Efficient Cooking and Water Heating
December 21, 2008
When we have plenty of heat from our home cooking ranges, and domestic hot water heaters, it is very easy to forget about how much fuel we actually use to provide these luxuries. If some of our pots and pans cook at a lower stove setting than others, we don't even notice the difference. If we are not sure we can buy more fuel, we NEED to make the most of what we have. When we have to carry cold water and fuel to the stove to heat it, we will be much more frugal.
Choosing the right pots, pans and water heating vessels can make our life much easier than it would be. How do you know if you have never lived without these things? I have a bit of experience to share.
What kind of stoves should we have on hand for cooking and water heating when the grid is down, and delivery trucks may not be coming to our house with propane or heating oil? Miles is the expert on heating, lighting and cooking with kerosene, so be sure to follow the links at the end of this article to learn from him how to use these kerosene appliances, and he will tell you places where you can purchase them too. Single burner stoves range from about $25 to $50, and two burner models are $70 to $100 now at the end of 2008. Larger burners for canning and heating a lot of water cost a little more.
For cooking with the the very least amount of kerosene, my lamp burner powered Kero-Cooker stoves can boil a pint of dry beans, make a small pot of tea, or bake a quart size loaf of bread. Larger versions could be made with utility kerosene heaters intended for chicken brooders. Designing your stove to bring the hot exhaust up the sides of the pot makes it much more efficient. Forget about heating gallons of water to wash up with though.
Pressure cookers are another way to cook quickly with a very small amount of fuel. Unfortunately, when cooking grains or beans, it is possible to have the steam vent clog with particles of food. Pressure cookers have burst, so it is no longer recommended to cook these important foods in them. With very careful attention, you should be able to watch for signs of this happening, and immediately remove the cooker from the stove. My sister and brother-in-law did cook beans and grains this way, but she tells me it didn't happen too often. Of course it is something you need to ALWAYS watch out for. Cooking hot cereal and beans was done for many years in pressure cookers, before it was declared unsafe. Meats and some other foods are still recommended, and large pressure cookers are required for canning all low acid foods.
In late June of 2009, I found the GSI Outdoors Ultra light back packing Pressure Cooker, and I have purchased one from Wiseman Trading and Supply. It is made of hard anodized aluminum, so it will conduct heat very efficiently. GSI claims it will cook foods 66% faster, which sounds correct. They supply some recipes, and Wiseman reports it will cook soaked dry beans or rice in 5 minutes. That would be a huge saving in fuel. My first test was to cook Brown Rice. I preheated the pot, and melted 2 Tbsp. of butter in it, then added 2 cups of Brown Rice, and stirred it to coat and slightly brown the rice. After just a few minutes I added 4 cups of water, and sealed the pressure cooker. It was done in 18 minutes of pressure cooking, instead of simmering Brown Rice for 50 minutes. White Rice cooks in 20 minutes, so it was probably the kind of rice Wiseman Trading had in mind when they claimed soaked rice would cook in 5 minutes. I also did a test with 3 pints of cold tap water, to see how long it took to get up to pressure. With a small size electric range burner on high, it took ten minutes, and after that I could maintain the pressure with the burner control at 30%.
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My favorite cookware is cast iron. The heat spreads evenly, and I love my frying pans and dutch ovens made from this simple and durable material. It does take a lot of heating [and therefor fuel] to get that much weight up to cooking temperature. In the Winter, our wood fired Stanley cooking range is heating the house, so it really does not matter if it takes a little more time to get the heavy cookware hot. When it cools, the heat will go back into the room.
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'Seasoning' cast iron and sheet steel frying pans is simple. Wash it as soon as it has cooled enough not to burn your hands. Mild soap and water is enough. Then re-coat the insides with a very small amount of cooking oil or grease. Put the pan in a warm place near the stove so it dries completely, and does not rust.
Enamel coated cast iron cookware is also available. It seems expensive, but should be easier to clean and care for.
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It helps conserve energy to fry foods on a flat griddle, since it does not have sides to carry the heat away. For efficiency, the food should fill the cooking surface. Cooking on a Wok is similar, but the heat is concentrated in the bottom, center of the pan. Foods which take longer are simply added first. NONE of my favorite cast iron cookware is suitable for frugal summer cooking, when fuel is hard to get or gather.
If your stove has a metal surface to rest your pots and pans on, it is critical that your cookware makes very good contact with the burner plate. Many large pots and canning kettles have corrugations on the bottom, or a raised center. It can take 2-3 times as long to boil water in the same size pot, if the bottom is not COMPLETELY flat, and in full contact with the metal burner. This sounds hard to believe, but try it yourself.
Thin pans can warp, and not sit level on a flat burner. If you are cooking with an open flame directly below the pot, then the exact shape of the bottom of your pots and pans will not matter. If your stove has a removable lid over the fire box, you can get far more cooking heat by removing that lid underneath the pot or pan. If you only have a wood heating stove, and plan to cook on it, you may want to cut round openings for a stove top lid or two. Sheet steel stoves may need a reinforcing ring under the opening to prevent warping. Any good welder will know if you need that or not. He will be able to cut the holes to fit the lids. It may seem hard to believe, but my experience is any one of these small details may allow you to use half as much fuel.
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So what kind of pots and pans are the most efficient cookware? They all must fit the burner's diameter. Too big, and only the center of the pot heats well. Too small, and much of the heat simply rises past the pan. If you are heating a liquid, it should fill the pan 3/4 full or even a bit more if it isn't likely to boil over. You may have a choice of burner sizes available on an electric range or by using a different size kerosene stove or lid opening on a wood or coal range. That would allow you to choose a pot for liquids which is about as tall as it is wide. A really tall pot will loose too much heat from its sides while cooking. A snug fitting cover will also help keep in the heat. For frying use a light weight sheet steel pan. If you prefer cast iron, use a griddle with a lightweight but deep cover.
What are the best materials to make cookware out of? Of course that will be a matter of opinion for the cook and the dish washer too. When it comes to efficiency for heating the food, I find stainless steel pots and pans with a thick bonded aluminum plate on the bottom heat food and water the fastest. They also maintain a simmer with the least heat from the stove. Stainless is extremely durable, and easy to wash normally. Unfortunately, when frying foods, they will stick more than they would to cast iron or sheet steel. Large stainless kettles with the thick aluminum plate underneath are very expensive.
This type of pan was offered for so called 'waterless cooking'. The food is generally soaked before cooking, and most of that water is drained off just before heating. The pan is quickly brought up to a temperature where steam is forming in the pot, and then the heat is reduced to maintain steam for the rest of the cooking time. It takes a little practice to cook the food with out burning it, but it uses less heat, less water, and more nutrition is claimed to stay in the food. I can't say about the last claim, but they are all worthwhile goals.
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The next most efficient cookware is probably cast aluminum. I am not certain having aluminum or the 'miracle' non-stick finishes in direct contact with my food is safe for everyday use. You may not mind though. The heat is quickly conducted up through the sides of cast aluminum pans, and into the tight fitting lids which come with this cookware. The covers are designed with a large contact surface for just that reason. This cooks the food from all directions, like an oven. Even a small alcohol or kerosene stove burner can bake rolls inside of a covered cast aluminum Dutch oven. A lot of the heat will also be radiated from the outer surfaces of the pan. Aluminum is much lighter than cast iron, and if it is without a non-stick finish inside, you can season it with oil as if it were. Some roasters were cast with a Magnesium alloy. I don't know if they are any safer or not.
Thin aluminum pans heat very quickly. In frying pans the food sticks badly and is hard to clean. We have a thin aluminum canner, with a flat bottom. It heats much faster than enameled steel canners with a corrugated surface against a metal burner. I would buy an other thin aluminum canning kettle if I could find one. I don't know of anyone making them today. They are very easily dented, and that could happen in shipping, if purchased on eBay.
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The lowest cost pots and kettles are usually made from enameled steel. Sometimes it is called Graniteware. You can get frying pans too, but I don't think they would stand up to really high heat. Enamelware dents and chips fairly easily, and then will begin to rust. You can buy several for the price of one good quality stainless with a thick bonded aluminum bottom. If you seldom drop things, enamelware will last for many years. It is very popular for poultry roasters, and water bath canners, with a dark blue speckled finish, if you are not sure what I am talking about.
Stainless steel pots and pans with a thin plating of copper or aluminum on them aren't much better than without the extra coating on the bottom. They are much more durable, but I don't think they heat as fast as the cheaper enameled steel.
That leaves glass, and ceramics. They are fine for evenly baking beans and casseroles and inside slow cookers, but not efficient for cooking quickly, and they won't take really high heat.
Regardless of the fuel, most cook top burners, can be turned way down once the food is boiling. For frying, only a short hot fire is needed. This is a big advantage over solid fuels like wood or coal. You have the correct amount of heat exactly when you want it. It makes Summer cooking and water heating much easier.
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For non-electric Summer cooking, I think kerosene stoves are the simplest and least expensive long term answer. You have many models selling for much less than $100 to choose from. Propane tanks used on gas grills should not be brought inside. A camping stove with one pound cylinders is fine for a few days with out power. I do have adapter hoses to use 20 pound cylinders on my camping stoves and lanterns. We have a large wood shed which is open on one side, so we can safely set up our gas grill there each Winter. If you use propane now for cooking or heating, you will have a large tank. If it is nearly full, it should last a very long time for cooking.
It is harder to cook and heat water with solid fuels.You can't quickly turn them down to simmer, and save fuel. For backpacking, a very light weight "hobo" tin can style stove can be made. You may start a small hot fire fueled with dry twigs and debris. Similar commercially made stoves with a fan powered by a battery to blow air into the stove can burn very hot, and very quickly. These were made under names such as Zip Stove, and Sierra. Later versions have been made which will burn a small batch of wood pellets. If you have a pellet stove for home heating, you may want to look for one of these tiny stoves to quickly heat a bit of food or water.
There are commercially made Volcano brand camping stoves intended to be fueled with charcoal briquettes. A Dutch ovens fits down into the top of the stove, and more ovens can be stacked on top. That does make it efficient. Burning charcoal releases poisonous carbon monoxide gas. Charcoal MUST never be burned indoors. As long as you have a supply of charcoal, it makes a frugal and long burning outdoor stove to cook for a crowd. You still cannot quickly turn it down to only simmer. If you burn wood in these, you will frequently have to add fuel. That means lifting off the dutch oven[s] you are cooking in. A propane adapter is available too, and that should be easier to turn down. With these stoves, all three fuels are for outdoor cooking.
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For a quick summer indoor barbecue, we use a Hibachi set in our fire place. Once again, charcoal MUST never be used indoors, but it is a better shape for burning small wood kindling. You can heat a tea kettle and then grill some meat, but that's about it.
A small wood stove is the best of these solid fuel options for indoor family home cooking. They could be set up outside, or on a porch or breezeway for 'summer kitchen' cooking too. Our large Stanley kitchen range weighs about 600 pounds, so it takes a long time to get it ready to cook. The sides are insulated, so the heat is slowly released into the room for summer cooking though. A thin sheet metal stove will heat up quickly, and a cast iron or fire brick lined stove is better for hours of cooking and water heating. An outfitters stove, intended for use in a large wall tent, or a ships cabin stove are two good candidates for indoor summer cooking. One fire can be built, and all the days cooking and water heating be done. Grains can be cooked with boiling water inside a preheated thermos bottle over night, for hot cereal in the morning. You could save tea water the same way. This is MUCH more primitive living than most are used too. Your whole day will center around fire building and these midday cooking and water heating chores. If times become and stay very difficult for a long time, we will all be burning local fuels. A solid fuel fire can be smelled for some distance, and the smoke may be seen for miles. That is an other very good reason to start off burning kerosene or propane.
Burning firewood in an open outdoor pit will waste most of the heat. A fireplace is better, and a stove much better still. Before wood stoves, a farm family in Southern New England would burn 30 - 40 cords of wood a year for all their needs. The houses were not heated much by open fireplaces. Wood stoves dramatically cut that to roughly 8 - 10 cords. Now with good insulation, a tight house, and an efficient stove, we heat and do our Winter cooking with much less than 4 cords and the house is warm, at least during the day time.
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Water heating is a whole different story. Not only is the efficiency of the containers important, they need to be easy to carry and pour from. We use three sizes.
A tea kettle of about 2 quarts, for hot beverages. When your house is pretty cool, you will drink a lot more hot beverages. Ever been camping on a cool night? We can use a small wash basin or dish pan, and top it off with room temperature water.
The next step up for us is a large tea kettle of 4 or 6 quarts. This will do more dishes or a couple of people can wash up with a basin. With a small spout, it is easy to 'scald' utensils when cleaning them by pouring a thin stream of hot water over them. If you are having trouble finding fuel, you probably won't have an endless supply of dish soap either. Lehman's has these large sizes in stainless steel.
Our largest is a four gallon size pan with a bail [handle like a pail has]. It has a hand grasp handle on one side for pouring. This is big enough for a bath or washing clothes. We add some room temperature water too. Ours came from Lehman's Hardware,item #7044, but I have seen them in farm supply stores too. If you live in an old farm house with a cast iron bathtub, you will want a galvanized tub or a small 'sheep waterer' tank for bathing. That cast iron will just absorb the heat. Boy do I know about that one from my experiences as a kid!
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All three have a bail, or swinging handle on top so they can be carried with one hand, and poured easily. With the 4 gallon vessel, you really need the fixed handle on one side for pouring. This water will be HOT. You don't want to spill it on yourself or anyone else. A strong young man may think carrying a canning kettle by its two handles is not hard, but you will need a lot of strength in your wrists to pour from it. Ladling it out is too slow. You need something with a pouring handle.
Your family may be bigger, but before you buy larger water heating containers, remember other people will need to be able to handle them, even if they are small, old or sick with the flu at the moment. Handling hot water will be an everyday chore, you're not just camping over night.
There are two other types of smaller vessels you might choose for heating wash water. Some of the goat milking pails, and some of the commode pails used for collecting waste from bed pans. For easy cleaning, both are usually made with rounded bottom edges without a seam. That way the bottom surface of these pails will rest flat on a burner. Most other pails have a lip at the bottom edge. If the seam overheats, it might leak. There are probably other containers I didn't think of, but you will really want a heat resistant container with a bail and a pouring handle for everyday use. If you find something with the bail, you might be able to drill a small hole for a heat resistant knob such as porcelain on one side. Stainless steel requires extremely hard drill bits, and enamelware will chip where you drill it.
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Large oblong kettles, about 12 X 20 inches, which cover two burners used to be made for heating clothes washing water. Some were made of copper. They are too heavy and awkward to pour from when full. The water is added from a smaller container and ladled out. A boiler drain valve could be added. They can also be used as a giant water bath canner by adding a rack or grate to keep the jars slightly above the bottom.
A simple way to warm some bathing water is to use a dark colored water bag hung in the sun to heat it. These are sold by camping suppliers as 'solar showers'. They come in a wide range of prices and durability. For everyday use get the best, which might be army surplus versions. I would think they could also be hung not too far from a wood heating stove in the winter. It would at least preheat part of your wash water above room temperature. Remember a gallon of water weighs about 8 pounds when choosing the size you purchase.
For both dish washing and hand washing, a round basin with tapered sides allows you to use less hot water. For dishes, a bottom larger than your plates is needed. That way they can rest in the dish pan, and not get stuck against the sides. Smaller plates with raised edges make foods less likely to spill. That will make it easier to keep the table and floor clean. You may be eating more wet foods like beans, and whole cooked grains too. Nylon or Lexan camping 'silverware' is also much easier to wash than stainless tableware. So are the plates made for camping or picnicking. The two kinds of wash basins should be similar, but it is better not to have them the same. Remember, cleaning things REALLY well will be a challenge. Who wants to wash there feet in the same basin as the dishes. Before indoor bathrooms, each bed room normally had a wash basin. You may want a trivet or heat resistant pad to set down a hot tea kettle at each wash basin too.
The next step up in convenience for domestic hot water is a reservoir on the side of your wood cook stove. Small two or three gallon ones are available for outfitter stoves. On a full size cooking range, they are usually at the end of the stove away from the fire box. That way they are less likely to boil away all the water if you are heating the house or need a hot oven for baking bread. That is great in the Winter, but in the summer you would want it close to the firebox. The reservoir usually has a 'door' on top for filling with a bucket, and a small faucet to drain off the warmed water. Some of the better stoves made for large tents have a removable water tank you can hang on one side of the stove when you need it. They are ideal for summer cooking and might be set up in or near a fireplace, or wood stove. Miles has a very nice cast iron 'ships stove' next to his fireplace, as well as a 'trash burner' style stove set up in his largest greenhouse. Both are great for indoor summer cooking.
A small loop of pipe or reservoir near or in the firebox can be connected to a nearby tank, and the water will flow through it because of the heat. This can even work with a pressurized water system, but it should be set up with a pressure relief valve, by a professional. The problem with this is getting enough heat from the stove, without overheating the water sometimes. Lehman's catalogs generally have good information on such systems, and the wood stoves they sell which support them.
An other way to have wood fired hot running water is a tank right in your bath room with it's own fire box, so you can burn it to heat a batch of water in the tank. While it heats the water, it heats the bathroom too. These units are sold for heating hot tubs as well.
To get water into our house, we have back up generators able to run our electric water pump. Our domestic hot water is heated by an oil furnace. The water pump, furnace and washing machine can all be run off the generator at the same time. With a couple hours of gasoline, we can shower and wash clothes.
We also have a basement hand pump which was designed to fill an overhead tank for gravity flow. We don't have the tank, but by connecting the hand pump to the house water system with a 'washing machine hose' we can open a faucet in the house or barn, and the water will come out there when someone is pumping in the basement. It's not regular running water, but it sure beats carrying buckets.
Miles has excellent information on his gravity flow water system and a photo of our basement pump as well. Lehman's Hardware sells all the stuff for hand pumping and heating water, and enough information to get you started hooking it all up.