Cooking when Living Off Grid

One of the first things we figure out when in a survival situation is how to make a fire as there is something at the core of our being that understands the satisfaction of having a cooking, a heating, a bug chaser and a soul warming source.

As I was growing up we had many ways of producing this fire and it has always amazed me the huge full meals my mother has made on a tiny campfire or on a wood stove. Over time I have developed the skills to do it myself but some people, like my mother, the patience and skill comes naturally. I remember once camping in the desert near Yuma Arizona where my mom got a few twigs of sage brush and made a satisfying filling meal for 6 of us over an absolutely tiny fire. Mom’s fires always tended to be very small, efficient but effective. Mostly she cooked things that people nowadays would use a slow cooker for. Even later in life our family’s summer kitchen (not wanting to heat up the house) had a stone circle campfire to cook up the big pots and a BBQ grill.

The first solar oven I built was not that great but could get temperatures of 170-180F. I made that one just using two different sized cardboard boxes (one inside the other) with newspaper stuffed in the space between for insulation, aluminum foil on the flaps of the bigger box as reflectors to concentrate the sun into the box and plastic wrap to keep the heat it. My later renditions I cut a door in one side to put the pot in and used a pane of plexiglass or glass to replace the plastic wrap. There are many great plans on how to do this on www.solarcooking.org and on www.Instructables.com .  I have built one that got up to 240F using an old window and wood. Eventually I researched the different types of commercially available solar ovens, bought and tested a few, and became a dealer for www.SunOven.com which are made in Northern IL. Solar ovens are good for dehydrating food as you can’t burn food only boil the water away. One thing I have learned over the years (I think we have been cooking a major part of our meals with the Sun Oven for over 12 years now) is to preheat a thicker metal (like cast iron) pot in the solar oven and then add what you want to cook. This cuts down on cooking time. If you think of the solar oven as a slow cooker it is easier to understand how to cook with it. You can bake in a Sun Oven (I have seen 360F) but you have to move the oven every 15 minutes or so to track the sun to keep the temperature up. As a slow cooker just point in kind of south and it will slow simmer the best stews, pasta sauce or apple or peach butters using the sun’s heat. It doesn’t matter the outside temperature if your solar oven is well insulated but it does have to be sunny.

Although I do remember us having a camping “Coleman” style stove I don’t remember us using it much as I assume the gas cost too much money when we had free wood. We did get a regular propane gas stove which used a small gas grill like 20 gallon tank. We only used it inside when it wasn’t hot like in the spring and fall. It would just get too hot in the “house” in the summer if we cooked inside. I remember once hauling the propane stove outside to use in the summer kitchen. Generally we used the sun oven in the outside summer kitchen unless we were preserving lots of food and than we usually used wood either in the campfire setup or in the BBQ grill. Besides summer is a time of cool mint sun tea and salads.  If it was really hot who wants hot food.

p>In the winter we had a woodstove which served dual purpose; heating and cooking. I, to this day, think that hickory smoke is the most wonderful smell and am looking forward to the day when that is an available men’s cologne. I remember many a winter day our whole family was cloistered around the wood stove soaking in the radiant heat while we read, listened to the radio, wrote or studied. There was always a pot of tea or stew slow cooking on the stove. Sometimes it was just a large pot of hot water to humidify as the wood stove tended to make the air very dry. My dad always said wood heated you 3 times; when you collected it in the woods, when you cut it up and split it, and when you burned it. We had a very good method of getting 6 foot long logs out of the woods in the summer but not cutting them up and splitting them until it is needed in the winter. We set up a saw horse by the house and using an electric chainsaw anybody in the family could quite easily prepare a pile of wood before a storm.

I always dreamed of having one of those outdoor wood furnaces when I had to haul so much wood inside, stoke the fire, and clean out the ashes (which we used to make hominy, see below). However looking back I would have missed out on the wonderful smell of the wood burning, and getting that direct radiant heat.

When I design off grid homes now, I try to make sure that there are 3 methods of cooking (like electric, solar, wood). Although a “dual fuel” (like electric and gas) system is okay, I feel the more options the better.

Wood Ash Hominy

If you grew up in the south you know what grits or corn hominy is. Many people just buy the quick grits but let me tell you how we made it from complete scratch growing up to make massive amounts of food for next to nothing.

First what is hominy? It is corn that has been popped/cracked in a boiling process using lye.

Our family made the lye using hard wood ashes. Whenever we would clean out our woodstove we would put the ashes in a bucket. It is important that you don’t burn any trash in the stove, just good hard wood. We had a special bucket that had a few holes drilled in the bottom. Put that bucket over something to catch the water as it slowly percolates through the ashes. First you just want all the ashes to be damp. The best way is to put a couple inches of ashes, dampen by sprinkling water, and then do another layer. The slower you can get the water to go through the ashes the more lye you get. Be careful with this liquid lye as I remember once getting some in my eye and it hurt for days even after I flushed it out well with clean water.

This lye has to be stored in a non corrosive container. Metal or lower quality plastic will break down due to the corrosive nature of lye. We used old pickle buckets we got from the local school cafeteria. I know this lye can be used to make soap but although we did make it a few times I remember not liking it as it was a strong harsh soap good for doing laundry but not for washing myself.

Once you have the lye water you cook any type of field corn. I remember buying the 50 pound bags of animal feed corn for $2.00, cleaning out the stones and debris, washing the corn well and using that for making hominy. Another time we talked to a farmer and gleaned the field of a bunch of ears of corn, but that added all the labor of having to husk and get the corn off of the cob.

A few times we didn’t have time to make the lye water or didn’t have any lye water and just put the ashes straight in the pot with the corn to cook it but this make corn that took forever to cook and forever to clean all the ashes off of. If you don’t mind some ashes this is a down and dirty way to make hominy. The chemical of the lye causes the corn to crack open and it almost looks like a big popped corn. How grits are made, they take this cooked popped corn, dry it, and than grind it up. That is too much work so we would just eat the whole cooked kernels; savory with oil or butter, salt and pepper or sweet with honey and cinnamon. I really like it stir fried, with eggs, like someone would fry grits.

I do remember a few times running it through the hand grinder to make a masa-style flour paste to make tamales or cornbread. I look forward everyday to the interactions I have on my Living Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page and hope you will join the discussion there.

Stay energized, Aur

This blog post was originally posted on Mother Earth News.