Breaking Out of the Hot Box
Just like our interaction with light, our interactions with cooking have been radically altered by modern technology. Whereas cooking once was a convivial and often community-oriented activity, these days people enjoy microwave “meals” prepared in a moment. In the past, much cooking was done outdoors or semi-outdoors. Now, other than when grilling, most meals are prepared deep within the bowels of people’s homes.
Why cook beyond the kitchen? Outdoor and semi-outdoor cooking has many benefits. In the summer, cooking generally takes place during the warmer hours of the day, causing an internal battle in the house between the air conditioning and the cook, significantly increasing energy use and utility bills.
History shows that people once understood that not all cooking tasks fit the family scale, inside the family kitchen. Historically, many farms had both indoor and outdoor kitchens, the latter extremely useful for feeding seasonal help, putting up the summer and autumn bounty, and accomplishing tasks that were especially sweaty and smelly (like butchering large animals and rendering beef and pig fat into tallow and lard). Communities had shared outdoor cooking locations such as fire pits, smokers and masonry ovens. Often a chore that is unpleasant to accomplish indoors becomes quite enjoyable when pursued outdoors.
While most modern homes and their plots of land don’t have the space for an extra, outdoor kitchen, everyone can take advantage of various ways to cook beyond the four walls of the standard kitchen; these range from the familiar to the new fangled. Some are incredibly simple, such as merely relocating your crock pot outside or on a back porch if weather permits. Some are simply historical, such as fire pits and similar methods that have been used for thousands of years. Others require investments that most people find worthwhile for years or decades to come.
CHARCOAL AND WOOD GRILLS
Grilling is the most common outdoor cooking experience most Americans are familiar with. If you elect to go with charcoal rather than gas, a few small changes can help protect your food and family from toxic chemicals sometimes used in charcoal grilling.
A charcoal chimney starter can replace lighter fluid (whose strong smell is indicative of the various chemicals it contains that can contaminate your meal during start up and cooking) for starting the fire.
Lump charcoal is to charcoal what real milk is to conventional milk; that is, the original fitting thing to use. Most modern charcoals are made from sawdust and thus contain a mix of additional binders and chemicals.1 Lump charcoal is just charred wood, and, for those who want a fun do-it-yourself project, can be made at home and in some parts of the world is still a family, community or village task. Unlike its modern, highly processed counterpart, lump charcoal is not uniform in heat output so it requires a more attentive grill master.
There are also stoves that utilize wood pellets instead of charcoal. While these are superior chemically (the pellets are made using just water and the naturally occurring lignin in the wood), the production of these pellets takes tremendous amounts of energy and their price is both volatile and high.2
Gas grills now dominate the grill market, mainly because of fast and easy start up and excellent temperature control. To impart flavor as in charcoal and wood cooking, chefs often add hardwood chips to their gas grill. Doing so safely requires care and experimentation, but allows gas grill users to enjoy some of the culinary benefits wood brings to the dinner table.
Bobby Flay in Boy Meets Grill expresses his preference for gas grills, because, he says, “the real flavor boost (from grilling) comes from marinades and seasonings, and from quick searing directly over a very hot fire—which a good gas grill does as well as charcoal.”3
Another “beyond the kitchen” cooking option is a solar oven. A solar oven is any cooking apparatus designed to collect and focus sunlight to create sufficient heat to dehydrate, dry or cook foods. These have the added benefit of having no continuing energy expense to use, either via purchase, production, or collection and little maintenance if well built and cared for.
We own a Sun Oven and have been very happy with its performance, even in the spring and fall. We have successfully cooked winter squash, and potatoes, have dried and toasted nuts, and done a variety of other tasks with it. In an emergency, solar ovens also provide a way to disinfect water, with most of the major brands including a water pasteurizing indicator tool for just such a purpose.
Solar ovens have two main drawbacks. First, the oven needs to be realigned every so often to ensure maximum solar gain. It cannot be set and forgotten for multiple hours. Some people get around this challenge by buying or building a platform that slowly turns or realigns the solar oven with the sun for them.
Second, in some parts of the country, hot and sunny don’t always go together, and without adequate sun, a sun oven becomes at best a sun warmer. In Kentucky, we often have partially cloudy or rainy days that are nevertheless very hot, rendering our sun oven unusable.
Depending on the size of the solar oven you build or buy, cooking volume could be an issue. The one we currently own lends itself to large, but single pot type meals, or cooking single side dishes (a few spaghetti squash, a batch of baked potatoes, etc.), or two smaller sides. With a family of six, we often find a large model very helpful to successfully and easily prepare whole meals.
Another excellent outdoor cooking option is a rocket stove. Rocket stoves utilize small amounts of marginal fuel sources with a smart design to create incredible amounts of cooking heat. Corn cobs, twigs and sticks, dried manures, and other sources of carbon will all create more than sufficient heat for cooking.
I have successfully cooked a three-part meal on our rocket stove using nothing but a small bundle of twigs or branches from the woods by our house (hamburgers, hash browns, and rice and beans). Another advantage to a rocket stove is the high portability and low weight, making them appropriate for camping and travel.
Rocket stoves have two main drawbacks. First, they are generally designed to accommodate only a single skillet, pot, or pan at a time. We often use a large cast iron skillet which allows us to cook a few foods side by side. But generally they are used to make one-pot camp-type meals.
Second, they consume fuel quickly, needing attention every few minutes to keep the cooking temperature even and the fire going. Thus, even more so than with a solar oven, rocket stoves are not a “set it and forget it” way to cook.
DO-IT-YOURSELF OR PURCHASE?
Unlike modern kitchen appliances and gas grills, plans abound for building your own solar ovens and rocket stoves, even covering models designed for heating your entire home. If you are very handy and have lots of scrap materials available, a little do-it-yourself may be appropriate and enjoyable, especially since you can build it to a size that best fits your needs. For instance, a farmer friend of mine built a solar oven specifically for cooking various types of produce before feeding them to his chickens and worm compost systems.
But for many people the pre-made models are often the best choice, as they come with tested designs and instructions to achieve success right out of the box and are designed with safety in mind. So you can either build or buy depending on your personal resources and skills.
IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COOK: LOW-COST OPTIONS
An outdoor kitchen doesn’t have to cost a fortune. The fire pit, almost as old as cooking itself, is a simple way to prepare foods. Such a setup can range from a simple hole or trench in the ground to a stone- or brick-ringed circle of various sizes and heights and can provide a means to smoke, roast, braise and stew (using a cast iron Dutch oven).
For the exceptionally ambitious, numerous plans are available for outdoor cook areas that will cover a wide range of needs for just a few hundred dollars. Mother Earth News has free designs for an attractive multipurpose outdoor masonry oven, smoker, and grill setup that costs under two hundred fifty dollars.4 Chelsea Green and numerous websites have books and plans that cover how to build traditional earthen ovens, again, at very low cost. A number of farms in our region use these earthen stoves for baking traditional sourdough breads and meal preparation.
Couple one of these with a simple covered structure to provide protection from rain and inclement weather, and you will enjoy years of outdoor cooking and all the benefits it brings.
MAN DOES NOT LIVE BY BREAD ALONE
Regardless of the outdoor cooking options you pursue, having alternate means of cooking outside your home has multiple benefits, from helping you enjoy more time in the fresh air and sun to providing alternate means of preparing food in an emergency or saving money on utilities when things are tight.
As the last decade has shown again and again, indoor cooking, while convenient, is not certain. Hurricanes, earthquakes, severe storms, brownouts and blackouts, and other issues can make indoor cooking impossible or unsafe, forcing your family to cook outside the box. It is best to have options in place and learn to use them now, both for food and heat.
So take some time this summer to cook beyond your kitchen.
COMPARISON OF GAS VERSUS CHARCOAL VERSUS WOOD
|Starts up easily and heats quickly||Takes time to heat up||Takes time to heat up|
|Must purchase fuel||Can make own charcoal or buy lump
|Fuel is inexpensive and widely available|
|Imparts little to no flavor to foods||Some prefer the taste||Selection of wood allows for culinary
|Approximate cost of $1/hour of cooking||Most expensive fuel||Least expensive if self-harvested, varies
|Most expensive grill||Less expensive than gas grills||Less expensive than gas grills|
RESOURCES FOR PURCHASE AND DO-IT-YOURSELF PLANS
There are a few major builders of solar ovens and rocket stoves for the commercial market:
Rocket stoves have many more options, including some newer models that even allow for indoor use:
For do-it-yourself types, some excellent resources for building your own solar oven or rocket stove include:
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer2013.