Rocket Stove

Maybe you’ve stored 100 pounds of wheat kernels, 75 pounds of beans, barrels of water and you’re all set for whatever municipal unreliability may bring. One question:

How will you cook the food you’ve stored?

In Food Storage and Refried Beans, back in April 2009,  I determined that to cook 100 pounds of beans would take about 4.7 gallons of white gas (Coleman fuel). Assuming the rest of a typical day takes a little less gas, you would still have to store about 10 gallons of gas to service that much food. While this is doable, it is certainly a hazardous amount of fuel. My personal solution is my own take on the Rocket Stove.


We have a wood burning fireplace, but it is not set up for cooking. However, we keep wood around for the cold winter nights. Obviously, mankind has cooked on wood basically forever. So, obviously it is possible. I was introduced to the rocket stove developed by Aprovecho, which is intended to reduce fuel consumption by more efficiently transferring the wood’s energy into the cookpot, reduce air smoke and soot inhalation by combusting more efficiently, and improve burn safety. They have ten design principals, summarized:

  1. Insulate around the firebox. I do this by using insulating kiln brick (about 0.65 g/cm3).
  2. Place an insulating short chimney directly above the fire. Mine is about 9 inches high, made by two races of insulating brick.
  3. Heat and burn (just) the tips of the sticks. The shortness of the firebox accomplishes.
  4. Heat is regulated by the amount of fuel. I have no damper, which their research shows is not effective.
  5. Maintain a good fast draft through the fire. This is accomplished both with the chimney and a recovered steel grate that creates an air channel under the burning fuel.
  6. Too little draft makes excess smoke. See principle 7.
  7. The opening, size of spaces, and chimney should all be about the same size. Specifically they recommend a 12 cm square opening (4.75 in), which is about 3.5 inches, and is probably slightly too small.
  8. Use a grate under the fire. See principle 5.
  9. Insulate the heat flow path. My entire structure is made of insulating kiln brick.
  10. Maximize heat transfer to the pot with properly sized gaps. I have not yet begun this phase of development.

For an initial design I used twelve insulating kiln bricks. Four make a floor—insulated enough, I think, to be used on a wooden stand. Two were cut into plugs to make the sides complete, and the remainder were stacked to make a square chimney and burn chamber. The burn chamber as seen through the chimney is filled with embers.


I scrounged and bent a wire rack to make a grate that retains a channel for air flow under the combustibles.


On top I used four small stones to make a burner. This is very much the wrong design for quickly heating water, but it worked for a test run.


Actually, it worked for three test runs. Yesterday we boiled water for tea.


This morning the kids helped make oatmeal on it. This evening I caramelized onions on it while grilling burgers.

My impression is that this device is the bee’s knees! The smoke was minimal (not as minimal as I would have liked, but largely avoidable). The amount of wood burned was about 4 linear feet of thumb-diameter sticks. The stove is stable, even with my crummy burner. I think it would make a nice patio fireplace for autumn evenings. Small, but controlling the smoke makes it much more pleasant to be around.

I do look forward to improving it. It is a pain to move, since it is about 45 pounds and doesn’t hold itself together. It is too low to cook on comfortably. Its heat transfer are near the pot is not well sized. This all requires work. I would also like to measure the efficiency of the stove. Always more fun to have!

Food Storage and Refried Beans

A solid storage plan includes food, and also anything else you need to make the stored food into something edible. The difficulty is that none of the food storage guides or recipe books I have list how much fuel to store in order to make their recipes.

To rectify this, I have begun measuring fuel consumption when preparing recipes roughly as I would in no-gas and no-power emergency. Perhaps others will find this useful, and quantify their recipes.

The first step is to reduce the total fuel as much as possible, and the first target food is beans. Beans are a nice target because I have a lot of them—something like 15 lbs of kidney beans that are probably older than me. Furthermore, they offer excellent nutrition, and finally they cook for ages. The two techniques I know to reduce fuel use are pressure cooking and pre-soaking.

The test recipe today was for refried beans. The result was more delicious than any canned refries I have ever eaten, though the texture was much lumpier. The recipe is below. I cooked on my Coleman dual-fuel stove, using white gas. Cooking is performed in two stages, the first cooks the beans under pressure, and the second cooks the onions and “fries” the beans.

Total Fuel Use: 122 g (about 6 fl oz) of white gas

Pressure Cooking the Beans: 70 g (about 3.4 fl oz) of white gas

Refrying: 52 g (about 2.5 fl oz) of white gas

Pressure cooker seated on the stove in the back yard.

Pressure cooker loaded with the beans and other ingredients, prior to pressure cooking.

Pressure cooker at pressure; the heat is too high as shown by the copious steam jet.


Adapted from Vickie Smith’s recipe for Refried Beans

Step 1

1 lb dried pinto beans, soaked at least 4 hours

4 cups pork or beef broth, stock, or water

Add beans and broth to pressure cooker, plus enough water to cover beans by about 2 inches. Stir to mix, lock the lid, and bring to pressure (15 psi) on high heat. Reduce heat to lowest setting that will maintain pressure, and cook for 12 minutes—I cook for 13 at 1 mile altitude. Remove from heat and let pressure drop naturally. Drain beans and mash them with a potato masher until they are to your taste in lumpiness.

Step 2

1/4 cup bacon fat

2 onions, finely chopped

1 mild poblano, pasilla, or Anaheim chile, seeded and chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

Heat the fat in the pressure cook, add the onions, chiles, and garlic, cumin and cook, stirring, until they are very soft. Add the mashed beans in two or three batches, stirring to mix.

100% Whole Wheat Dutch Oven Bread

The Results

This bread is very different from the artisanal style with white flour. It is more flavorful, the crust has a similar chewiness and resilience, and the crumb is nice. It is, however, denser than I like. On the whole it is quite pleasant to eat, but there is room for improvement. The color is dark, almost like rye bread, but the flavor is distinctly “whole wheat”. There was some caramelization of the crust edges and bottom, which makes it taste a little toasty—a flavor I rather like.

The loaf did not loft as high as I wanted. To try to enhance the loft, I would let the oven preheat longer, raising the temperature of the casserole. That might give more steam-powered spring to the loaf. I would add a little bit more water, the loaf was drier than the white flour loaves made from the same recipe. Being too dry makes the dough stiffer, and perhaps this keeps the steam-spring from lofting the bread. Finally, I would let the loaf’s second rise last longer than an hour, so that it really doubles in size.

Why Make This?

Whole wheat grains, but not flour, stores very well for food storage. Using it, however, is not so easy. Certainly the foods we are used to having from white flour, pasta and breads, require adaptation both of our palates and of our recipes. Bread baking is one of the principal ways to use and consume flour. How do we cook it without an oven, which typically requires electricity?

The best method I have is the Dutch oven, heated with charcoal. Solar cookers could work too, but I don’t have one. For experimentation I use a regular home oven for the heat, and a Pyrex casserole as a substitute for the Dutch oven. I also used store-ground wheat flour, since I don’t yet have a wheat grinder.

In short, this experiment was done to determine if 100% whole wheat Dutch oven bread would be palatable. And the answer is, yes—quite good actually. I would miss white flour if I had to forego it. On the other hand, I would be smart to quit it anyway. The whole wheat stuff is supposed to be much more healthful.


  • 3 C Whole wheat flour
  • ½ tsp Active dry yeast
  • 1 ½ tsp salt
  • 1 ½ C warm water (plus some more)

Mix all the dry ingredients together in a non-metallic bowl. Add the water and stir it with your hand just until it comes together in a sticky gooey mass. If it seems like you could turn it out and knead it, then you didn’t add enough water. It should be messy.

Cover it, and let it rise 12 to 18 hours. Really.

Dump the dough out and use just enough flour to keep it from sticking while you form it into a ball. Put it to rest on something that you can clean. I used parchment paper last time, next time I’ll use parchment paper covered with oat bran or corn meal. It stuck like hell to the parchment paper. It is going to rise for 1 to 2 hours, until it has increased to almost double in size.

Put your Dutch oven (or casserole) in the oven and preheat to 450 F. I think, actually, that you should go as low as 420 if you are using a glass casserole.

Pop the doubled dough into casserole, cover, and bake 30 minutes. Uncover and bake 15 to 20 more minutes.

Note that “pop the doubled dough into casserole” is code for “make a huge mess and possibly burn yourself”. Turn the TV up before this step so the children aren’t scarred by your cursing.

Finally, I got this recipe from the Mother Earth News (which I love)—their recipe, Easy, No Knead Crusty Bread, emphasizes one of the main benefits, not kneading.

The New York Times also covers this recipe and includes a link to a video that is well worth watching.

Food Storage: Bread

My oven is gas+electric. The thermostat and ignition are electric, but the heat is from gas. In a power failure my oven would serve well as a cabinet. In the back yard, though, I can cook in a Dutch oven, just like I used to in Boy Scouts.

Until last fall I had never seen a loaf of bread made in a Dutch oven. I’ve had corn bread, biscuits, and other quick breads. Quick breads require more ingredients than yeast bread, have a high fat content, and most importantly make dreadful sandwiches.

It turns out, though, that you can make a really good loaf of bread in a Dutch oven, indoors, inside your conventional oven. The good people at the Mother Earth News show how to make an Easy, No Knead Crusty Bread with a Dutch oven, inside a conventional kitchen oven. And it really works well. I’ve made fantastic loaves in the Dutch oven indoors in the oven, or even in a Pyrex casserole dish in the oven. Actually, the Pyrex works better than my cast iron.

It works in the backyard using charcoal with the cast iron Dutch oven too. Temperature control is harder in general, and getting the high heat (450F) has been difficult for me, but results are acceptable. In the recipe the last 10 or 15 minutes of baking are with the bread uncovered, to darken the crust. Can’t do that with a charcoal-heated Dutch oven in the back yard, but you can gap the lid a little to let the steam escape and enhance browning. Gapping lets the heat out too, so cook time gets longer.

The following picture shows a finished product, with the Dutch oven lid just lifted. You can see the steam rising; the loaf is pale, not quite the golden brown I wanted.

There isn’t much equipment involved. My list is a Dutch oven, a place to cook, a charcoal starter chimney, some charcoal, pliers, and tongs. An infrared thermometer has proved interesting, but certainly not critical.

In one experiment I gapped the lid with three pieces of wire like the one shown below. This was terribly ineffective—too much steam remained trapped inside and the bread crust remained pasty. In later experiments I found just setting the lid ajar, about a half-centimeter gap, was adequate.

Details for a Food Storage Plan

This recipe uses about 0.66 pounds of flour, a little salt, and a little active dried yeast, which provides about 1500 calories for the whole loaf. It is not a huge loaf; a family of four could devour this in one meal without trouble. This is really unfortunate, since bread would easily keep a day or two without refrigeration, and cooking for two or three days in advance would be really nice.

I used about 1 pound of charcoal to cook the loaf. A pound is really quite marginal—it produces enough coals, but about the time the loaf is done the coals are completely ash. On two occasions I really wanted additional hot coals to either enhance the heat (after gapping the lid) or to extend the cook time. By the time I needed to the fresh coals my original ones were burned down so far that I could not start new ones just from contact with the old.

I justified my Dutch oven purchase because I’ll use it camping—so emergency or not I get value from the oven.

Minimizing Toil

It is a pain to make bread dough—though this “no knead” stuff is easier than muffins—and it is a pain to start a charcoal fire and monitor it. If I were planning to bake bread regularly in an emergency, I would want two or three more Dutch ovens, and then I could cook with them in a stack. This would allow baking two or three loaves at once, along with a pot of beans or some other tasty bread companion. There would be less charcoal per loaf when cooking in a stack, probably charcoal use scales at about (n+1)/2, because two Dutch ovens share a layer. Four Dutch ovens cooking simultaneously would consume about 2.5 pounds of charcoal, instead of the 4 pounds you might guess. A big savings if you’re feeding teenagers.

Future Experiments

I would like to try the experiment with 100% whole wheat dough. In my experience 100% whole wheat produces really dense, loathsome loaves. If the result is palatable then storing whole grain (and a grinder) might be sensible.

I would also like to try to increase the loaf size, or split the loaf into two abutting sections, so that the value from the cooking effort would go farther.

Food Storage Requirements

Storage of food and affiliated supplies could be a real hassle. It could also be expensive. However, if your plan satisfies some basic requirements it will be both serviceable to your family and economical. Possibly it will enhance your daily health…at least if you eat like me.

My requirements for a food storage plan are listed below. The fresh, steaming bread in the picture below was made in a charcoal-heated Dutch oven on my back patio.


Requirement 1: Everything in this menu plan shall be eatable and enjoyable without refrigeration.

Requirement 2: Total cycle time shall be one year or less (that is, many foods should be rotated out every year).

Requirement 3: All of the foods stored shall be eaten before spoiling once cycled from storage.

Desirement 1: Food should be fun to cook, so that using your storage is practiced.

The total cycle time is derived from the nominal shelf life of typical products. Imagine that you want to store one year of flour for emergency use. You assume 3 pounds of flour per day (I’m making up the numbers) and end up with about one thousand pounds of flour in the storage facility. Day to day your family eats about 5 pounds of flour per week, since you are a recreational baker. If you stopped storing, and just started using, it would take you about 4 years to eat it all. Of course, you’d throw out a bunch, since the shelf life is only 1 year…

For these kinds of foods to work there must be a “dilution factor” built into the plan. There are two ways this dilution can be realized: store for a shorter emergency, or store longer-lived products.

My plan, at least at present, is for shorter emergencies. For one thing, I’m almost guaranteed to use what I store, since it is part of daily life and won’t require extremely long storage lives. Secondly, a short emergency is more likely to occur than a long emergency.

There is a hybrid approach too, where you find select items that aren’t part of your regular diet but could be substituted in a pinch, that have long shelf lives, and that are cheap, for example, whole-grain wheat (and a grinder). These foods have a long shelf life, and are fairly inexpensive. If an emergency never materializes you throw most of it away just before the kids come to drag you to the nursing home. If an emergency does occur, you may be willing to break out the grinder and render that stuff into flour to eat.

In fact, I think of stored foods in three tiers:

  1. Foods you eat every day, where storage just means there is more in the queue. Vegetable oil, flour, salt, and the like.
  2. Food substitutes for food you eat every day, but which are fairly expensive. Tomato powder to make spaghetti and dried eggs come to mind.
  3. Food you never eat but that you would in a pinch, such as whole wheat when you normally buy white flour at the store.

Guiding Assumptions

During an emergency it is easier to cook a relatively complex and big lunch than it is to cook breakfast and dinner. Midday offers the most light, so solar ovens work best, and you may benefit most from a fire in the morning.

Most leftovers are impractical, because there is no refrigeration. Breads could be leftover, but soups and stews probably could not. Cooking enough bread, for example, to have some left is quite difficult while also meeting caloric needs for a day (as I intend to discuss in a future post). What this means is that every day, multiple times a day, you’re cooking everything from scratch—toil. The only mitigation I can imagine is to eat a huge breakfast and a huge late lunch. Maybe food can be safely left out for a few hours, so that if lunch is big enough it can also be dinner. In which case “boring” has consumed “toil”. Presumably an emergency has enough other excitement anyway.

Food Storage: An Unconsidered Idea

A friend of mine intimated today that his food storage plan was principally MRE (meals ready-to-eat), like they use in the military. He noted that the nutritional shelf life was essentially eternal, though I wonder if they would outlast a Twinkie. He commented that the meat loaf meal was particularly yummy.

I hadn’t considered these as an option. While I think they would be too expensive to be the foundation of a year-long storage plan, they might be a beneficial part (several weeks worth, perhaps). They are low effort to prepare and provide wide variety, two shortcomings of any plan I’ve considered. Another item to consider.

On Food Storage

I post this at the risk seeming paranoid, I’m not. I care deeply about my family’s welfare. Prudence, and my Boy Scout training, compel me to be prepared. Although I’m a food storage novice, I have asked questions not answered in books. My food storage series of posts is about spreading what I learned that I couldn’t find in books. I rather like practicing preparedness—cooking with the Dutch oven in the back yard is a little like camping. And I’ve made some great bread.

You can’t prepare for everything; preparation costs time and money. A good candidate emergency for preparedness is one which

  • Has substantially bad consequence
  • Is likely to occur
  • Can be prepared for

The first two bullets are the “consequence” and “likelihood” attributes of risk. Some examples of emergencies that seem ripe to me include automobile breakdown, power failure during bad weather, or job loss. Others might include material loss to theft, fire, or severe weather, or illness. We trust our insurance companies to help us in many kinds of disasters. For job loss the only real insurance is money in the bank, though it is wise to retain or enhance job skills, and keep debt modest to preserve mobility.

I am trying to establish a food storage program. Food storage helps provide insurance against scarcity, sharp rises in prices, and at some level against short-term problems like inclement weather or job losses. The exact duration to plan for depends on your storage space, and fear—I’m starting with one month, and will probably increase to three months over time. More than that will be difficult to store in my present housing, and difficult to manage in any case.

The bromide in the food storage community is “store what you eat and eat what you store.” “Eat what you store” means to eat stored food while replacing it with new food, to rotate. Of course, adherence to “store what you eat” makes sense if you plan to rotate things into use. It is not without flaws, however. Foods with long shelf lives are roundly advised against by every health association on the planet. Consider:

  • Shortening, a partially hydrogenated fat, will last much longer than canola oil. Too bad it also (tends to) contain trans fats.
  • White flour will store longer than whole-wheat flour.
  • Brown rice spoils faster than white rice.

This isn’t important unless you “store what you eat and eat what you store”. Making relatively bad-for-you foods a regular part of your diet simply to support your food storage plan seems like a poor choice.

Using a 3-month storage plan avoids these problems. You can store three months of foods that aren’t terrible for you, and you can therefore eat what you store.

The Nature of an Emergency

The most benign reason to tap into the storage is short-term economic hardship, such as a lay-off or temporary unpaid leave due to, for example, a sick grandmother. This is a very benign emergency; the water and power are on, refrigeration and heat work, and fresh items (eggs, milk, vegetables) may still be purchased.

A harder emergency might be long inclement weather, or regular power problems. You might have power or gas to cook with, but refrigeration would be dicey. Presumably grocery stores would not be reliable in these circumstances either. Convenience fuels, like propane, kerosene, charcoal, and Coleman fuel would all be in demand.

Consider using storage in the second, more severe, scenario. No fresh milk for cereal. You can use powdered milk (but do you eat that regularly)? No eggs, or at best dried eggs (do you eat those regularly?). No lunch meat or cheese for sandwiches. You did bake bread, right?

Living off food storage in those circumstances would be an appalling amount of work. Unmitigated toil to cook three full meals a day with no refrigerated leftovers and without lots of “cereal bar”-type products.

Some things would just be difficult to cook. All your casserole recipes will be useless if the oven in your range is controlled by an electric thermostat…and the power is out. Practically, you may be cooking on a camp stove in the garage, or on the patio using the barbecue. No meat though, the freezer is out too.

Those specialty foods, like powdered milk and powdered eggs are not a part of our regular diet. Getting stock rotation on those products would be challenging. My next food storage post will cover the requirements for a successful food storage plan.