Leaving your old range behind can seem like an adventure to some. But, when it comes to sustainable, low cost, off grid cooking options, there is a wide variety of tasty and fun options that will make you wonder why you ever cooked with electric at all.
How to cook off grid. The best way to cook without electricity is with locally available fuels such as: wood, charcoal, methane (from a digester), or solar cookers. These can be used with a variety of commercial or homemade stoves and ovens.
If that sounds interesting, there are quite a variety of inventive ways to use materials that you can get cheaply or for free to cook without electricity. In this article I’ll go through many options.
Amazing Ways to Cook Without Electricity
Fire is the primary way to cook off the grid. Even if you do have solar, wind, or hydro power available, the cost of off grid electric ovens can be prohibitive. Not to mention, it’s good to have back up methods in case of unforeseen problems when living self-sufficiently.
The fuel source are the first consideration, and is most commonly wood or brush. Many homesteads have woody plant matter available in abundance, or can get it cheaply from local forests. Wood cooking is well understood, and produces flavorful foods.
Another, very interesting, is a methane (aka Biogas) digester, which is essentially a compost pile in a giant plastic bag, barrel, or other container, that catches and stores methane for use in a gas stove. This system can utilize manure, foods waste, and even sewage — turning it in to gas to cook with and fertilizer. There are even accounts of the Germans using this gas to power tractors in WWII. And, there are quite a number of commercial scale Biogas plants still operating in Europe that produce electricity from farm waste
A third option in areas without much plant life is to cook with the power of the Sun. Solar ovens and dehydrators are easy to make DIY, and are also offered commercially by a number of manufacturers. While the cost of the fuel is entirely free, these designs are not the easiest to cook with, and may not be suitable for cloudy or dark climates. However, can be an efficient harvest time addition when Sun is plentiful and you have a lot of food to preserve all at once.
Off Grid Wood Ovens and Stoves
The most ancient and well understood method off cooking before electricity is certainly wood fires. For the off gridder, there are quite a few commercial and DIY wood stove designs that make a good backup or full time cooking method.
Wood is good for off grid, because in many situations you can get wood for free or cheap, and potentially harvest it directly from your own property. But, it does take some skill to build a fire in a run a wood stove that you may need to develop if you are used to typical gas or electric ranges.
Rocket stoves, cousin of the rocket mass heater, are easy and cheap to build DIY single burner stove options. Although there are commercial metal versions available online, rocket stoves are so easy to build than unless portability is a premium, there is no reason why you wouldn’t consider building one yourself.
The fastest way to build a rocket stove is to pile up bricks (see photo above). This can be done in a matter of minutes, no mortar or cement necessary, and is ready to light. You also have the option of packing up or storing the bricks out of the way and moving them back in place later.
Any type of bricks will work, but standard bricks will probably not hold up long term to repeated usage. A better alternative is fire bricks, which can be bought or ordered though any local home improvement store, but will cost a bit more than standard red or cement bricks. If you intend to mortar your stove together for a permanent installation, you should definitely use fire brick and refractory cement to avoid your stove crumbling over time.
Another slower but free option is to build up a cob rocket stove. All this takes is clay mud, grass/straw, and a little patience. See video below. A dry and covered cob rocket stove will last ages, but if that is too much trouble you can
Rocket stoves are great if you need a simple a cheap extra burner or a few during those heavy harvest months where it is comfortable to cook outside and you have a lot of canning, cooking, preserving to do!
A Lorena stove is another invention of Ianto Evans of the Cobb Cottage Company. It is another variety of earthen stoves, of which there are many incarnations. Essentially, these constructions are stove size boxes of earth, clay, straw, and potentially rocks and brick to help speed up construction. These stove have long horizontal fire boxes / flues that expose a number of open holes in series that are used for heating. Finally, the smoke is exhausted out of the building through a chimney, often a inexpensive traditional metal stove pipe, although it can be made out of cob/earth as well.
Because each hole is a bit further from the fire box, you can get a range of heat from a single fire, which allows you to have pans on the “back burner” for warming like a typical modern stove.
You can consider these types a stoves a beefed up and more permanent version of the rocket stove. Lorena stoves operate much like traditional cast iron stove that our ancestors preferred. But, they are completely DIY, cheap or free, and can be built in less than a day by a dedicated builder.
Traditional Cast Iron Wood Oven
Cast iron stoves are the preferred cooking appliances of our recent ancestors. Big, heavy, and expensive, they are packed with functionality, including ways to redirect heat from the fire box to various parts of the range / oven, fairly fined grained control over oven temperature (although not as fool proof as modern electric ovens), and a range of range top heating options. On the top you will see a warming shelf that allows you to keep finished dishes piping hot while you finish preparing the rest of the meal.
Wood Fired (Pizza) Ovens
Clay or brick wood fired (pizza) ovens have been the mainstay of the baking scene for 100s of generations, with examples found all over the world, in practically every culture.
Western style ovens are typically build with earth, bricks and mortar, or in cement. Brick and cement work can require special skills, and will come in at a wide range of prices, but if you have the skills or resources to have one installed at your place, they produce excellent results.
DIY earth models are extremely easy to build, and the only material you need to buy is a series of fire bricks for the baking surface.
How to Use a Wood Fired Oven
Step One — Build a Fire
Baking in the oven was traditionally started early in the morning by building a fairly large directly on the surface of the oven. Burn this fire for several hours, until the walls of the oven turn from black to white. This indicates the temperature is hot enough to back with successfully.
Step Two — Clean out the Oven
Scrape out any hot coals or ash the remain in the oven, and use a natural fiber swab or mop to clean off the baking surface and provide humidity for the baking oven. This moisture is key to great tasting bread and other baked goods, and is why expensive professional baking ovens often provide an artificial method of hydrating the inside of the oven.
Step Three — Heat Soak and Gauge Temperature
Once the fire is out, let the oven sit empty with the entrance covered, to allow time for the heat to evenly distribute through the chamber. In earthen ovens, all the heat for baking in stored in the walls themselves, there is no need to keep a fire burning after the initial warm up, although if you have a long baking session ahead, you may need to warm the chamber multiple times.
Traditionally, bread was baked directly on the stone / fire brick floor, on a layer of corn meal to help keep the baked goods from sticking. First, spread a layer of corn meal on the floor of the oven and watch it change color. A properly hot oven will turn the corn meal golden brown, but will not burn it black. If the oven is too hot, clean out the corn meal and wait until it cools or wet down the inside and try again. Once ready, use a wooden paddle to slide in your bread and cook as normal.
Step Four — Bake
In the old days, one oven fire was used for to cook a whole series of items. At the initial hot temperature, pies or biscuits were cooked, although in modern times a pizza or two would do just as well. Later, the oven would be ready for mid temperature items like bread and rolls. As the oven cooled even further, lower temperature baked goods like cookies were prime candidates. By the end of the day, the oven was typically still warm, and could be used to slow cook items like baked beans, which would be ready for breakfast the next day.
If you do need to bake a large quantity of items at a particular temperature, you have the option of building multiple fires throughout the day to keep the temperature up. And, of course the convenience of modern technology allows us access to cheap and easily attainable oven thermometers, which can be used to gauge the internal temperature of the oven and bake based on temperature ranges given in modern recipes.
Grill / Open Fire
Of course, don’t forget the classic open camp fire cooking, or even a grill.
Off grid, wood should be available in abundance, although charcoal is difficult to find in a natural state. Instead, you can burn your brush or waste wood in a home made charcoal furnace, and produce enough for 100s of cookouts in a single go.
Charcoal furnaces another easy to DIY project that just takes a little mud and grass to build. Similar to cob construction, take 2-3 inch in diameter bundles of grass completely cover it, inside and out, in a thick layer of wet earth / clay. Use this earth/grass log to form part of a circle about 2 feet in diameter. Keep building logs and stacking them up to form an earth cylinder about 3-4 feet high. If your earth is too wet, you may have to let it dry and come back a few times over the course of building, but if you are careful and make the mud quite thick, you should be able to finish building the furnace in about an hour.
No need to let the furnace dry all the way, if you are in a rush. Once ready, fill the entire inside with wood, and light it from the top. Be sure to cut a few air holes near the bottom of the kiln, and keep adding wood as it burns down until you have enough.
Once the fire burns to the point where almost everything you see is read hot, take a big clump of earth and cover the top of the kiln, and the air holes on the bottom. Let cool for 24 hours and come back to dig out your grilling charcoal. Store in a dry place.
How do you cook without electricity?
There are a large number of ways too cook with wood without electricity including, rocket stoves, earth stoves, wood fired ovens, cast iron stoves, or open pit / grilling. Other options include using biogas (methane), propane, or natural gas. If you have a sunny day, you can cook with a solar oven, solar dehydrator, or even on the windshield of your car.
How do I cook during a power outage?
It is best to plan ahead, to have alternate methods available for a power outage. Wood burning stoves, such as rocket stoves, wood fired ovens, or earth “Lorena” ovens can be cheap and quick to build, and require no electricity to operate. Some biogas (methane), propane, natural gas, or other gas stove operate without electricity, so long as you have the equipment and gas on hand. In sunny situations, you could use a solar oven, solar dehydrator, or even work something out cooking in on the dash of your car.