This article, in a slightly different version was published by Back Home Magazine
How we found out about the rocket stove and why we started using one:
I first learned about rocket stoves when my husband Ross Conrad and I were traveling in North Carolina to spread the gospel of organic beekeeping. Ross is the author of Natural Beekeeping now in it’s second edition. We were staying with some friends who knew about our primitive lifestyle, how we live in a yurt, off the grid, with no electricity or running water. When the conversation came around to cooking I explained that we cook over a simple campfire, a hole I had found, lined with stones, and stacked cinder blocks on either side to hold up a scavenged grill. Joe, our host was surprised we didn’t use a rocket stove, which he explained used much less wood and was less polluting. This captured our attention, especially Ross, as he is always very concerned with conserving wood and producing less pollution. I am just an out right fire lover. To me there is nothing wrong with fire, not it’s appetite for wood, nor it’s mosquito-repelling smoke. I saw no need for improvement. But I was intrigued to learn that the rocket stove was a simple technology that anyone one can put together and use to solve the problem of wood scarcity and a smoky environment. And also that several charities promote the rocket stove in Africa where these problems are serious issues for the health of people and the forests. Apparently the rocket stove, with the help of these charities has established itself as a real winner for the kitchen both indoors and out. Why shouldn’t we be taking advantage of the same low-tech miraculous rocket stove that makes it possible to cook a meal with only a few twigs? Ross was getting excited about building one of these energy conserving, environmental rocket stoves for cooking. Immediately following that conversation we watched a few You Tube videos about how to make and use a rocket stove.
Our rocket stove, and how we built it:
On our return home I went to our local wood stove store and bought twenty-one firebricks as specified by Ross for his new project. He leveled the ground, laid a slate slab down as a base, and stacked the firebricks to form two chimneys for a two-burner rocket stove. For structural support and thermal mass he added six cinder blocks around the outside. We started using it immediately. There are fancier rocket stoves, some that are even quite pretty to have on the deck or in the yard, but since we are building our lives without any sort of back up infrastructure we tend to take quick easy solutions and this version of the rocket stove fit the bill.
The benefits of using a rocket stove:
Ross loved it; because we could boil water and cook with a few sticks gathered from the woods we live in. We still had lots of extra cordwood around for the campfire pit, from clearing the woodpiles that we made while clearing the land for our house site, so I kept using the campfire and lots of logs more often than not. I just love sitting by the fire and piling the grill with skillets and kettles, letting things cook while I do other things, and stoking it up with more wood from time to time. But finally our campfire cordwood got used up and I found myself foraging in the woods for fallen branches, and scraps of birch bark. I started using the rocket stove and realizing that while it doesn’t have the ambiance of the campfire it is more efficient. Using a rocket stove saves the work of cutting down trees, drying and storing cordwood. Being able to gather enough wood, just a few fallen limbs, from the forest floor at anytime for cooking on the rocket stove is a clear benefit. Ross says that sometimes the stove makes a sound like a rocket taking off when the fire is going good. He thinks that may be why it’s called a rocket stove. I haven’t heard the sound and I’m not sure how it got its name. I suspect it’s the “L” shape of the chimney. At any rate it certainly puts out less smoke than a campfire and if we wanted to keep our outdoor cooking fires secret, without sending out smoke signals; the rocket stove would be key.
The rocket stove was developed to aid people in poor countries where wood is scarce, or becoming scarcer because so many people are using so much wood for cooking. Currently many people living in Africa and parts of Asia use rocket stoves, to replace the open fires they previously cooked on, and these fires were usually inside the house. The practically smokeless rocket stove is much safer than an open fire in the house. Before use of the rocket stove many lives were lost to the continual inhalation of toxic smoke. There are now a number of charities operating in various countries training local people to make their own stoves from locally salvaged materials such as old food tins, clay, bricks, and rocks. This has led to a speedy proliferation of rocket stoves. The rocket stove has also spread to America and Europe as part of a developing ecological movement as they are understood to be a source of clean, sustainable, efficient heat.
The outdoor summer kitchen, and cooking on a rocket stove:
We have had to do some “reskilling”, that is learning how to do things in often old-fashioned ways. In the winter we cook on our woodstove, and in the summer we use an outdoor kitchen. Since eating is something you do everyday, three times usually, the process needs to be uncomplicated. Our outdoor kitchen consists of: Two picnic tables scavenged from an elementary school that was about to throw them away, the stone lined campfire pit with grill as described earlier, some portable outdoor chairs, the rocket stove, a metal can for rocket stove ash disposal, and a wood pile, ash shovel, and bellows kept under a tarp.
While our yurt is too small to have more than two quests at a time comfortably, the outdoor kitchen is perfect for having larger gatherings. We also use a different set of pots and pans for cooking outside. The cookware gets very black after a few uses directly over the fire and it is easier to keep the house clean in the winter if we put the charcoal black stuff away. Occasionally if is rainy we use a Coleman camp stove under a canopy. It burns white gas that we have to buy so that is a last resort. A canopy over the rocket stove and woodpile would be an excellent addition. For a refrigerator we have a camp cooler. During the summer we exchange a defrosted ice pack from our cooler for a frozen one from a neighbor’s freezer each morning. But we have also learned that we can keep things cold by putting them in a bucket of cold water from the well. The water from the well is always ice-cold. Or sometimes I put a jar of milk in the creek to keep cold. We live close to town and shop for food often so we don’t need a big refrigerator. The rest of the kitchen stuff is inside and that does make it a bit more troublesome to cook a meal, going back and forth for ingredients. Sometimes we team up to cook, so that one person can be like the souse chef and keep bringing stove-ready ingredients out to the other person. There are many improvements we could make to our outdoor kitchen, and our to our rocket stove, and we will improve it as time goes on and keep an outdoor kitchen even after we build our cordwood house because it is fun and just seems right to cook outdoors.
To start up the rocket stove, have ready some dry sticks of wood: The largest diameter would be about 2 inches, next have some medium and very small diameter sticks and twigs. I also like to gather some birch bark as it makes getting the fire started easy, but you can also use paper for starter. In the bottom opening put your birch bark or paper down first, then the smallest sticks, with a couple of larger ones on top. Light the paper or birch bark and if everything was dry including the stove itself it should start burning nicely. Now you are ready to put your pot of what-have-you on to cook. We don’t have a trivet yet, but that would be the perfect thing to keep your pot above the flame without suffocating the fire. Instead we stack up broken pieces of slate to serve the same function. Now keeping the fire going and your stew stewing requires more attention than cooking over a campfire, because you have to keep adding more little sticks about every five or ten minutes. We have a two-burner rocket stove, but we don’t usually use both burners at once because it is too much work to keep two stoves going at the same time. Instead we use the second burner as a way to avoid cleaning out the ashes every time – just move on to the next burner. Then you have to clean them both out. You might be able to get away with not cleaning out the ashes once, but the fire won’t start well or keep burning well if the firebox is full of ashes. From these minor complaints you can see why I still use the campfire sometimes. The campfire is good for cooking more than one dish at a time and for dishes like beans that take a long time. Beans can take three hours or more to cook and I don’t want to babysit the fire for that long. I have other things to do.
I like to use a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven over the fire because it heats slowly and evenly, which is what you want when there is no dial to turn the flame up or down. Of course you can still control the heat of the rocket stove somewhat. For boiling water you’ll want to put a lot of wood in, add some from the top too, so that flames actually hit the bottom of the pan. For sautéing all you need is some barely flaming sticks and coals in the bottom of the stove. We tend to cook simple meals on the rocket stove that work well with our simple kitchen. Mung Dal from Madhur Jaffrey’s World of the East Vegetarian Cooking is an easy red lentil soup; it only has a few ingredients so as long as you have a fresh ginger on hand and some spices it’s a simple dish to put together. When we make it we put all the ingredients in at once, then cover and simmer till done. Dal goes well with rice or potatoes. One pot cooking is what I look for in dinner ideas.
Tempeh Rueben open face sandwiches:
These are another favorite of ours. Slice a piece of tempeh horizontally to make thinner slabs then cut into squares to fit your bread slices. Brown the tempeh in a hot oiled skillet. We use toasted sesame oil, olive oil, or coconut oil. Add a dash of hot sesame oil for extra spice and flavor. While the tempeh cooks add a dash of soy sauce or Bragg Liquid Aminos, ume plum vinegar, and brown rice vinegar on each side. Put the tempeh aside when browned on both sides and fry up some toast in the same skillet, it’ll be flavorful and salty that way. Or you can toast the bread by conventional means if you have them. Mix up a sauce using half ketchup and half mayonnaise, about one tablespoon of each for each sandwich you make. Spread the sauce on the toast and put the tempeh on top, then add more sauce on top of the tempeh and add a thick layer of kimchi. Enjoy.
A country omelet:
Another simple dish we often cook on the rocket stove for breakfast is a “country omelet.” To make this we heat up our largest cast iron skillet with two heaping tablespoons of coconut oil, add one chopped potato, one chopped onion, a handful of chopped shiitake mushrooms, a couple cloves of minced garlic, and a chopped chunk of ginger, cook this mixture until the potatoes are browned and cooked through. If you have kale on hand chop it up and toss that into the skillet as well after the potatoes cook. Stir up some eggs with a bit of milk, a dash of salt and pepper, and some chopped fresh herbs if you have any at your doorstep. Pour the eggs over the potatoes and cover. Have slices of cheese ready. Turn the omelet over when only slightly liquid on top, place the cheese slices on, cover the pan and peek in on it every other minute to see if the cheese is melted and it is done. Good Morning!
So you see the rocket stove can be inexpensive and easy to build, efficient to use, and can complete an outdoor kitchen. In times past it was very common to have the kitchen outdoors, less chance of the house catching fire, or overheating the indoor space. There may be some wisdom in this worth going back to. If you live in the woods like we do it is pleasure to be called outdoors to a kitchen where you can cook and commune with nature at the same time.