Now You’re Cooking With Wood!

“Cooking with wood” was a phrase from my childhood meaning you are doing good or doing it right. I guess that’s because nothing in the world taste as good as food cooked on an old wood cook stove. Today I will touch on something every homesteader is knowledgeable on, and that is all the things involved in heating and cooking with wood.

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I grew up in a home that used wood as fuel for multiple purposes. We used wood in the fireplace and in later years in a wood heater to heat our home. We used wood to cook on in our wood cook stove. We used wood outdoors to heat the cast iron kettles when cooking down lard, boiling clothes or scalding a hog. Us kids used wood in our camp fires. Wood was used at times in the shop either to stoke the forge or to burn in an old metal barrel to stand around and warm our hands. All used different woods, curing and sizes of sticks. We usually cut our firewood in the late summer and early fall for the next winter. Wood needs to dry out and cure for about a year to make good fuel. Green wood does not burn well or at all depending on the type tree you were cutting. Green wood is smoky, and will cause lots of carbon, creosote and ash build up in your chimney or flue which can lead to chimney fires. However a big half cured log makes a good back stick due to it’s slow. smoldering burn rate. (A back stick or back log is a stick of wood as big as you can get in the fireplace that you put in the back of the fire at bedtime to hold coals until morning. It will burn slowly and after all the smaller wood in front of it burns out, the back log will fall forward and usually smolder through the rest of the night.) Dry, properly seasoned wood will burn even, clean and with very little smoke. It also will burn hot.

The best woods in our area were oak and hickory. It was a good curing wood that burned well and would last. Pine was too fast to burn and messy. It also gummed up the chimney.  Ash, elm, and pecan were ok, but not very common. Sweet-gum you can’t split with dynamite until it dries a few years and you can’t burn ironwood with a blowtorch. I guess we burned everything from oak to willow at some point, but we all preferred a good straight oak or hickory tree for fuel wood.

Heating wood was large sticks. If it wasn’t over eight inches or so we didn’t split it, just burned it whole. We only split the largest pieces. Heating wood needed to burn at a good heat and burn steady for long periods of time. Stove wood had to be shorter and needed to be about two fingers wide, so we split it pretty small. In cooking with wood you regulate your heat by how much fuel you are burning and how fast you let it burn. Nothing like just setting a dial on a modern stove. Cooking with wood is I think as much an art as a skill. The fuel wood for using under the kettle needed to be fast burning and packed tight, so we used very short and very long pieces there. It has to be bone dry and a fast burning wood like pine was ok outside. All the scrap pieces were used in the shop and for kindling.

We used several things as fire starter. The old stand-by was lighter knot or fat-wood as some called it. We kept a little stoneware crock full of it on the hearth. To start a fire you just shave a stick, lay the curled shavings in the grate and light it then add the piece you were shaving off of then add smaller pieces of firewood until it was burning good. We also used dry corn cobs, pine cones and twisted corn shucks at times. After I got older i had a tiny gypsy kettle with a lid about eight inches across that I would fill with sawdust and then add about a cup of kerosene or lamp oil to. After a couple of days it made the best fire starter. I’d just open the kettle, put a spoonful on the grates, strike a match to it and have a good roaring fire in minutes.

I remember getting up in the dawning hour and throwing my clothes on as fast as possible and running like a banshee to the living room to stand in front of the fireplace until the house warmed up. Pa always got up and built the fire up before they woke us up, but that old house didn’t hold heat well and it took quite a while on cold mornings for the fire to knock the chill out of the air. You would cook one side and freeze the other then turn half around and do the same to the other side, In the old house you had to watch where you stood too. The old nail heads in the floor would heat up much hotter than the wood around them and if you stepped on one of those hot nail heads you might burn a nice blister on your bare feet. I guess on cold winter mornings we must have looked like a comedy troupe. All us kids trying to avoid stepping on a hot nail head while twisting trying to warm both sides and trying to squeeze each other out of the way so we could get closer to the fire – all while trying not to catch Pa’s eye.

I can’t find a picture right now of my cook stove, but here is a video of the day Pa bought it at auction from his father’s estate. I am the fourth generation of my family to own this stove. It was bought used by my great grandfather, then bought by Pa who left it to my Mom who passed it on to me. Right now it’s still at my Mom’s house in Mississippi until I get ready for it. It is a cast iron and porcelain stove with both wood and coal grates and the top warming closet. It was made by Martin Stove and Range in Florence Alabama, which was only about 30 miles from our home. Today, after generations of use, it’s still perfectly functional and in near mint condition.

We used an old Sthil  chainsaw to cut our wood, but Pa made us cut a few trees with the old cross-cut saws just to show us how they had to do it back in his day. We cut any trees on the farm that were dead, dying, wind damaged or just needed to be removed. We also used any large limbs that we had to cut away from the house or off a fence for firewood. We also sometimes got a permit from the paper timber company to go in and cut up the tops they left after cutting saw logs and pulp wood. At home we burned about five cord of firewood every winter, but with the following winter’s wood out there curing, there was usually at least ten cord in the wood pile at any given time. A cord of wood is a stack of two foot sticks that are stacked four feet high and sixteen feet long. Needless to say, we had a large woodpile.

I’ll never forget the taste of Ma’s big ole cat head biscuits warm from the wood stove. The smell drifting through the house was heavenly. She would put beans on and let them simmer all day until they started to fall apart. She made the most wonderful cookies she called “tea cakes”. Cobblers out of peach, blackberry, apple and cherry. Everything taste so much better on wood. I don’t have many pictures for wood, but maybe someday I can see if my Mom has any and post them.

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