Summer Cooking

Greenpa asked me to talk about how we cook in the summer, and that's a very good subject to talk about - what does a woman who "dances with wood" and cooks on a wood cookstove all winter long do in the summer?  Well, part of the answer is that when we're lazy, we use the electric stove that came with the house. Now from an environmental standpoint, electric stoves are a pretty lousy option.  Using electricity to create heat mostly means burning coal in the US.  Now my family purchases renewable electricity and also my region uses a fair bit of hydro-power, but that's something of a grey area in a state where functionally there is not enough renewable energy to meet the demand for it - ultimately someone is burning coal if we're using our local renewables.  So even though there's a case for our electric usage, we try to keep the electric stove use to a comparatively minimum.  As Greenpa himself has written, choices of fuels for cooking are complicated.

We do a number of things to keep inside temperatures down.  First, we eat cold food as often as possible in hot weather - salads, sandwiches, cut up fruit for dessert, hummus and bean dips, cold legumes, etc...  During winter our "default" (ie, I'm too lazy to think about anything creative)  meal is often soup cooked on the back of the stove or baked potatoes with steamed greens and some kind of sauce.  In summer it is large salads with a mix of whatever greens and veggies are in the garden, and various other stuff - fruit, cooked beans or lentils, cheese, hardboiled eggs or what have you.

Next, when we do cook, we build summer fires in our wood cookstove when the temperatures are reasonable.  What you want in a summer fire is a very small, hot fire that heats mostly directly above the firebox.  I'd tell you how to do this, except my experience is that it is very different with different types of stoves - it is one of those things that I learned to do by practice, and it is very hard to explain exactly how it works - what you want generally is a lot of small pieces of very dry wood, and to aim your draft so that almost no heat is going towards the oven.  This is somewhat different in my Waterford Stanley than in a friend's Pioneer Maid or an older stove that another friend has, so I'm not sure I can usefully explain how to do it.

But what if you want to bake?  Well the trick then is to do your cooking very early in the morning or at night, and to watch the weather forecasts.  Our woodstove oven can take four loaves of bread at a time, so I do eight loaves at a shot (most people probably don't have six sons who eat like Huns in their house and may have to bake less often ;-)), starting the fire at 5:30am when we get up (if you were a night person, you could do it at night, but I'm too sleepy to remember to take bread out of the oven on time at night).  Where we live you can often also count on a day in any given summer week that is cool, rainy and dreary enough that a fire is not a horrifying idea, but that's certainly not true everywhere - and it isn't even true here during the hottest part of the summer.

I do as much cooking ahead as possible early in the day, and as much as possible ahead on cool days if the forecast looks hot.  I try to think ahead about meals whenever possible, so if I'm going to run the cookstove I'll be cooking beans for the next day's tacos, boiling potatoes for salmon cakes at lunch and making dessert for the day after tomorrow if I can pull it off.  It doesn't always work, but whatever I can do ahead of time (as long as it is the sort of food that holds up), I do.

We have a very good solar oven - The Global Sun Oven - that I use whenever the weather is sunny enough to get temperatures up.  In hot places, these are perfect substitutes for the oven in many ways.   Consider Chile's log of her sun oven usage.    Up here in upstate NY, we can't do that all year round, but there's much we can do that is worth doing.  I try to have my sun oven in use every day that it is possible, and am at least heating hot water for tea and cooking in it.  We use it a lot to hardboil eggs, cook beans, steam potatoes and for any recipe you'd use a crockpot for.  I do bake in it occasionally, but it doesn't do well with bread - biscuits or cookies are more viable.  Still, even far northerly folk like us can save money, electricity and heat in the house with one of these - they are usable here into mid-October most years, and as early as mid-April, although most years (this one excepted) I can't bake reliably until late May.

We do some outdoor cooking - we have a propane grill and every year we make a small firepit for open outdoor fire cooking.  I will admit that we do the latter more for the kids than to save heat - it is really about the fun of cooking things over open flame and modelling fun stuff like dutch oven campfire cooking, rather than being a significant energy-saving practice for us.  A fair number of the things cooked on it are also ummm...not the most sustainable, in that I do feel that as long as they are available, kids need occasional summer infusions of S'mores.  Something about carbonized marshmallows and chocolate stains says "childhood" to me.  We do use them for good stuff, though - for example I love roasting peppers and eggplant in late summer over an open flame.  Nothing else tastes that good.

Our rocket stoves are also in summer use for when one wants a quick cup of tea, a boiled egg, etc... I don't have a large one right now that can really make a dent in the quantity of cooking that a variable household of at least 8 requires.  It is on my to-do list for this summer - something along the lines of this:

That's actually the limitation of most of this - with the exception of open-fire stew and hard boiled eggs in the sun oven, I just don't have ENOUGH cooking equipment to really feed my fairly large household plus the guests we have regularly (summer interns, friends, family visiting, etc...)  That's one of my upcoming projects - another sun oven, and a bigger fire pit, and some other infrastructure for larger scale outdoor cooking, so we can move things outside more.

My eventual goal is an Earth Oven like this:

We had a very primitive one some years ago, but it fell to a combination of weather and goats climbing on it, and I really want to build one under shelter in a goat-free location, but I never seem to get around to it.  But it is in the plans...

If I had to do entirely without the fossil fueled items (electric stove, propane), I'd want the rocket stove and the earth oven badly enough to actually get them done - which means I should just get them done.  I'm putting them on my "take seriously" summer project list now.    Also on my dream list is some kind of summer kitchen - even a sheltered spot with a pump, my earth oven and the rocket stove.  So far, it has just never made the high part of the project list.

So how about you?  How do you cook and keep the heat out of the house?



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We have a small rice/veg steamer with a timer that gets us through the summer with much less BTUs than the electric range. Yes, it's plastic, but our 19.95 Sunbeam lasted for a decade and is now in the greenhouse helping make compost tea starter. When its rice dish gave out, we found we could do rice just fine in porcelain bowls.

The new one, a Black & Decker, really the same price at 25.95, runs on even less electricity. Brown rice in 45 minutes, white in 35, chopped potatoes or carrots or a small roast or all of the above in 35, dense vegs or cooked cereal in 20, leafy vegs in 10. There are dents in the bottom of the "basket" for propping up our duck or chicken eggs for hard-boiling.

Yes, it uses electricity; we're mostly hydro here and our family checks off the Wind surcharge on the co-op billing. We do use a lot of raw & cold as well, munching right across the garden being one of our hobbies.

In winter, everything moves to the wood stove. It's not a range, alas, but it has a flat top, and is kept busy passing much of its home heat through dish water, sink-bath water, tea water, hot cider, soup, pumpkin for the poultry, pumpkin seeds for snacks, bread in the flat-bottomed Dutch oven, etc. Shelves nearby are handy for drying food or boots and gloves, raising dough, or dehumidifying kindling.

We do a lot of solar dehydrating and hope to try out our solar oven if it ever stops raining. ^_^

By risa bear (not verified) on 05 Jun 2012 #permalink

During the summer, we're lucky if it cools down as far as 80 at 5:30am, so there's no way I'd be firing up a wood stove indoors. Not that I have one... they are pretty rare here.

Summertime is time for raw veggies and fruits. Meat generally gets cooked on the grill or in the rice cooker; I will sometimes fire up the oven to roast a chicken since I have yet to get the "feel" for my grill well enough to maintain a steady temp.

When I do cook, I cook a lot and then either eat leftovers cold or reheated in the microwave. I won't put meat in the microwave since it makes it rubbery and tough, but grains and such do quite well.

I've love an outdoor oven and a real fire pit, but I'm not sure where I'd put one anyway!

I took note of your comment about building a summer kitchen eventually - perhaps subsequent to creating the rocket stove and the outdoor oven. You might want to actually move the full summer kitchen up the list. My grandparents had one at their small farm when I was a youngster (back during WWII) and it worked great. It was in a pavilion sort of structure; roofed but open-sided, situated just off the back porch and included an area designated as the summer "dining room". Spent many a summer evening there.

I'm using my solar sun oven almost daily. I use a rice cooker for beans and my morning porridge. We have a 7.5kWh solar-array (grid tied) that off-sets most electrical usage.

I also have a "ramada" for my outdoor grill and smoker. I build a fire using dead fall (we have years worth) in the fire ring close by & transfer hot coals with a shovel. Want to add a rocket stove as when we begin processing a few chickens I want to use the rocket stove to keep the scald water up to temp. To get it up to temp, I'll be using my indoor propane stove/oven combo. We have to get everything outdoors done by about 10:30 am or we're doing it in 95 degree heat and high humidity. Wish my lettuce would grow in June & July, and I'd eat salad three times a day!

When the children were small, a pasta salad would last us 3 days. Elbows with mayo or sour cream, cooked a huge batch, each night add tuna or shrimp or hardboiled or deviled eggsto that' night's sevings-plus a small can of peas or garbanzos in the pasta.
Now that I have discovered stirfry, we use our ricecooker and just have the stove on long enough to stirfry dinner.
Lauren- HOW do you use a rice cooker for beans?? I have a small - 2 qt- crockpot I use for beans after their fast soak..Love me some rice and beans for dinner!

By Mitzi Giles (not verified) on 05 Jun 2012 #permalink

Wood from October thru April, propane May to September.
My annual propane use is less than 40 lbs and wood for heat and stove less than 2 cubic yards.

Easy to prepare, one pot meals all year.

It's just the two of us. We use our BBQ a lot in the summer. We just invested in a medium Big Green Egg so we can move from propane to lump charcoal and the other BBQ will expire soon. It's also going to be used for baking. I've got a summer supply of granola baked up on cool raining days and stored in quart canning jars. I have a 4 qt thermal cooker I use a lot year around: bring whatever to a rolling boil and then place it in its stainless steel Thermos sleeve. I passed on my rice cooker once we got it. An investment but the thing will last me the rest of my life and I'll pass it on to my son. Brown rice cooks in forty-five minutes with it and you never have to worry about scorching. I also use it as a yogurt maker -- three pint jars in a hot water bath over night. And just about anything liquidy that you can cook in a crock pot you can cook in this. Yes, a hay box will work too, but I don't have convenient (as in, if it's readily at hand I will use it) storage space for it.

This is our fourth summer of solar cooking. My brother has built three versions of solar ovens from cardboard, insulation and sheets of mylar. From about mid-April until mid-September the solar oven is set up in the driveway right outside the front door. It can easily reach 400 degrees but I try to keep it at 350 or less to protect the oven. This latest version opens from the back so the reflector does not have to be removed to access the food.
We also use what we call a fryer which is a cooking surface with a hole in the middle where the pan sits and a mirrored reflector below which focuses the sun on the bottom of the pan. This is great for boiling water (especially nice when I am canning) and stir-frying vegetables. The latest version of the fryer is made of metal because it is too easy to set the wood fryer on fire if you aren't constantly monitoring the angle of the mirror.
Solar cooking is very successful here (the Sierra Nevada foothills - elevation 2800 ft.) for the summer because we almost never have clouds. The oven works pretty well even with occasional clouds because it can retain the heat. Rain is the only problem since it is made of cardboard. In spring and fall we put the oven on the porch if it looks like rain. In winter we store it away in the garage and use the electric oven in the house.
Below is a link to pictures of some of our solar cooking projects.

Mitzi - I heartily recommend the book "The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook" for anyone who owns a rice cooker. (There's a bean cooking reference chart on page 209.)

Beans are cooked much like rice. Most beans need 3-4 cups of water to a cup of beans and set on the regular cycle (or just "on" for an on/off cooker). Add herbs but no salt or acid since that makes the beans tough and increases cooking time. You can add that later.

How long depends on the bean -- anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours -- but basically you cook until soft and be sure that water covers the beans at all times. If you need to add water, add boiling water.
A few sample times:
Black beans, 3-4 cups of water for 75-90 minutes
Lentils, 2-3 cups of water for 30-40 minutes
Kidney beans, 3-4 cups of water for 60-75 minutes
Pinto beans, 3-4 cups of water for 1 1/2 - 2 hours

It summer and most of my cooking is done in the solar oven. I do but some snacks from the local Mennonite store, so not everything is solar. I have 3 solar ovens and can cook enough to get me through a rainy day. I cook crackers, which store well. For breakfast, I cook wheat berrys in a mason jar and it will keep overnight.

For backup, I make small fires burning weeds ( last years stems of poison hemlock, goldenrod or lambs quarters. I also have an aladdin kerosine lamp, but it heats up the house. I use it mainly in winter. I built a stand for it to hold a pot. It provides light, heat and cooking.