I just love cooking on my four burner natural gas kitchen stove. I equally enjoy cooking on my propane BBQ that burns my chicken and steaks just right. I simply love to cook. But what happens when I have to go to the tried and true method of preparing food over an open fire. After all, the propane will eventually run out and the service to my gas main might experience an outage. I might be on a camping trip and have the hankering to cook something more complex than beans and hot dogs. Heck, what if the grid does go down and wood is the only way to get the pots hot in an emergency. Yup, I’ll need to collect some wood and get things going the way all of us did not so long ago. I’ll need to burn some wood and create a meal fit for a family. Just the thought of this reminds me of the romantic nights in front of the fire in a campsite roasting marshmallows. It also reminds me of all the wood I had to go through just to get a decent amount of heat going not to mention how much my clothes stank from all of the smoke. Funny how the wind somehow always blows the smoke in your face making your eyes look like you’re a reject from Dazed and Confused. The reality of cooking over an open fire present itself with some challenges that needed to be overcome. So, with that smoke in my clothes smell on my mind, I put on my research cap and set myself down behind the laptop to poke around and see how cooking with wood is done. After a few minutes it was painfully clear that there is a better way. The rocket stove.
People have been cooking on rocket stoves for centuries and with incredible results. The idea is so simple that not coming up with it myself was sort of embarrassing. You basically have a horizontal shaft that leads into a vertical shaft surrounded by insulating material. You feed wood via the horizontal shaft, it burns at the elbow and the heat goes up the vertical shaft. Put your pot on top of the stack and your cooking food. What is amazing about these stoves is that the air is sucked in the fuel shaft from the heat and the smoke (unburned fuel) is recirculated and burned out. This means that this design burns super clean with very little smoke. The drawback on this type of stove is that they are built on a large scale measuring about three feet long and four feet high. They are also mortared in place and are completely permanent in the location that they are built. For me this violates two basic principals that I live by: make it portable and make it even more portable. There is no way I am going to construct one of these in my tiny backyard and no way am I going to make one for a campsite. I most likely would build one for a permanent camp or homestead environment but that is not the situation I’m in. I want to cook on wood, go portable and keep the smoke down. Dang, more research.
StoveTec Rocket Stove
I didn’t take much more time on the internet to find this little gem. The StoveTec rocket stove. Yup, someone made a portable wood burning rocket stove. Normally I would just look at the design and try to make one for myself, but at the price (which was not that bad) and moreover for the reason that the stove was created made me whip out my credit card and place an order. From what I understand, the guys at StoveTec created this stove as a submission to solve the problem of cooking pollution and scarce resources in Africa. Women in Africa cook on wood and have to hike out miles to find cooking fuel. On their treks they are subject to the elements and to rape from heartless criminals. If they do get their wood home to cook with, they often cook indoors and or in closed cooking areas. This leads to carbon monoxide poisoning and results in the deaths of thousands. StoveTec came up with a portable wood burning stove that not only burns cleaner but burns less. Great concept in the African wilderness and a great cause. But I needed to see what it would do for me and if it would cook foods that I am used to eating.
With the order placed and credit card hit, I waited for it to come to my door. Luckily these guys are out of Oregon and I live in California. They shipped fast and I didn’t have to wait long. A few days later the very cool looking box (which I used for kindling) arrived and I broke it out. Everything was in perfect order and I called John up to let him know we needed a test run. Later that week we decided on a menu. Carnitas. Before I knew what I was in for, we decided to meet at his place and put the stove to a test. Now I love some good carnitas tacos. I actually consider myself a carnitas connoisseur as I love the dish and I live in Southern California which is a hot bed of Mexican yummies. I now know why I pay a premium for good roasted pork. It takes hours to make it. You have to slow cook the pork until it basically fails apart and then fry it. A serious test for the StoveTec. With all my kit in hand I headed to John’s.
We set off on this journey with the stove, five quart cast iron pot, four pounds of pork shoulder and a bundle of fire wood. I won’t go into depth about the design and look of the stove as a picture speaks a thousand words, so just have a look at the pics to see the actual stove. However, I will tell you how we got the thing going with some surprising results. We set the stove up in the middle of John’s backyard and did the very important step of preparing the fuel. We put aside some tinder of dried willow and hay, some small twigs and split some of the fire wood baton style with the Cold Steel Bushman. We split the wood into about one by one inch rods that we would feed into the ire box. With all of the fire box and coal doors open we placed the tinder into the fire box. John started the tinder up using his fire steel (in proper bushman fashion) and it quickly went a fire. We soon added the dried twig and had a nice starter fire going in a few minutes. We then placed a few of the split log pieces on the feeding tray and were amazed at how fast and how hot the wood took. In about five minutes we had a good flame going and decided that we needed to get the iron on the fire. In under ten minutes the contents of the pot were boiling hard and the meat was already turning color.
This is the point when things got to be a little, and I mean a little, on the attentive side. You should, of course, never leave a fire unattended. In this case, you need to constantly push the fire rods into the fire box or the fire will go out. Every ten minutes or so we had to push in the fire sticks to keep a good burn going. Not a big deal. But with a recipe that called for a four hour cook time, I could see how we would be spending a lot of time feeding the fire. What was amazing was that as the fire burned, wood coals would be created and would drop to the bottom chamber. This kept the heat at a simmering level. Although we didn’t need to, we added a few charcoal bricks to the coal chamber to keep things going. At this point we had to add less and less wood to the fire box. Eventually we just let the coals do the work. After four hours on the fire, we found that we used just two pieces of split firewood to get the pork cooked and falling apart. This was a four hour process. The pot skirt that comes with the stove really came in handy and directed the heat around the sides of the pot and not just on the bottom of it. This made simmering a snap. We decided that the meat was soft enough and drained the juices from the pot. We then took off the lid and flipped it over. The lid doubles as a fryer. This is when we added more wood to the fire box to get the temperature really going enough to make for a good frying fire. It didn’t take much and we scorched two sets of meat in under ten minutes. Remember, this is four pounds of boneless pork shoulder we’re talking about.
The meat was out of this world. This meal was one of the best carnitas set ups I have ever had. Coupled with salsa made from tomatoes and jalapenos from John’s garden, we were in heaven. I did notice during dinner (which we had outside) that the stove put off a lot of smoke as the fire was dying. No worries. I just dump a shovel full of dirt in the fire box and the smoke went away. Later, after the stove cooled, I just dumped the contents of the stove into the compost pile. The ash drops the ph level and keeps the bad bacteria down in the compost. Win win.
In short, the StoveTec cooked a great meal with very little wood fuel and almost no smoke. I mean, you can’t cook with it inside obviously, but my clothes didn’t stink and none of the neighbors complained about the smoke. This thing is efficient and is better for the environment than a traditional open fire to cook with. It is also completely off grid. Mind you, this is a biomass stove, so that means it will work with any biological fuel source. Wood, grass, dried food waste, etc. Heck, you could roll up newspapers and cook with it. I do recommend using it with the included pot skirt to improve efficiency and to use a cast iron cooking system. The cast iron holds heat better and distributes heat more evenly than a standard steel or aluminium pot/pan. Also, have all of your fuel ready to go. Have the tinder, kindle and main fuel ready before you strike your first match. This is just common sense. All in all, the StoveTec was a winner and well worth the price for its efficiency and portability. It is smaller than a five gallon bucket and can easily be moved by one person even when burning (but be careful). With this first success, I already have visions of cooking a Thanksgiving turkey and having a serious pioneering feast.
You can view and shop all of StoveTec products at www.stovetec.net or just submit questions and comments to Modern Bushman in the comment box below.~ Adam, Modern Bushman >