Off Grid Cooking Solutions, Part 1, by V.W.

Sunday, Apr 7, 2013

About three years ago, my husband and I jumped in with both feet and decided to invest in emergency preparedness and survival skills. It's been quite a journey, and we certainly have learned a lot. My husband's main interests are in security and heating the home, while mine have been food storage and off grid cooking. We make a good team as we rely on each other's strengths and abilities. Although we are not yet at the level we hope to be, we are a lot further down the road than where we once were. I recently taught a small class in emergency preparedness in my community. We live in an area that loses electrical power due to ice storms, high winds, and tornados. After hearing the tale of a neighbor who spent a miserable day and night following a snowstorm without heat or a way to cook, I asked a friend to help me teach a class to demonstrate several different ways to cook and light a home when the power is out. One of the methods we discussed was thermal cooking. What is thermal cooking? Let me give the example of cooking spaghetti. Sometimes after bringing a pot of water to boil and add the noodles, I turn off the heat, put on a lid, and let the retained heat cook the spaghetti. It only takes about five minutes more to cook the noodles this way than if the stove had been kept on high to boil the noodles. I like to do this in the summer to keep the kitchen cooler when temperatures soar.

The technology is not new.  The pioneers practiced a form of thermal cooking called hay-box cooking.  They put their Dutch ovens in boxes of hay, and their food cooked while they traveled. Margaret Mitchell (not to be confused with the author of "Gone With The Wind") wrote a book a hundred years ago called “The Fireless Cookbook” which describes earlier forms of this method and how to make your own.

I also searched the Internet and found instructions on how to make different thermal cookers as well as some demonstrations of professionally made products.  Although I thought it was a great idea, I decided to first try a do it yourself version of the cooker.   It actually worked!  I did a few experiments and was encouraged that this could be done so easily.

At our preparedness meeting, my friend brought her Saratoga Jacks thermal cooker to discuss.  I had previously told her about Saratoga Jacks, and when she and her husband saw what it could do, they bought one.  As her family is large, she chose the larger size, which cooks enough food for 6-10 people.  After seeing it in person and hearing of her experiences (and how it fit into emergency preparedness), we ordered the smaller sized unit, which can cook food for 3-5 people.  We saw an advantage of a professionally made model, and since I usually request preparedness items for my birthday, we bought one.  We couldn’t be more pleased and plan to use it often.

How would a thermal cooker be a benefit to any family or small group?  One of the first things that comes to mind is that in hotter climates (and especially with no air conditioning), you can cook a meal by bringing your food up to a boil in the inner stainless steel pot, pop it in the insulated base unit, and up to 8 hours later have hot food ready to serve.  It definitely would keep the kitchen cooler if supper is started early in the day, therefore not heating up the kitchen in late afternoon.

Other than bringing the food up to a boil for a few minutes, no additional power is needed.  You can leave home, have nothing plugged in, and return home to have a hot meal waiting for you.  Anyone could easily benefit from thermal cooking on a daily basis!
One very nice feature is that the unit is small and portable.  It can be taken in the car, boat, or even on a camping trip. You can avoid eating out when you travel because your food cooks while you drive.  Even on vacation, if a small butane camp stove is used, you can cook up a meal in the morning before you leave to enjoy the day’s activities and have a hot meal ready to eat for supper.

I was secretly a little wary of the taste of the food cooked in the thermal cooker because I have not been a huge fan of crock pot cooking.  I was pleased that you can brown meat, onions and spices on the stove before adding water, tomato sauce, or broth without dirtying another pot.  This is a bit different than a traditional crock pot recipe where all ingredients are just tossed in.   My first attempt was a vegetable beef soup, which was cooked to perfection in 5½ hours.  It was much improved in flavor over the crock pot and the texture of the vegetables was excellent.   And the temperature had only gone down from 212 to 180 degrees after 5½ hours, which was quite hot. 

Some foods, like beans, require boiling for 20 minutes in order to completely soften and cook through.  I also recommend that beans be soaked overnight prior to cooking them.  This is so much easier than keeping a pot simmering for several hours, making sure that the water doesn’t boil out, and checking on it numerous times.  Not to mention how much fuel would be used to keep the beans simmering for several hours.
I can see that I will want to use our thermal cooker on a daily/weekly basis from now on.  I am currently re-working my regular and slow cooker recipes to adapt to my thermal cooker so I can use it to its full potential. 

Both of the large and small units include an optional smaller pot that can be used in conjunction with a larger pot.  Two different foods, such as a stew and rice, can be cooked at the same time.  And as far as capacity, my small unit is listed for 3-5 people.  Without the optional smaller pot in place, it holds about 19 cups.  Depending on the meal, I think I could feed more than 5 people, especially if there were children.
Another nice feature is that a thermal cooker can also keep cold foods chilled.  If you pop the steel pot into the fridge for a while, you can bring foods like potato salad and slaw to a picnic and keep them cold for hours until ready to serve.

One thing to keep in mind with the thermal cooker is that in order for it to retain its maximum heat, it must be filled completely full.  Although you can cook smaller amounts, it doesn’t work as efficiently.  The amount of people you are cooking for regularly would determine the size required.  And they do urge you to have a food thermometer to check the temperature to make sure it is within the safe measure of no less than 145 degrees.  If the food should get that cool, you would need to reheat to insure safety.

A couple of rules to follow are first, use only fresh or thawed ingredients so the unit will retain the maximum heat when in use.  Second, no peaking!  The heat will escape if you open and shut the unit.  You must let the recipe cook the minimum amount of time before opening the lid.  Once the minimum time is reached, then you can serve the food or simply let it sit for up to 8 hours.

In an actual emergency or grid down situation, the thermal cooker would be invaluable.  Not only can it be used on a gas or electric stove or a wood cook stove, you can also use portable butane or propane camping stoves.  And I was so excited when I learned that it can be used with a rocket stove (which I will be mentioning later in this article).  The benefit of the thermal cooker is that it only uses enough fuel to bring ingredients up to a boil for a few minutes and then the meal is cooked without any additional fuel or tending – up to 8 hours later.  This translates into less fuel to be gathered and stored.  It also saves the family from tending a pot when other matters may need attention – especially in emergency situations.

I recommend that you watch a short video at SaratogaJacks.com which demonstrates how the unit is used.  They were nice folks to deal with and shipped my order promptly.  Although there are only a few recipes supplied, they did mention that they are working on publishing a full cookbook.
While my experience is with the Saratoga Jacks unit, there are several other brands available.  You can read reviews on Amazon’s web site and decide which is best for you should you decide to purchase one.   The price of the Saratoga Jacks is around $100 for the large size and $90 for the small.  There was one brand that was about $65, but reviews were not as favorable because the steel pot that you cooked in had a very thin bottom, which people did not like.   I did see other brands, but they were $200 and $275, which is much more expensive.  For about the same amount of money, you could own the Saratoga Jacks thermal cooker and also a StoveTec rocket stove.  In combination, they make an excellent investment in emergency preparedness.

The rocket stove is my other “must have” recommendation in emergency preparedness.  In a previous article published by Survival Blog in May of 2012 “Teach Your Children Well,” I mentioned the rocket stove.  And Pat Cascio did a nice review on the StoveTec for Survival Blog also in May of 2012 should you want to check out what he had to say.  I personally own a 2 door deluxe StoveTec rocket stove which costs about $125, but there are other similar stoves on the market. Two that come to mind are the Grover and the Ecozoom. 

Rocket stoves are being made and sent to third world countries to help provide people with safer and more economical cooking fires. The man who holds the patent to the stove’s design apparently allows different companies to manufacture the stoves to aid in humanitarian efforts.   In parts of Africa, a woman may have to walk for hours just to find wood to cook the family’s meal.  It is very dangerous for women to go beyond their own villages and opens them up to being assaulted.  The rocket stove allows the same meal to be cooked with just a small amount of wood.  In fact, the amount of wood used with the rocket stove is the amount of kindling used just to start a regular cooking fire.  That’s quite a reduction in fuel!

Just like my thermal cooker, my rocket stove is not being saved for emergencies, but will be used spring through fall in cooking up delicious meals.  As the stove is used outdoors, there are only a few days a month where I would use it in the winter.  Thankfully, we have a woodstove in the house to cook on during the colder months should we lose power and not have the option of our regular kitchen stove.

I can use my rocket stove in several ways.  I can simply put a stainless steel or cast iron pot, frying pan, or Dutch oven on the stove and efficiently cook a meal using a small amount of fuel.  The rocket stove is so effective that food can be cooked with only 3-6 sticks that are about 14 inches long and an inch or two in diameter!

But what if I want to prepare something that needs to be simmered for several hours?   My deluxe rocket stove has two doors that allow extended simmering time by closing the top door and using just the coals of the sticks that were used to bring the food up to a boil.

But what if I am not able to watch over the rocket stove because I need to do something else?  That’s where the thermal cooker comes in.   I can bring my food up to a boil in the inner stainless steel pot, using very little fuel, and then transfer the pot to the outer thermal unit to continue cooking for up to 8 hours, which would free me to do other things.

Two tips that I have found to be useful deals with the soot that occurs on the bottom of stainless steel pans.  You can coat the pot or pan lightly with liquid soap so that the soot washes off more easily.  You can also wrap the pot in aluminum foil on the bottom and sides so that the soot doesn’t get on the outside of the pot.

My rocket stove came equipped with a pot “skirt” to direct the heat up the sides of the pot and cook more efficiently. But I recently discovered that the StoveTec corporation has started manufacturing a steel pot called a Superpot that sits securely on the stove and helps avoid tipping the cooking pot over when stirring the contents.   It is made to cook more efficiently than a regular pot because it has its own built-in pot skirt.  It is easily cleaned inside and out, but the unique feature is that the bottom (which becomes blackened with soot) doesn’t have to be cleaned at all.  Check out this nice video on this pot and an explanation of how rocket stoves work.

Because it was out of stock for a time, I was unable to order the Superpot from Stovetec when I needed it, so I looked into another company that sells StoveTec supplies.  The Afterburner Stove Corporation has several really nice videos on YouTube that explains how the rocket stove works.  Topics covered are how to quickly start a fire in the stove, how to fine tune the fuel amount to burn efficiently, how to clean it, what to do about any rust that may form on the cast iron top, how to fix it if you drop it, and two videos on where to get fuel all around your yard and neighborhood to use in the rocket stove.  Since I had gained a lot of invaluable information from those videos, when I found out that they were selling the Superpot and had it in stock, I ordered from them.  They have other educational videos filmed but need to be edited before publication.  I will be looking forward to viewing them as I learned so much from the first ones.  If you are interested in checking the videos out for yourself, go to afterburnerstoves.com.

You may ask why I would want to have to purchase two pots. The thermal cooker would be great to use on days that my fuel supply is low, I do not have time to tend a pot, if I need to leave home, or I want a meal to take with me.  The Superpot is useful to bring larger amounts of food or water (almost 7½ quarts) to a boil quickly, which would be especially useful to feed a larger amount of people or sterilize water.   It also has a safety feature that “holds” it on the rocket stove and isn’t likely to tip when stirring the pot, which could cause burns.  I like to have options.  As the Superpot was relatively inexpensive, about $60.00, I have added it to my supplies.

If you simply want to try out the technology of a thermal cooker or rocket stove without spending as much money, you could make either one very easily.  There are various plans available for free on the Internet.  However, if you have funds available, I recommend purchasing the StoveTec rocket stove and the Saratoga Jacks thermal cooker.  The quality can’t be beat and you should get many years of service from them, regardless if there is any emergency need of them.  I personally own both.  I am not affiliated with these companies and am not receiving any compensation from them.  I just believe in these products and wanted to share my experience with them.

My research of finding alternate cooking methods brought the Coleman Camp Oven to my attention.  What do you do when you want to bake bread, muffins, biscuits, meat, or even lasagna?  The camp oven can help.  It is a metal box with a rack inside.  It folds down flat when not in use.  The oven can be used on an indoor wood stove, but it can also be used outdoors on camp stoves or the rocket stove.  It is fairly inexpensive, about $35, and is completely portable.
I understand that the temperature gage on the oven is not very accurate, but purchasing an inexpensive oven thermometer that is placed inside will take out any guess work.  The oven is not large, and you do need to have baking sheets and pans that will fit inside (8x8).  Since this method is not as consistent as a home oven, some practice would be advised prior to actually relying on it.  The reviews on Amazon were very helpful and gave several tips should you want to explore this option.

I urge Survival Blog readers to become proficient in using their emergency prep items, especially where meals are concerned.  In an emergency situation or where power is out for weeks at a time, a good meal can give strength, courage, and boost morale.  Take the time to fine tune your skills and recipes.  They will be invaluable should disaster strike.


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