Living off-grid in a 314-square foot yurt requires a healthy dose of creativity and flexibility when it comes to even the most basic aspects of daily life. Before this adventure was our lived reality, I frequently peppered Mark (who had previously spent two winters living in an even smaller yurt-like home with even less amenities) with questions. I was like a three-year old discovering the world for the first time. What will we use for light? How will we cook? How will we wash dishes? Where will we sleep? Will we be warm enough? I’ve quickly discovered these are the questions everyone else is eager to hear about too. How do we do it?
This is the first installment of the “How We Do It” series where (you can see where this is going) I tell you how we do it. Enjoy!
Wood Stove Cooking 101
There are three things that produce heat in our yurt – candles fueled by beeswax, our bodies fueled by calories, and our wood stove fueled by trees. Both candles and our bodies have rated poor in their ability to sufficiently cook food leaving us with an all-in-one kitchen gadget – the woodstove that also doubles as our heater and triples as our clothes dryer.
I was a bit skeptical, albeit up for the challenge, when I realized my love for cooking would be limited to what is essentially a hot box of metal. However, what I love about cooking – the endless possibilities, the creativity, the intimacy with food, and of course, the delicious results – have by no means been taken away from me.
Wood Stove as Stovetop
One of the most frequent ways we use the wood stove for cooking is for typical stovetop uses – sauteeing, frying, boiling, etc. The top of the stove can fit one large pan and two large pots comfortably if needed. We’ve learned with time which spots are hottest, which changes drastically depending on how hot we’ve fired the stove. We’ve learned how these changes effect our cooking as well. Our neighbor aptly compared cooking with a wood stove to sailing – the sailor or cook needs to constantly adapt to the elements of wind or fire, as the case may be. Learning to cook this way cannot come through an instruction manual with clear, consistent steps, but only through experience and a felt knowledge of your specific stove. Anytime I can bring more art, intuition, and intimacy into my life, I’m there!
Our stove – a Tempwood Stove – is fed wood through a round hole in the top of the firebox.This feature makes it most excellent for cooking! We quickly discovered that our cast iron pan fits perfectly over this hole so that it functions like a traditional cookstove, giving the flames direct access to the bottom of the pan. This is our “high heat” option. What do we do when we need to reduce the heat to a simmer? Simple! We just close down the air intake, replace the metal cover on the stove, and let our breakfast onions caramelize on low heat while we kneel for morning prayer.
The added joy of wood stove cooking in the winter is the heat is always there! I was shocked to discover how spoiled I was in this department when I visited my parents over Christmas. Their stove’s electric burners took so long to heat up! What a delightful irony – sometimes simplicity makes things more convenient, not less!
Wood Stove as Oven
By moving into the yurt, I assumed I was giving up any dishes that required an oven. While it’s taken me a bit longer to tweak and at this point I use this method of cooking more for special meals than day-to-day nourishment, wood stove roasting and baking with the assistance of a cast iron Dutch oven is totally within the realm of possiblity! At this point I have not attempted wood stove bread baking – most certainly because my standards as a professional baker are a bit higher than my other food-making ventures. But it is on my to-do list. I’ll be sure to report back on this one.
What I have had raging success at is using the Dutch oven to roast meats, mostly chicken thighs and salmon filets. I simply season the bird or fish the way I always do (typically rosemary and thyme for the chicken and dill or rosemary and white balsamic vinegar for the salmon), place the meat in the Dutch oven with less than an inch of water, cover the pot and let it cook. (For added yumminess I sear the chicken thighs in butter before adding to the Dutch oven, because obviously anything will be better after being seared in butter.) Sometimes I add some potatoes and onions around the meat for one pot cooking. I have yet to master the art of crispy vegetable roasting, but I am convinced it’s possible. Stay tuned!
Wood Stove as Crockpot
There’s no better time than winter for food that has spent hours simmering away. Our bodies’ longing for bone broths, stews, and soups in the cold months dovetails beautifully with the lifestyle of a wood stove cook. The wood stove is already putting off a steady supply of heat all day long to keep our bodies warm. There is literally no additional energy or fuel used to make nourishing bone broths and soups that get better by the hour. Many a day this winter, I’ve grabbed some bone-in chicken or beef (or retrieved leftover bones from previous meals) immediately after breakfast, threw them in a pot of water, added a splash of apple cider vinegar, and set them on the stove. By the end of the day I have a magnificent broth with no more than 5 minutes of my attention and zero energy cost over and above our heating. Soups are almost this easy with just an additional 15 minutes of vegetable chopping.
I relish in the ease, simplicity, and efficiency of creating such delectable winter nourishment! I love how naturally the cold, and thereby the need for the woodstove to be fired up, lends itself to making food that the body craves in that season. Soup making will be a lot harder in the summer months without a constant source of heat, but I suspect we won’t miss the deep warming bone broths when the sun is warming us from the outside in!
Wood Stove as All Those Other Appliances That Used to Crowd My Countertop
We regularly use our wood stove as a tea kettle, coffee maker (kind of), toaster, and popcorn popper. (We have yet to figure out how to use it as a blender.)
Thanks to the wood-loading hole in the top of the stove, we can boil water wicked fast! Our pails neatly drop into the hole, just the right size for the rim to catch. This hack means the flames are literally surrounding the water, rivaling most tea kettles in its boiling speed. As a former barista and lover of both the Aeropress and French Press, hot water is all I need to make the most delicious coffee out there. (On-demand coffee grinding is a bit more challenging – a topic for another post!)
Over eggs and toast during my parents’ recent visit my Dad remarked, “This toast is a lot better than our toasters!” Indeed, sir! That’s because our toast is toasted in a cast iron of melted butter. Just as quick when the fire’s hotand exceedingly more delicious!
Our favorite evening treat is a big bowl of butter-doused popcorn. (As you may have deduced by now, we go through A LOT of butter.) Growing up we had a greasy-from-use popcorn popper we hauled out of the pantry for Saturday movie nights and sleepovers. College life naturally led me down the path of microwave popcorn. (I do not miss the weird fuzzy feeling that “butter” left in my mouth. What is that stuff?) In a health-conscious move, I eventually had a popcorn popper of my own, but this one used hot air for its popping. In my yurt life, I use a stainless-steel pail and the woodstove. I melt a couple tablespoons of coconut oil in the pail (I use coconut oil because of its relatively high smoke point) and add 2-4 popcorn kernels as testers. When they pop I know the oil is hot enough to add the rest of the kernels. After adding enough kernels to fill the bottom of the pail (I don’t believe in measuring cups…), I put a couple tablespoons of butter in a metal cup and set it on the woodstove to melt. In no time, the yurt is filled with the muffled sound of popping corn and the decadent aroma of melted butter.
This is how we cook in the winter. The whole scene will change with the change of the seasons. Of course, when the time comes, I will let you know how we do that too.