Last Morsel Baking Bread in the Firebox

woodstove

Written By

Chris Sims

Written on

December 01 , 2010

My 85-year-old friend, Gladys Thomas, used a wood cook stove all her life. After her children left the farm in Jericho and her husband died, she did her best to keep the place going by herself. As she grew older, members of her church tried to help.

“Now you just let that wood pile be, Gladys,” a church member told her on the phone one day, “and we’ll have a bunch of men come and split it for you.”

Gladys didn’t argue, but by the time the men showed up with axes and mauls, she already had her wood neatly split and stacked. Hearing this story from her years later, I resolved, at the age of 37, that I wanted to be just like Gladys when I grew up.

As much cooking as I had done on top of my standard wood heating stove, I never had success baking anything up there. I asked Gladys if she thought it might be possible to bake bread inside the firebox of the stove, instead. She considered it a moment. “With a wood cook stove, you stick your hand in the oven and see if the temperature feels right. I suppose it’d be the same inside your firebox.”
I gave it a try. I had a number three cast-iron saucepot with a lid, seven inches in diameter and three and a half inches high. I had gotten it at a yard sale for a good price—what did I have to lose? I greased the inside of the pot and put in a lump of dough. As the bread rose, I let the fire in our Jøtul stove burn down to coals. I held my hand in the firebox. It felt good and hot, the way an oven should be, so I put the bread in there, nestled it snugly among the coals, set my kitchen timer for 35 minutes, and went away to do something else while my bread baked.

When the timer rang, I hurried to the basement to see how my experiment had turned out. The whole basement smelled of burnt toast. Black smoke billowed from the bread pot. I grabbed the pot’s long handle with an oven mitt and raced past the smoke alarm, hoping not to set it off. I made it to the garage and set the pot on the concrete floor—none too gently, as the handle had melted the oven mitt and the palm of my hand was getting rather warm. With an un-melted section of the mitt, I knocked the lid off the pot. Inside lay a glistening black lump. Within minutes, smoke hung in the garage as it might above an all-night poker game.

Never one to waste food, I brought the blackened lump to the kitchen after it cooled. Maybe it’d be something I could feed to the chickens. As with a geode, however, I found a treasure inside. There was bread in there—tasty, fluffy, and moist. Even though the flavor of burnt toast remained, it was the best bread I had ever tasted.

The second time, I stayed in the basement beside the fire. After 15 minutes, I started smelling burnt toast. I took the pot out of the fire with an antique, spring-handled lid-lifter. This second loaf had a quarter inch of charcoal around it, but the bread inside was fine.

By the ninth loaf, I had it down. My hand now knows what’s too hot and too cool. If the coals are too hot and the rising dough is crawling out of the pot, I punch down the dough. If the loaf hasn’t risen and the coals are too few, I carefully add just enough kindling to keep the fire going until the bread is ready to bake.

I’ve learned to stay close to the wood stove when bread is baking in there. As soon as I start to smell that wonderful, fresh-bread aroma, I know it’s almost done. It takes only half the time—15 to 20 minutes—to bake bread in the wood stove as it takes in a conventional oven.

A favorite winter supper in my household is a hearty soup and homemade bread. The soup goes on top of the wood stove at 10 or 11 in the morning and simmers all day. I used to wince at having to turn on the whole, big, electric oven just to bake one loaf of bread to go with the soup. Now, I don’t have to.

Thanks, Gladys!

My 85-year-old friend, Gladys Thomas, used a wood cook stove all her life. After her children left the farm in Jericho and her husband died, she did her best to keep the place going by herself. As she grew older, members of her church tried to help.

“Now you just let that wood pile be, Gladys,” a church member told her on the phone one day, “and we’ll have a bunch of men come and split it for you.”

Gladys didn’t argue, but by the time the men showed up with axes and mauls, she already had her wood neatly split and stacked. Hearing this story from her years later, I resolved, at the age of 37, that I wanted to be just like Gladys when I grew up.

As much cooking as I had done on top of my standard wood heating stove, I never had success baking anything up there. I asked Gladys if she thought it might be possible to bake bread inside the firebox of the stove, instead. She considered it a moment. “With a wood cook stove, you stick your hand in the oven and see if the temperature feels right. I suppose it’d be the same inside your firebox.”
I gave it a try. I had a number three cast-iron saucepot with a lid, seven inches in diameter and three and a half inches high. I had gotten it at a yard sale for a good price—what did I have to lose? I greased the inside of the pot and put in a lump of dough. As the bread rose, I let the fire in our Jøtul stove burn down to coals. I held my hand in the firebox. It felt good and hot, the way an oven should be, so I put the bread in there, nestled it snugly among the coals, set my kitchen timer for 35 minutes, and went away to do something else while my bread baked.

When the timer rang, I hurried to the basement to see how my experiment had turned out. The whole basement smelled of burnt toast. Black smoke billowed from the bread pot. I grabbed the pot’s long handle with an oven mitt and raced past the smoke alarm, hoping not to set it off. I made it to the garage and set the pot on the concrete floor—none too gently, as the handle had melted the oven mitt and the palm of my hand was getting rather warm. With an un-melted section of the mitt, I knocked the lid off the pot. Inside lay a glistening black lump. Within minutes, smoke hung in the garage as it might above an all-night poker game.

Never one to waste food, I brought the blackened lump to the kitchen after it cooled. Maybe it’d be something I could feed to the chickens. As with a geode, however, I found a treasure inside. There was bread in there—tasty, fluffy, and moist. Even though the flavor of burnt toast remained, it was the best bread I had ever tasted.

The second time, I stayed in the basement beside the fire. After 15 minutes, I started smelling burnt toast. I took the pot out of the fire with an antique, spring-handled lid-lifter. This second loaf had a quarter inch of charcoal around it, but the bread inside was fine.

By the ninth loaf, I had it down. My hand now knows what’s too hot and too cool. If the coals are too hot and the rising dough is crawling out of the pot, I punch down the dough. If the loaf hasn’t risen and the coals are too few, I carefully add just enough kindling to keep the fire going until the bread is ready to bake.

I’ve learned to stay close to the wood stove when bread is baking in there. As soon as I start to smell that wonderful, fresh-bread aroma, I know it’s almost done. It takes only half the time—15 to 20 minutes—to bake bread in the wood stove as it takes in a conventional oven.

A favorite winter supper in my household is a hearty soup and homemade bread. The soup goes on top of the wood stove at 10 or 11 in the morning and simmers all day. I used to wince at having to turn on the whole, big, electric oven just to bake one loaf of bread to go with the soup. Now, I don’t have to.

Thanks, Gladys!

About the Author

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Chris Sims

Chris Sims, a lifelong gardener, turned in recent years to full-time homesteading and sheep farming. She and her husband make their home in Jericho.

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