Cooking on a wood-burning stove

The Arab oil embargo in 1973 changed burning wood for supplementary home heating from picturesque to practical. Since then, sales of wood stoves have skyrocketed and old-fashioned woodpiles have become a common sight on front porches, under sheds, and in side yards in many sections of the country.

Another trend, cooking with wood, is gaining strength as the popularity of wood for home heating grows. When considered against the scope of American history, it seems that wood-burning cookstoves have never been far from the kitchen.

People now in their second half-century remember the ''big black monsters'' that stood in the kitchen during their childhood. They recall woodsheds and indoor wood boxes that had to be filled in zero temperatures.

These are memories. But there are kitchens where the wood burning cookstove still reigns supreme.

Two such exist in the village of Berlin, N.Y., in the Berkshire Mountain foothills not far from the Massachusetts border. Mrs. Wesley Huff and Mrs. Albert Yerden, both descendants of German families who settled Berlin more than 200 years ago, grew up with wood-burning cookstoves and, as yet, they haven't found a cooking device that's their equal.

Elsie Yerden lives atop Berlin Mountain in a 200-year-old dwelling that started life as a plank house held together by wooden pins. She has a gas stove in her summer kitchen, but her wood burning cookstove is her pride and joy.

Betty Huff and Elsie Yerden emphasize that cooking with wood should be learned through experience. ''You can't find out by reading a book,'' Mrs. Huff tells young people. Stove owners must invest time in learning to adjust dampers, as many as four of them, to get the necessary heat levels.

The entire surface of a wood burning cookstove can be used, but finding the correct temperature for each dish requires moving pots and pans to different areas.

On some stoves, for instance, the front burners are much hotter than the back ones. (Despite Mrs. Huff's observation, books can be a great help. Cooperative Extension Services have excellent brochures. The Country Journal Woodburner's Cookbook explores baking on the top of wood or coal stoves, and related subjects.)

Experience is paramount when it comes to baking in such a stove. Most have temperature gauges on the oven door, but these are guides or warning devices, because they measure temperature at the front of the oven but not the rear.

''The gauge at the front of the oven,'' Mrs. Huff repeats as if hearing about an invention from Mars -- ''I've never used that thing in my life,'' she explains. ''I hold my hand in the oven and I can tell whether the temperature has reached 375 degrees, about right for baking a cake. Stove Top Cornbread (Hoecake) 1 cup flour 3/4 cup cornmeal 2 teaspoons baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon sugar 3/4 cup milk 1 large egg 1/4 cup shortening

Mix dry ingredients thoroughly in bowl. Add egg, then milk, until mixture is about the consistency of mashed potatoes. Add 1/4 cup shortening, melted in iron skillet. Cook mixture in same skillet. With spatula, turn carefully or invert into a second hot skillet. Cut into wedge servings when done. In New York State, hoecake was often eaten for breakfast with maple syrup.

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