal with whatever explosions occur as a result. If you want to burn liquid fuels to cook over, there are many fuel designed cook stoves that will serve you well.
Setting the temperature
Small sticks and split logs will give you a brisk fire as long as you keep an eye on it and feed it every ten to fifteen minutes. If you're using a wood stove you can add a couple good sized pieces of dry wood, shut the damper down, and wait for the stove to heat up. This is best for baking that requires a high oven temperature. Wet wood doesn't put off much heat.
Baking makes for a very hot room so be prepared to open the door or window or tent flap and let some of the heat escape. If you don't have a way to cool the room down you'll be reluctant to keep the fire hot enough to finish cooking your food. Wandering outside without a coat on feels fabulous if it's swealtering inside and cold outside. It's a nice way to see the winter skies too, even if only for a few seconds. Plus there's things that need to be taken outside when you're cooking too, like old dishwater and sometimes more wood. We have an outhouse so that's another outside daily routine.
As word about health: Living this way has made me much physically stronger than I might have been at 51 years old. I'm a smoker, I was a heavy drinker in my youth, I eat odd things at odd hours and I used to be about 165 pounds after my son was born in 1990. Today I'm at about 125 and can lift and carry 7 gallons without whining too much.
Anyone can boil water, right? If your recipe calls for bringing water to a boil, build a roaring fire and get your covered pot of water as close to the flames as is possible, or put it on top of a hot, hot stove. Uncovered water on a low flame will turn to steam and float away before it boils.
Metal pots can be placed right in the flames or coals. This turns them a sooty black that is very messy to wash off. Once a pot is placed over an open fire that's pretty much all it's good for unless you like scrubbing. Some wood cookstoves have round holes in the top that lift off so you can open it up and put your pan directly on the flame. I've never had one of those. If you live on the U.S. east coast there are lots of old very inexpensive wood cookstoves on ebay for pick-up only buyers, and I did see one on Alaska craigslist for $500 one time.
Another suggestion might be to get used to filling a big pot for dish water and put it right on the stove and keep it there or near enough to heat the water. If you keep it clean with a lid on it you can scoop it out for washing your face or for cooking water. But what you really want it for is to do the dishes afterwards.