Cooking with the Earth and Sun!

Brown Gas Range at Lehmans.com

The Brown gas ranges at Lehman’s in Kidron are truly power-free! Learn more at Lehmans.com.

There is a gas stove in my kitchen.  It runs on propane.  If the power goes off, a match can light the burners.   The oven is a different matter.  It has something called a glow plug that uses electricity (and a lot of it!) to maintain the temperature in the oven.  It doesn’t light with a match and cannot be used in a power failure.  I’m not fond of it.

The stove that was in the house when we bought it was a mess.  The oven door was propped up with a stick and I was afraid it was going to blow up at any moment.  Besides, there was some rather disgusting stuff stuck all around the oven.  (I don’t mind a dirty oven, but only if it’s MY dirt.  At least I know what it was.)  When I raised the cooktop to examine the gas jets, I found mouse dirt. Yes, mouse dirt!  That stove was one of the first things to go.

When I first started looking for a replacement stove, I was warned about the glow plug and how houses with solar power really shouldn’t have them because they are a drain on the system.  We actively looked for a stove without the glow plug.  At the appliance store, we talked to the salesman who assured us that this stove didn’t have a glow plug.  Being newbies, we didn’t even realize that it actually did have one until the generator started coming on when I used the oven at night.  Too late to return it, I was stuck with an oven that could only be used during the day when the sun is shining and solar power is coming in.  Otherwise we’re buying more and more propane to keep the generator running.  Ouch!
I started thinking about the dilemma.   There had to be a better way.  What if there was no stove?  Or no propane?  What would we do?  What about summer and heating up the house with the oven?  I started looking for alternate methods of cooking.
Lodge Dutch Oven

A flat-bottomed Lodge Dutch oven, available at Lehman’s in Kidron, Ohio, and Lehmans.com.

The first thing that came to mind was the dutch oven.  I have a few of them and I don’t need the range to use them.  Often I put them inside the wood brning stove.  If we’re just heating something, putting the small dutch oven on top of the wood stove works just fine.  But what about summer? We are in Arizona, after all.

Our very insulated house stays moderately cool in the summer, but even using the stovetop during the day heats the place.  I almost never use the stove in summer. When it gets used, it’s only the stove top and only at night when it’s cooler.  Even then, we try to keep stove use to a minimum.
Here's my brick-lined fire pit with Dutch oven tucked in and ready to cook.

Here’s my brick-lined fire pit with Dutch oven tucked in and ready to cook. The garbage can lid is peeking in at right.

Trying Pit Baking

I dug a pit outside in a planter and lined it with red bricks and cemented the whole thing together with hydraulic cement that dries very quickly.  I built a fire in the pit and when the coals are ready, I place the dutch oven on top of them.  The pit is covered with an old bent garbage can lid (repurposed) that allows just enough air into the pit for slow cooking.
There are all kinds of things that can be cooked this way.  Just about anything that you would cook in an oven or crock pot can go into the pit.  I haven’t tried to bake in the pit.  I have one of those big dutch ovens with a rack that goes in the top, though, so this summer, I’m going to try biscuits or something in the top with a stew in the bottom.  I would like to be able to bake a cobbler in the pit as well.  Until now, it’s been only main dish meals.  I’ll keep you posted on that when I try it.  Meantime if any of you know how to bake a cobbler or pie in a pit, please let me know.
All-American Sun Oven

Lehman’s in Kidron, Ohio has an oven like mine, the All-American Sun Oven. It’s at Lehmans.com too.

Firing Up The Solar Oven

The next thing to try was the solar oven.  When we first moved here, of course, we had to have one!  As it turns out, we really like it.  So do our other residents: when my horse was still wild and running loose, he liked the smell of the brownies that were in the solar oven and he tried to steal the whole thing.  I caught him before he destroyed the oven, but not before he made a big mess of the brownies.
The solar oven bakes cakes, bread, pies and it does a fine job.  Although I have used cast iron in it, the ideal pans are granite ware, the speckled enameled pans in either black or blue.  They absorb the heat and are lightweight so they heat quickly.
I put the oven outside first thing in the morning and face it south and leave it for most of the day in the winter and at least until 1:00 or so in the summer.  It depends on what’s cooking.  You cannot burn food in a solar oven.  (Some things have dried out pretty badly, but it was because I forgot about it and it was out there all day.)
A standard oven thermometer placed inside is useful.  I can see the temperature and make a good guess at how long the food should be in there.  We can use it year round, because daytime winter temps aren’t subzero here.  Daytime temps of 30-50 degrees haven’t affected it.  Subzero temps may slow it down a bit.
“Crock” Flower Pot
The last of my alternative cooking experiments is the flower pot.  It’s used indoors, in any weather.  My flower pot is my crock pot.  It works for a lot of things.
I have a huge plastic flower pot that will hold up to 2 dutch ovens (stacked) and a lot of insulation (towels, bathmats).  I fold a bathmat in the bottom.  Then I overlap two bath towels on the sides.  Then I heat up whatever I’m cooking on top of the stove.  I get it going to a good boil and then set the dutch oven down in the flower pot and wrap towels around it.  I insulate it further with another couple of towels and a bathmat on top and leave it for about 5 hours.  Everything cooks.  I usually use this for things like rice, tapioca, and vegetables that take a long time to cook like potatoes.  I tried it for beans, but that experiment didn’t work. Lentils and blackeyed peas work fine, though.The flower pot method takes no power after the food’s packed into the pot, and you can leave it and go to town without worry that the house might burn down.

If you don’t have a big flower pot, you can use a garbage can, deep washtub, or just about any container that will hold your dutch oven and all the insulation  You can even use a cardboard box.  As for the insulation, I like old bath towels and bathmats.  You can also use blankets, rugs, fabric, old clothes and even tightly wadded up newspaper.  Just pack it all in tightly and be sure to insulate the bottom as well as the top and sides.  The flower pot cooker is best made of stuff you have around the house.  No need to spend money on it.
So, we only use the “inappropriate for here” oven when we have to since we figured out how to get around using it most of the time.  I can keep my house cooler in the summer and not use electricity and propane for baking unless I really want to.  Angel food cake has to be baked in the oven, but that’s worth it.  Yum.
I recommend alternative cooking methods to save money and to keep from burning things.  If you are busy like me, you may not have time to watch the food cook.   The only methods that have to be watched are the ones involving fire.  The solar oven and flower pot methods can be left without worry of burning.  Because they use no power, they reduce the cost of meals, too.  Everyone likes a bargain.