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Practical Cooking Options During Serious Hard Times

Copyright June 2, 2014 by Robert Wayne Atkins, P.E.
All Rights Reserved.


During serious hard times many families will have limited financial resources and they will have to do some things differently than they did before.

However, some things will not change. For example, we will still need water to drink and we will still need food to eat.

The purpose of this article is to review some of the options for cooking food during serious hard times.

Cooking food is not the same thing as heating canned food that has already been cooked. Some practical options for heating precooked canned food are on my website here.

Cooking Fuels

The area in which a family lives will have a significant impact on the types of cooking fuels that are available to that family. In addition, the income of each family will determine which cooking fuels it can afford and which ones may be too expensive for the family to use.

Let's briefly look at the following six cooking fuels:
  1. Electricity:
    The major advantage of using electricity to cook food is that it does not create smoke that needs to be vented out of the cooking area.
    The major disadvantage of electricity is that it is the most expensive method of cooking.
    Electricity can be economically used to power electrical appliances such as clocks, televisions, and computers.
    However, electricity is an expensive way to produce heat for stoves, ovens, electric frying pans, or for heating a home.
    If a family has limited financial resources then that family will not be able to afford to cook using electricity. Even if a family is producing its own electrical power using solar panels then that family will quickly discover that their solar panels cannot produce enough power each day to cook one meal per day. Therefore the family will use the electricity produced by their solar panels for more practical applications that yield higher benefits using less electricity.

  2. Natural Gas:
    Using natural gas to cook food is a very practical way to cook if the following four conditions are met:
      a. Natural gas is available in your area and at your home.
      b. Your cooking appliances are designed to use natural gas.
      c. The supply of natural gas during a serious hard times event is steady and dependable.
      d. You can afford to pay for the natural gas.
    If the above four conditions are met then a family will be able to use natural gas to cook their meals. However, during a serious hard times event the availability of natural gas may become erratic and undependable, or a family may not have enough money to buy natural gas. In these situations a family will need to use a different cooking method.

  3. Propane Gas:
    Using propane gas to cook food is also a very practical way to cook if the following three conditions are met:
      a. Your cooking appliances are designed to use propane gas.
      b. You have a large propane storage tank at your home (250 gallons or larger), or you have one or more 20 pound portable refillable propane tanks.
      c. You can afford to pay to have the propane gas delivered to your home, or you can afford to have your portable propane tanks refilled at a propane refilling station.
    The advantage of propane gas over natural gas is that you can purchase portable propane cooking stove tops that can be attached to a portable 20 pound propane tank. This would give a family the option of taking their portable cook stove and their portable propane tank with them if they were forced to relocate.
    The disadvantage of propane gas is that it may become unavailable during a serious hard times event and a family may be forced to use a different cooking method.

  4. Coal:
    If the following three conditions are met then coal may be used to cook food:
      a. Coal is available for sale in your area.
      b. You can afford the pay for the coal and have it delivered to you home.
      c. Your oven is designed to burn coal. This is important because when coal is burned it can reach significantly higher temperatures than wood when it is burned. Unless your oven can withstand the additional heat produced by coal then you could seriously damage your oven, or you could set your home on fire.
    Coal is heavy and the price of coal includes the cost of transporting the coal to your home. If you live close to a coal mine then coal may be a feasible cooking fuel for you to consider.
    When coal is burned it produces smoke that contains soot and the smoke and soot must be vented out of your home. However, some of the soot will escape into the air inside your home each time you open the oven door to add more coal to the fire. This means your furniture, your ceilings, your walls, your floors, and your windows will gradually become covered with soot unless you invest a reasonable amount of your time cleaning up the soot residue on a periodic basis.

  5. Wood:
    If the following four conditions are met then wood may be used to cook food:
      a. You live in or very near a wooded area.
      b. You know how to safely cut down a tree, how to allow the tree to season on the ground before you cut it into firewood, and you have the strength and the tools to cut the tree into firewood.
      c. You are able to move the firewood from where it was cut to a storage location within a few feet of your home.
      d. You have a wood burning oven that is properly vented to the outside so that the smoke can be safely exhausted from your home.
    The above assumes that a family will be using wood because it grows on their land.
    If a family has to pay for their firewood then that family will probably discover that propane gas cost less than firewood and that propane is easier to use than firewood.
    When you are finished cooking with propane then you can simply turn off the propane gas.
    But if you are cooking with wood then you have to wait for the wood to gradually burn up even though you are finished cooking. You can't extinguish the fire inside the oven with water because the water will crack the hot oven. You can close the air vent into the lower part of the oven and the fire will gradually stop burning due to the lack of oxygen but this still takes some time.

  6. Solar:
    As already mentioned, it is not practical to use solar panels to collect electricity and then use that electricity to cook food.
    However, the sun can be used to cook food if a family uses a solar oven.
    The advantages of a solar oven are:
      a. The sun is a free source of energy. If you live in an area that receives good sunshine throughout the year then a solar oven may be a very practical way for you to prepare food for your family.
      b. You can build a solar oven yourself for less than $100, or you can purchase a high quality solar oven for several hundred dollars.
      c. Foods that take thirty minutes or less to cook in a conventional oven can usually be cooked in a solar oven in one hour or less.
    The disadvantages of a solar oven are:
      a. The cooking temperature inside the solar oven will not remain constant the way it does in a conventional oven. The temperature inside a solar oven will increase and decrease while you are using the oven depending on how you have the oven tilted up or down, how the oven is positioned right or left in relationship to the sun, and whether or not some clouds occasionally block the sun while you are cooking.
      b. The cooking time inside a solar oven is not as predictable as with a conventional oven. This is due to the temperature variation inside the oven as explained above.
      c. If you start cooking on a bright sunny day and clouds gradually start to block the sun then your meal may not be fully cooked at the end of the day.
      d. To achieve the best possible cooking temperature inside the solar oven you must change the position of the solar oven approximately once per hour so the oven is facing directly at the sun.
      e. A solar oven is normally used from about 10 AM in the morning until about 3 PM in the afternoon. During this part of the day the sun is at its best position in the sky to raise the temperature inside the solar oven to 200 degrees or higher so that food can be cooked.
      f. A solar oven cannot be used at night, or in the early morning to cook breakfast, or late in the afternoon to cook supper, or on overcast days, or on rainy days, or on snowy days.
      g. A solar oven by itself is not a dependable way for a family to cook food on a daily basis.

Cook Stoves and Ovens

Now let's look at a several different types of cook stoves and ovens.

  1. Portable Gas Stove: Although a family may not be able to afford electricity or natural gas for cooking in a regular stove, they may still be able to cook using a portable camping stove. These small camping stoves are designed to use either propane gas cylinders or unleaded gas (or Coleman Liquid Fuel). The "Duel Fuel Cook Stove" in the picture below uses either unleaded gas or Coleman Liquid Fuel.
    In you do not already own one of these camping stoves and you are seriously considering one, then I recommend the propane gas stove instead of the unleaded gas stove because propane gas in many areas is cheaper than unleaded gas.
    If you have a propane gas camp stove that uses the small 16.4 ounce propane gas cylinders then you should consider purchasing a special attachment for your stove that will allow you to use the 20 pound propane tanks instead of the small propane cylinders. Depending on where you live you may discover that the 20 pound propane tank refills no longer contain 20 pounds of propane. Instead they only contain 15 pounds of propane. This reduction in the amount of propane per tank allowed the propane company to raise their price on propane while maintaining the illusion that the price had not gone up since the price of a 20 pound tank was still approximately the same. It just contained less propane. The propane company justified this practice based on safety reasons but most people realize that the propane company is simply trying to hide the increase in the price of propane. If you take your empty 20 pound propane tank to a location that actually refills the 20 pound propane tanks from their own 250 gallon tank, such as most camping trailer parks, then they will usually refill your tank to 20 pounds because they charge for the amount of propane they put into your tank.

    Coleman Stove Cast Iron Stove
    Dual Fuel Cook StoveWood Burning Cast Iron Cook Stove

  2. Wood Burning Fireplaces and Cast Iron Cook Stoves: Firewood, fireplaces, and cast iron cook stoves, such as the one in the above picture, are discussed in detail on my website here.

  3. Cast Iron Dutch Oven: If a family has access to firewood, then a six-quart Dutch Oven (see picture below) is a very practical and dependable way to cook food. Detailed information about cast iron cookware is on my website here.

    Picture of Box Containing a Dutch Oven 6-quart Oven with Lid
    Picture of 6-Qt. Dutch Oven Box6-Qt. Dutch Oven with Lid

  4. Campstove or Camp Oven: If a family has access to a renewable supply of wood then cooking with firewood is a reasonable option. The nice thing about cooking with wood is that it works in good weather and in bad weather. During cold weather firewood can also help to heat your home. However, during warm weather the heat from a fire is not desirable inside a home. During warm weather our ancestors usually moved their cook stoves outside and they cooked their meals outside on their stove to keep the temperature inside their homes from becoming unbearable.

    Coleman Camp Oven Camp Oven Closed Camp Oven Open
    Small Folding Camp OvenLarge Camp Oven ClosedLarge Camp Oven Open

    There are two basic types of Campstoves or Ovens. The smaller ovens usually have folding sides, tops, and bottoms, so the entire oven can be folded into a thickness of about 3 or 4 inches. The smaller ovens usually have a baking compartment that will accept cook pans that are about 8 inches square or about 8 inches in diameter. The smaller ovens usually have one shelf so you can cook a food item that is about 6 inches tall.

    The larger ovens do not fold up. The black oven in the above picture has outside dimensions of 21.5 inches wide from left to right, 14.5 inches deep from front to rear, and 15 inches tall from top to bottom. It has two shelves and you can cook on both shelves inside the oven at the same time. The baking compartment will accept cook pans that are approximately 18 inches wide and approximately 12 inches deep. The position of the center shelf is adjustable in one inch increments from the bottom to the top inside the oven. If you remove the center shelf and only use the lower shelf then the cook pan can be approximately 11 inches high. The temperature gauge on the front of the oven goes to 500 degrees.

    If you purchase a camp oven then you could cook over the coals of a campfire. However, never place the oven over the flames of a campfire. The flames will damage the oven.

    The bottom of a camp oven is vented and it will allow the heat from some red hot coals to enter the baking chamber of the oven. When the inside of the oven gets hot, the outside of the oven also gets hot. Therefore be very careful and don't touch the outside of a hot oven with your bare hands or you will burn yourself. If you need to move or rearrange the hot oven then use kitchen cooking mittens or hot pads to move the oven.

    There are two ways you can cook over the coals of a campfire as follows:
      Method One: Dig a fire pit or a round hole about 24 inches in diameter and about 6 inches deep. Dig a side trench about 6 inches deep, 8 inches wide, and about 20 inches long from the outside edge of the campfire. After some of the firewood in the fire pit has burned down into red hot coals, use a camp shovel to move some of the red hot coals into the side trench. Then place the camp oven above the coals in the side trench with the back side of the oven pointed in the direction of the fire pit and the front of the oven pointed away from the fire. The front of the oven should be about 2 inches beyond the end of the trench so the red hot coals do not release their heat directly onto the front face of the oven. The temperature gauge on the front of the oven will show you how hot it is inside the oven. If the oven is too hot for what you wish to bake, then use your camp shovel to pull some of the red hot coals out from under the oven and back towards the fire pit. If the oven is not hot enough then transfer some more red hot coals from the fire pit into the trench below the oven.
      Method Two: Dig a cooking trench about 6 inches deep, 8 inches wide, and about 6 inches longer than your oven from front to rear. Build a campfire on level ground about two feet away from your cooking trench. After some of the firewood has burned down into red hot coals, use a camp shovel to move some of the red hot coals into the center of your cooking trench. Then place your camp oven above the trench with the front of the oven about 2 inches beyond the end of the trench so the red hot coals do not release their heat directly onto the front face of the oven. There should be about 8 inches of open trench at the rear of the oven where you can add more hot coals under the oven to increase the temperature inside the oven, or remove hot coals from under the oven if the oven temperature gets too hot.

  5. Solar Oven: If a family lives in an area that receives good sunshine throughout the year then solar cooking may be a practical option. However, some days are cloudy. And it rains or snows on other days. Therefore a family could not rely exclusively on the sun to prepare their meals. Each family would need to have an alternate method of cooking during bad weather or on overcast days.

    Ogininal Oven with Wood Frame Painted Oven with White Frame Painted Oven Reassembled Aluminum Panels Exteneded
    Original Sun Oven Disassembled
    Showing Top Wood Frame
    Oven with Wood Frame Painted White Oven Reassembled with Glass and Reflectors Top View of Oven with
    Reflectors Fully Extended

    Instructions on How to Build Your Own Solar Oven: The following two websites provide instructions for building a do-it-yourself solar oven.

    Companies that Build and Sell Solar Ovens: A comparison of several different models of solar ovens is at the following link:

    Let's briefly look at two of the solar ovens mentioned at the above website:
      Sport Solar Oven (Combo Deal = $199.95):
      Weight 10 pounds. Outside dimensions 27 inches long, 19 inches wide, and 10 inches high.
      Pots 10 inches diameter and 4.125 inches tall.
      Cooking temperatures in excess of 300 degrees will damage the oven.
      Their oven temperature thermometer is a separate item that is not attached to the inside of the oven.
      I strongly recommend that you do not invest in a Sport Solar Oven.
      American Sun Oven (Combo Deal between $320 to $399): See the above pictures.
      It is well insulated and it does a good job of maintaining the cooking temperature if the sun is shining.
      The gasket around the top of the oven does a very good job of sealing the glass top to the oven chamber and this keeps the heat inside the oven where it belongs. The gasket does not warp or crack like the gaskets on other brands of solar ovens.
      It can be easily tilted so it points directly at the sun through the use of an elevation or tilting mechanism on the rear of the oven. This allows the oven to be quickly pointed directly at the sun during all four seasons of the year.
      It has a free-swinging leveling device inside the cooking chamber. The leveling device works automatically to keep your pots (and your food) level regardless of the position of the sun in the sky and the angle at which the sun oven is tilted to point directly at the sun. This keeps the food in the pots, or on the trays, so that the food does not spill over the edge of the pot, or slip off the sides of the tray, onto the interior of the oven.

    My Comments about the American Sun Oven:
    I painted the top wood border of the new Sun Oven white because the oven is used outdoors in the sun and the sun will slowly turn the wood gray.
    I was not successful at always being able to predict whether or not the sky would be relatively cloud free all day.
    On some bright sunny mornings I started using the Sun Oven early in the day and the sky remained clear all day and the Sun Oven worked extremely well, except it did take about 30% longer to cook a recipe when compared to a conventional oven.
    On other bright sunny mornings I started using the Sun Oven early in the day but after about one hour some clouds started moving across the sky and the temperature inside the Sun Oven dropped each time a cloud blocked the sun. On one occasion the clouds covered the sun about 50% of the time and the food I was trying to cook inside the Sun Oven did not get completely done by the end of the day. During normal times a person could finish cooking their food inside a normal oven. But during serious hard times this might not be an option and the family may have to throw the partially cooked food away because it is not done and it may not keep overnight.

    Solar Oven Summary and Conclusion:
    The major shortcomings of a solar oven, as I have already mentioned, are as follows:
    It cannot be used to cook breakfast early in the morning.
    It cannot be used to cook late in the afternoon, or at night, or on cloudy days, or on rainy days, or on snowy days.
    Therefore a solar oven might be okay as a backup method of cooking but a family should not depend on a solar oven to do all their cooking chores.

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Grandpappy's e-mail address is: RobertWayneAtkins@hotmail.com