Cooking on an Antique Stove: Techniques and Tips
Cooking over an electric or gas stove may not seem like much of a luxury, but for our grandmothers, great-grandmothers and all the women before them, a modern stove would have been a real treat. Even what we think of as an antique stove was a great improvement over cooking in the fireplace. But still, cooking over an antique stove is not the same; a cook had to “know” how to feel the right temperature and the right spot to cook all foods.
Where’s the Temperature Knob?
First, they had to get the fire started. Hopefully you covered over the ashes last night just so you can easily rekindle them. If not, better get up early and start a new fire – oh, and it will need to burn a while before it is hot enough to cook breakfast biscuits.
A well-stocked antique stove had a box or pile of kindling and small logs nearby already cut to fit inside. Pine logs get hotter faster, but burn out quickly too. Hardwoods burn slowly all day but take a while to heat up.
When the temperature “feels” right it’s time to put food in the oven. Breads and cakes go toward the bottom, closer to the source of heat, somewhere between 400 and 450 degrees. Meat and vegetables go on the higher rack to cook at a lower temperature.
Gauging the oven temperature is something of an art that young girls would have learned from their mothers from the time they were young. Today, people who want to study historical cooking techniques take classes and practice for years before they become experts at cooking with fire.
Cooking, as opposed to baking, is a less precise art, so cooking on top of an antique stove might not flummox the modern chef too much. But low heat requires a strong arm to hold up an iron skillet, or a little trivet to raise the skillet away from the heat.
Cleaning Up and Cleaning Out
The earliest antique stoves were made of iron, the eye covers were heavy, and every part was hot to the touch. And just as iron skillets require maintenance and oiling, so does an iron antique stove.
Later, stoves were clad in enamel, which, while still hot, was at least easier to maintain and keep clean. As fire usually burned all day in an antique stove, ashes built up quickly and had to be cleaned out very often.