Off Grid Cooking Solutions, Part 3, by V.W.

I have really come to enjoy researching and testing off grid cooking ideas and possibilities.  Last year I had purchased a few products that I felt were going to be the back bone of my preparedness efforts. Over this past winter, I began thinking that it was necessary to actually try out the ideas and suggestions from videos I had seen and articles I had read.  I ordered a few products to round out my supplies, and I became so enthusiastic with all the possibilities that I wrote “Off Grid Cooking Solutions, Part 1” and “Off Grid Cooking Solutions, Part 2.”

I had mentioned that it is very easy to build a brick rocket stove that performs fairly well.  Two downsides of that method is lack of portability and efficiency. Depending upon the design, it will smoke more than a professional stove during cooking, which could prove to be problematic for security reasons.  (You won’t want others to be aware you are cooking and the less smoke, the better). One thing that really concerned me is that I kept reading of the potential danger of bricks exploding.  I stopped by a business that builds outdoor fireplaces for patio use.  The owner had heard of rocket stoves being made from regular brick, but he warned against their use.  They are not made to withstand the heat like fire brick does.  If they get wet (and most people leave them set up outside in the elements), the steam building up inside as the bricks are heated can actually cause them to crack and even explode.  He felt the risks were not worth it.  The cost of the safer yellow-colored fire brick was $3.50 each.  The design I like and seemed most promising required 28 bricks.  The price to purchase the bricks would be about $100, which is close to the cost of a commercially made product. 

My brother’s father-in-law provided me with reinforcement of what I was told.  He formerly worked in a blast furnace, and he was well versed in the dangers of heat on regular brick.  He said that even moisture from dew was enough to seep into the porous bricks.  Then in a super-heated environment of the “rocket” effect, the steam will build up and could actually make the brick explode.  It’s much the same idea of not using river rock to line your camp fire because the rocks could explode.

I have seen various videos of people building and using these stoves as an economical solution to non-electric cooking.  At my suggestion, a friend built one for emergency use for her family.  However, the risks do not seem worth the potential danger.  Unfortunately, it can be compared to Russian Roulette.  You can use the stove many times and not have any problems.  Then one day when the circumstances are ripe, disaster strikes.

I wanted to inform those that are using and relying on them of these concerns.  Because of the possible danger, and because of the portability and efficiency of a professional model, I would strongly urge that people go that direction. 

In continuing my off grid cooking journey, I contacted afterburnerstoves.com to let them know about my article.  I had bought my “SuperPot” from them (which is a pot that is made specifically for the StoveTec rocket stove) and I wanted to let them know I had tried it and really liked it.  I also relayed my experience with using a rocket stove and thermal cooker together, which is now one of my favored emergency cooking methods.

It turned out that that they had just received a new rocket stove which recently came on the market. Several days later, Chris Horrocks contacted me and asked if I would be interested in testing it out.  He was wanting a completely unbiased opinion (someone who wasn’t in business and had an investment to protect) who could experience the operation of the stove and give an opinion.   I felt honored to be asked and was glad to do so.

I received the stove, which is part of the new SilverFire line, and I got ready to try it out.  Unfortunately for me, we were experiencing the coldest and wettest spring that I can remember and it was difficult to even find a day suitable to get outside.  And that is where the trouble began.

In the previous year when I had worked with my StoveTec, I chose a few nice days to go outside and perform tests.  I experienced great results.  Satisfied that my stove would be an asset in emergency situations, I put it away in readiness should I need it.  I am so glad that is not the end of the story…

The rocket stove is ideal for cooking in emergencies because its fuel consumption is so little compared to woodstoves or campfires.  However, the stoves must be used outdoors, or perhaps in a garage with the door open for ventilation.  I discovered that days that are cold, damp, and windy proved to be bigger obstacles than I thought, due to my inexperience.  However, in a crisis, you must be able to cook in whatever the weather conditions may be.

The difficulty began when the theories and possibilities I had in my head met the reality of the situation.  What I thought I knew flew out the window!   I was working with damp wood (we had a lot of rain) and the cold wind just would not stop.  I wasn’t getting great results, even with my original stove, and I was frustrated.
Operating a rocket stove is actually basic, easy, and fun.  However, the reality of weather has to be dealt with and a few tactics employed in order to be successful.  I happened to pick more difficult conditions to work in.

I repeatedly had to contact Mr. Horrocks for advice because I was flailing a lot.  He   explained that a person at the equator in very hot weather would have an easier time of it than someone working with damp fuel in cold and windy conditions.  There really is a learning curve.  But, he also estimated that 80% of his customers never test out their stoves before storing them away in their preps. 
I believe that if I had to go through what I just did in testing out the stoves, but was in a crisis situation, my stress level would have gone through the roof.  I think that is an aggravation which is easily avoidable.   It is my opinion that everyone should test things out for themselves and try various recipes and pots in differing weather conditions.  The experience gained is more valuable than ideas and untried theories.  Although “doable,” it is much easier to learn in a more relaxed atmosphere.

I was the one who encouraged folks to get out there and hone their skills.   I felt so humbled because I was having such difficulty.   As I had not done much testing, but rather had spent my time researching, in reality I was an “armchair prepper.” Why does this all even matter?  Let me give you a scenario which someone could likely face.  Say you live in the Midwest where tornadoes often strike.  You live in the suburbs.  There’s been a few days of rain.  The weather briefly warms, but a cold front approaches.  They collide and result in a storm which produces a large tornado.  Fortunately, your home is spared, but there is great damage in the area and much of the power lines are down.  The power company works round the clock to restore the electricity, but it takes three weeks until your home has power again.  Meanwhile, the weather is unseasonably cool and rainy.

You have food, water, and a way to light your home.  You have invested in a rocket stove and have a way to cook the food to feed your family.  You previously saw a couple of videos that showed a person lighting up a few sticks to cook a meal, so you get everything ready and are confident that you have things handled.  With the cold wind swirling around you, you try to light the stove.  No go.  The fuel is damp and just doesn’t want to light.  You get some more tinder and remember the trick you heard of cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly, which when lit creates a flame lasting several minutes.  Finally, you have a fire going.  But then it goes out.  You battle it for a while, but finally the fuel is dried out enough that it starts to catch. 

You didn’t find that many sticks for your fuel, but you think that you have enough because rocket stoves really don’t require that much.  You are preparing a large pot of vegetable beef stew to use up some meat you had in the freezer before it spoils.  But you just can’t get the pot up to a boil.  After an hour of standing in the cold wind, you finally are seeing progress, but now you are out of fuel.  Family members are scouting around for more sticks.  Thankfully, even though what sticks they do find are really damp, the hot fire dries them out enough to catch and you finally have enough heat to cook with.  You didn’t think it would take this long or be this hard. You’re cold and discouraged.  You realize that you have to do this two to three times each day.  There’s got to be a better way!

I urge you to invest some time with your stove.  Try out some recipes that your family enjoys.  Use a cast iron or stainless steel pan and fry hamburgers, a steak, or eggs. The amount of fuel to fry a few burgers is less than making a large pot of chili or stew in a Dutch oven or large pot.  Note that difference. Once your food is up to a boil, you can actually keep it simmering for hours by adding just one stick at a time.  Give that a try.   Take a large stock pot filled with water and bring it up to 150 degrees (the recommended temperature for pasteurizing) which may be needed for safe drinking water.   Keep track of how long that took.  Keep on going and see how long until the water boils.  You will need hot water for various tasks such as washing dishes, laundry, and bathing, so it is best to know how to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. 

If interested in using a pressure cooker or canner, try that out as well.  I have canned tomatoes and green beans, so I do have a little experience in that area.  Canning is just a simple process with numerous steps to follow.  But if you have never canned before nor worked with your rocket stove, I would think it would be pretty overwhelming to begin for the first time in a crisis situation.
I would suggest cooking on the rocket stove in fair weather as well as windy and colder conditions.  One thing to consider is that as the rocket stove is working to bring a pot and its contents up to a boil, a cold wind will work against progress.  You must add heat to the cooking pot at a higher rate than the wind takes away.  The wind will speed the heat loss, so you need a wind break or shield, as well as more fuel to provide the heat required.   In those conditions, a shallow pan heats up faster than a taller, narrow one due to a larger surface area of the taller pot that is assaulted by the wind.

In dealing with wind, I have found two things to be invaluable.  The StoveTec comes with a pot skirt that directs the heat up the side of the pots and helps the stove to operate more efficiently.  I have seen some videos where people have placed shallow frying pans on top of the pot skirt, but that actually is not how they work.  They are designed for a taller pot to be placed on the stove and the adjustable metal skirt wraps around the sides, thus guiding the heat up the sides of the tall pot.  StoveTec also has the SuperPot which essentially does the same thing, but also gives the advantage of not having to clean off soot from your cooking pots.  In my testing, they both are a beneficial aid to get your pot heated quickly, especially in cold and windy weather.

The new SilverFire stove does not come with a pot skirt.  Because it is an improved design, it has a hotter and cleaner fire and quickly heats up to provide an efficient cooking flame.   It is my experience that a pot skirt does make a difference in colder, windy conditions, so I wouldn’t want to be without one.  I am assured, however, that the SilverFire will have its own SuperPot, which is currently in the making.  It is slated to be available during summer of 2013.

I would suggest finding several locations for cooking.  Where will you prepare meals when the sun is hot and bearing down?  You would want to cook in the shade, if possible.  If there is a stiff north wind blowing, is there a southern portion of your home or a building that would provide you with a wind break?  Is a garage or shed available during rainy, cold weather?  Do you have so much stuff packed in there that it would be a fire hazard to cook with a rocket stove?

As far as fuel is concerned, I suggest that you stay ahead of the game.  If there is a crisis and you live in a suburban area, and all you can find are a few wet sticks, you are going to have a little difficulty. Thankfully, it does not take the time to “season” fuel sticks like it does larger wood pieces for use in home heating. Even in urban areas, trees continually shed small, dead branches.  It is such an easy thing to gather them throughout the year.  Consider storing them in a weather-protected area so that they don’t get wet.  A tarp will keep your fuel dry and ready to go should you wish to have an ample supply ready.  You could also keep handy a large bucket or two of larger sticks and twigs, which could be stored in the garage.   And pallets make excellent fuel for rocket stoves.  Many businesses in my area just give them away.  They can be disassembled and a small hatchet used to split them into fuel sticks – all at no cost to you.  Although any biomass can be used, sticks give the longest and most trouble free operation due to their mass, and they are my fuel of choice.

One thing I discovered in performing my tests is that fuel made from lumber or dry sticks versus wet sticks performs differently.  The bark on the wet limbs acts as a fire retardant due to the moisture it holds, and is harder to start a fire with.  Since I live in an area with a lot of trees, limbs will be what I will commonly use.  But I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t getting the results I saw on videos.  I was able to overcome this when I added drier sticks in the stove coupled with more tinder, and then used more sticks for a hotter fire.   On one of the first days of testing, I worked for an hour to get a small stock pot of 10 cups of water up to a boil.  Last summer I had accomplished the same task in just minutes.  It was taking way too long.  But with the right technique and a pot skirt, it took only 15 minutes.
If the only fuel available is wet sticks, this actually is still doable.  Using more dry tinder (any biomass) to produce heat and get a bed of coals going will aid in getting the sticks to burn.  As the fire progresses, the sticks will dry out and will burn more easily.

As I continued my tests, the day I was able to easily start my cooking fire without the assisted means of cotton balls and petroleum jelly, I was happy.  I know there are serious survivalists out there who could almost sternly gaze at a small pile of tinder and get it started.  Not so with me.  But I discovered that with the right amount of either paper strips or dried leaves coupled with plenty of small twigs to create a bed of embers, my fuel sticks really got going.  And I only used one match on a very windy day.  I simply struck the match slightly inside the door so the wind wouldn’t immediately blow it out.  It quickly lit the paper, which in turn caught the tinder, resulting in enough heat to catch my fuel sticks on fire.  I was able to start cooking in about one minute.   Victory!

You may be wondering what all my testing resulted in when I tried out the new SilverFire stove and compared it with my StoveTec.  There actually was not a clear “winner,” as each stove had advantages.  My observations formed my opinions, and I realize that a controlled lab test would actually give more scientific findings.  But I will let you in on what I experienced:

The StoveTec is a solid stove that sits very securely either on the ground or a table, and it can take quite a bit of weight.  It can handle large pressure canners and heavy Dutch ovens with ease.  It fires up quickly, and coupled with either the pot skirt or SuperPot, it works very well.  One nice feature is that it remains cool to the touch on the outside for a prolonged period of use.  However, the insulation and cast iron top are slightly fragile if dropped, so caution needs to be taken when transporting it.   I love using this stove and wouldn’t want to be without it.

The SilverFire is almost half the weight of the StoveTec (12½ pounds), and it has an inner insulation that will not break if dropped.  It also has a thicker cast iron top which is more durable.  Those features make it very portable.  It is made from stainless steel, will not rust, nor does it have paint to scratch or peel off.  It also fires up quickly and is very efficient.  It is both a rocket stove and a gasifier stove, which means that it uses primary air (from vents located on the base) and secondary air (from vents in the interior fuel chamber).  I noticed the combustion process lead to less soot on the bottom of the cooking pots, which attests to it achieving an efficient burn.  However, due to the design of the base, it is somewhat less stable and if nudged or hit from the back, could possibly result in the stove falling forward during cooking operations.  I was easily able to overcome that potential problem by placing a small wedge just under the bottom front.  A SuperPot of its own is in the making, which will help it be even more efficient in cold, windy conditions.  Therefore, I find that it also is worthy of having in my preps. 

Given the choice, one or the other, or both, I would actually say:  Both!  If any of you already have a StoveTec but have the financial means to add the SilverFire, that would be my recommendation.  If you plan on “bugging in,” the StoveTec is great and can handle all of your cooking needs.  But should you need to “bug out,” the lighter and less fragile SilverFire would be advantageous. Either would give you great results and will cook your food.  Why both?   Remember the wise saying concerning preps that “one is none and two is one?”  Having both would be a great peace of mind.

Before I conclude, I want to turn your attention to the AfterBURNER Stove Corporation. The help I received from them is invaluable.  They are a family owned business and mainly sell rocket stoves and accompanying merchandise.  They treat their customers like gold.  They have a 100% money back guarantee for one full year from date of purchase, a full year bumper to bumper warranty, a free lifetime ceramic burnout guarantee on all StoveTec stoves, and a lifetime discounted replacement plan for accidentally damaged stoves. They work hard to educate and inform their customers on the use of their stoves, provide instructional videos, and are planning additions to their web site to aid in addressing various aspects of stove use and other products.  As a customer, they want you to USE your stove and gain experience, which will help you in a crisis situation.  They are available to you to develop the skills you need for success, and they offer lifetime support on any of their products via phone or email.  I would hope that customers will take advantage of that while it is available.  In a crisis, you might not be able to reach them.  They work hard to earn and keep your business.  On top of all that, they guarantee the lowest online price.   
You might think that since I got a stove to test that I am just giving them a commercial.  Not so.  I informed them that although I would test the stove and would be happy to report my findings, I would be giving it away to a friend who only had a brick stove (which I now believe could be dangerous).  I did not receive any personal gain – except for the knowledge, experience, and improvement of my skills.  I feel like I made a friend. And that was priceless.

Although I highly recommend that every family that is serious about emergency preparedness have a rocket stove, I just as strongly recommend that you work with it and build your skills.  It will serve you well in a crisis, but it is so much easier to deal with the learning curve before it’s actually needed.  Your stress level will already be high in an actual emergency.  Why make it harder for yourself than you have to?  Because it’s so much fun to operate, and can be used right now for backyard cooking, picnics, camping, and hunting, it’s a win/win situation.  So why not go out and get cooking today?

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