Pothole Cooking

pothole cooking

Here is another article by Hangtown Frank on modifying a stove to make it more practical to cook on.


Except for heating, mine is an all-electric home. I heat part of the house in the winter with a 21-year-old Avalon brand wood-fired, air-tight, high-efficiency, non-catalytic home heating stove. Three years ago I modified this stove so that it could also be used for “stove top” cooking when the grid goes down during winter storms. Details of the modification and its performance are described below.

Note that this discussion concerns only the modification of the stove and the utensils compatible for use in the modified stove for various types of cooking. Directions for cooking various recipes that can be cooked on this stove can be found in books about cooking on woodstoves.

Topics discussed here in are: Modification of the Stove; Stove Temperature; Cooking Utensils; Boiled Foods; Simmered & Crock Pot Foods; Fried Foods; Baked Foods; Braised & Roasted Foods; Pressure Cooked Foods; and “Pothole” Ascetics.

Modification of the Stove

Most of the top of the stove is a sandwiched affair consisting of two ¼” thick steel plates about 1-½” apart. Convection draws cold air from under the stove and then into the space between the 2 plates and discharges warmed air into the room.

The exposed portion of the bottom plate of the sandwich (i.e., the top of the fire box) gets to a much higher temperature than the top plate (700°F vs. 400°F). A pot of water set upon the exposed portion of the lower plate will boil very quickly whereas the same pot set on the upper plate never boils.

Visual examination of the stove showed that an 8-½” diameter hole could be cut into the “cool” upper plate so that a cooking pot could be set upon the lower (i.e., the hotter) plate. Photo 1 shows the hole that was then cut. I call this hole my “pothole” and I call its use “pothole cooking”.

To make the hole, an 8-½” circle was scribed onto the right side of the upper plate. A 2-¼” space was left between the scribed line and the chimney to allow passage of the jigsaw that would cut the hole. A ½” diameter hole was then drilled tangent to the inner side of the scribed line. A small hand-held jig-saw equipped with a metal cutting blade was used to cut the 8-½” circle along the scribed line.

There is space for a second pothole the left side of the stove. For now this cooler surface that seems to be quite useful for keeping other things warm but not hot.

The tools I used for modification of the stove included: a hard & sharp pointed scribing tool (a nail or chalk might have worked); a 8-1/2” diameter cardboard marking template; a hand-held variable speed electric drill with a ¼” and ½” diameter drill bits (pilot hole and final hole); and a Skil brand ⅓ HP variable speed auto-scroll jigsaw electric powered jigsaw with metal cutting blade.

Pothole Cooking

Stove Temperature

Generally, my stove is hottest early in the morning while reheating the house to comfortable temperatures after a night of cooling. After the house gets comfortable again I maintain a much smaller fire.

For cooking, it is helpful to know the temperature of the hot surface in the bottom of the pothole. To measure this, I set a ‘chimney thermometer’ on the hot surface in front of the pothole – see photo 1. These can measure temperatures up to 900°F. They can be obtained at Placerville Hardware on Main Street in old town Hangtown or online at Lehmans.com

Early in the day my stove temperatures run at about 600°F. Later I let them fall to 300 – 400°F. Depending on the type cooking being done, my pothole cooking generally is done at hot plate temperatures between 350°F and 600°F. It is helpful to schedule your cooking activities to match your home heating needs – quick & hot cooking in the early hours and slow & cooler cooking later in the day.

Cooking Utensils

Much of what can be cooked and how you cook it in the pothole depends on your cooking utensils. In all cases, the diameter of the utensil being used must smaller than pothole diameter. For me that is less than 8-½”. Also, handles on the pot or pan must be high enough up the side or the utensil so that they don’t contact the upper plate. For my stove that value is greater than 1-¾”.

Aside from pots and pans that satisfy these constraints, other useful utensils include the aforementioned chimney thermometers (2 – one for the hot plate & one for the cold plate), pot/pan lifters, hot pads/gloves, trivets to raise the cooking pot to various heights above the hot plate, and a “NorPro Instant Read” 0 – 220°F kitchen thermometer that can be immersed in the pot to monitor cooking temperatures in the pot. Trivets are discussed later.

During following discussions you will observe that ceramic and glass cooking utensils are mentioned for use in pothole cooking. They work well. BUT, be aware that these can break if not properly handled. If breakage were to occur in or around the pothole the resultant mess would be much more difficult to clean up that if it occurred on a conventional cooking range.

Boiled Foods

For boiling things, simply set the pot in the pothole. However, bottom of the pot must be flat. Ridges on the bottom of the pot prevent full contact of the pot with the hot cooking surface.

I have an old enamelware camp coffee pot that has a ridge around the outer diameter of the pot’s bottom. This causes an air gap of about ⅛” under the pot and prevents bringing the water to a full boil. To solve this problem I took a small piece of ¼” thick flat aluminum plate and cut it to fit into the space within the diameter of the ridge. I set this on the hot surface of the stove and then set the pot on top of it – problem solved.

pothole cooking
Coffee pot with aluminum plate
pothole cooking
Coffee pot setting on aluminum plate

Boiling some thickened things (stews, sauces, and porridges) requires constant stirring to prevent their sticking and burning. To avoid the need for frequent stirring use a double boiler.

Simmered & Crock Pot Foods

There are no controls on the stove to control the temperature of the cooking surface. To simmer foods on a hot stove, place a trivet under the food pot. Trivets of various heights can be purchased. I fashioned a star shaped one from a wire coat hanger. You can also let the fire die down and/or close down the air intake to reduce the burn rate of the fuel. The stove thermometer shown in photo 1 can help you maintain a fairly constant low simmering temperature.

Many ceramic pots (e.g. crock pots) and casserole dishes have a ridge around the bottom of their bottom outside surface. This ridge limits the area of the utensil that contacts the hot surface of the stove. This functions as a trivet.

I have found that I can heat a 2 quart ceramic casserole with 1 quart of water in it up to a 200°F in 80 minutes when starting with a cold stove. When the stove top is at 500°F the contents will come to a rolling boil soon after placing the cool pot on the stove. For ‘crock pot foods’ this is too hot. Rather than dampening the fire I simply place a star-shaped thin wire trivet under the pot/dish. This increases the air gap by about 1/8” and the pot/dish contents temperature soon drops to about 200°F – ideal for slow cooking. I fashioned my wire trivet from a wire clothes hanger.

Note that many glass and ceramic baking dishes and casseroles do not have handles of any sort. When wearing hot gloves or using hot pads these utensils are hard to grasp properly for lifting. In this case it would be much safer to use the cast iron ‘serving pot’ that is shown and discussed in the braised & roasted foods section later in this discussion.

Fried Foods

I have tried this. Handles for frying pans that could fit within the pothole (less than 8-½” diameter) are too low and contact the upper surface of the pot hole. Removing (hacksaw) the handle of a cast iron frying pan frying pan solved this problem.

To put the pan into the pothole and later remove it from the hole, grasp the side of the pan with of a pair of pliers or an antique canning jar lifter as shown in photo 4.

pothole cooking
Antique canning jar lifter for moving mutilated frying pan It works similar to parrot-nosed pliers

Antique canning jar lifter for moving mutilated frying pan

It works similar to parrot-nosed pliers

Lack of temperature control made frying very problematic. Further, frying greasy things can be very messy on a heating stove. My advice – excepting for cooking pancakes, forget most pothole frying.

Baked Foods

Baked foods require an oven which my pothole stove lacks. Baking also requires temperature control to prevent burning of the baked goods. However, the oven and its temperature control can be improvised.

To provide temperature control I use a wire trivet from one of my crock pots and set it in the hot pothole surface. I then place the baking pan and its contents on top of this trivet and then cover this with an inverted ceramic flower pot. The trivet’s legs raise the baking pan about 1”.

I use 3 sizes of baking pans in this oven. The first is a 6-¾” x 3” x 2” deep rectangular loaf pan. The second is a 7-½” diameter x 4” deep covered round baking pan from a crock pot. The third is the previously mentioned 8” diameter handle-less cast iron frying pan. Photos 5 – 8 show the trivet alone in the pothole and with the baking pans that I use. Note that the use of the 1” high wire trivet raises the baking pans enough to allow for good air circulation from the hot surface of the stove and up into the ceramic oven top.

pothole cooking
1” high round trivet in pot hole
pothole cooking
Dough in small loaf pan on trivet
pothole cooking
Crock-pot bread-baking pan on trivet

The ceramic flower pot has a 10-½” rim diameter which allows for easy placement over the pothole. In the region of the baking pans the flower pot has a 9” inside diameter which allows for adequate circulation of hot air into the upper parts of the “oven”. Photo 9 shows the ceramic pot emplaced over the pothole. It is glazed inside and out. This makes it easier to clean. Mine had been used several years as a flower pot and it has permanent cosmetic stains to prove it. These stains might offend the delicate souls among us. But, it is hygienic nevertheless. An unglazed terracotta pot could also be used.

pothole cooking
Mutilated cast iron frying pan
pothole cooking
Ceramic flowerpot cover for the pothole oven

Pothole baking is different than baking in your conventional kitchen range oven or in the oven of a traditional wood-fired cooking stove.

Pot hole baking takes longer than regular baking. That’s because the heat comes mostly from below rather than from all sides as in a conventional oven.

With pothole baking it is easy to burn the bottom crust while having a minimally browned top crust and a partially cooked interior. You may find it necessary to use some aluminum foil between the bottom of the baking pan and its trivet to prevent burning.

To ensure interior “doneness” I place a “NorPro Instant Read” 0 – 220°F kitchen thermometer in the center of the loaf when I begin to smell the bread baking. At this time the top crust is strong enough to prevent toppling of the thermometer. When the interior temperature of the bread gets to 200°F the bread is “done”. Photo 10 shows the thermometer emplaced in a partially baked loaf of bread.

pothole cooking
Thermometer emplaced for “doneness” measurement

Even when “done” on the inside the top crust of pothole baked bread won’t be as brown as the bottom crust. However, for me, that’s not a problem – it’s simply different than what I was accustomed to with conventionally baked bread.

Braised and Roasted Foods

I’m having a difficult time distinguishing between braised and roasted foods. As I understand culinary terminology, roasting is a dry atmosphere process whereas braising is a moist atmosphere process. However, I have often seen things were called “roast” being cooked in a covered roasting pan that would retain moisture from the cooking foods and thereby provide a moist (i.e., braising) atmosphere. So, I’m not sure which term should be applied to the following discussion.

Since what I’m doing uses a covered “roasting pan” designed to self-baste the foods being cooked I would guess that what I’m doing would properly be called braising. I would also guess that to truly roast things such as meat, a flower pot oven arrangement similar to that described earlier for baking could be done in my pothole simply by removing the lid on my roasting pan. My roasting pan consists of a Lodge 2 quart cast iron “serving pot” I found at Placerville Hardware (Lodge item number L25P3). It fits my pothole nicely and it has the conical nipples inside the lid – the ones that provide a self-basting feature. I’m still learning to use it.

My first experiment was braising/roasting some freeze-dried pork chops with dehydrated veggies (potato slices, carrot dices, celery, onions, garlic granules, and mixed bell peppers), water to rehydrate things, and some butter. Stovetop temperature ranged between 300°F and 400°F.

The “aroma therapy” from this was fantastic. The food was quite edible and would have been much better with fresh veggies AND if it had been done by an experienced braising/roasting chef.

My second experiment used a can of Spam Lite plus some canned potato and carrot slices plus dehydrated celery, onions, garlic granules, mixed bell peppers, garlic and Mrs. Dash’s Table Blend seasoning. This was even better than the first experiment.

My third experiment was a 2 pound fresh pork pot roast along with assorted dehydrated veggies and dehydrated potatoes plus ¼ of a red onion. After a bit less than 4 hours I feasted on this delightful extravaganza. The pork was tender enough to cut with the side of my fork.

When cooking in this manner it is possible to burn your foods. To prevent this I insert a star shaped wire trivet under the pot after it gets up to temperature.

The big thing that I learned thus far is that braising/roasting on my pothole stove is a winner.

Photo 11 shows my “roasting pan’ (aka “serving pot”) setting in the pothole. Note that this pan/pot has handles rather than a wire lifting bail. For me, that is no problem so long as I use hot pads when lifting it.

Covered cast iron “serving pot” emplaced in pothole

Pressure Cooked Foods

I have an 8” diameter x 5” deep pressure cooker that fits the pothole nicely and I have used it for pressure cooking of various things and pressure canning 4 half-pint jars of soups, stews, and meats. This requires constant attention to ensure that the rate of heating (speed of pressure cap rocking) does not become excessive. You may have to reduce to air flow to the fire to slow the rate of rocking or and place the previously mentioned wire trivet under the pot.

Do not attempt to do pressure cooking and canning in the pothole until after you have become thoroughly experienced using it on a conventional gas or electric kitchen range. Photo 12 shows my pressure cooker emplaced in the pothole.

pothole cooking

Pothole Ascetics

There is a four-letter word to describe the ascetics of the pothole – UGLY. However, ascetics were low on my late wife’s priority list when it came to preparedness. She solved the problem to her satisfaction with a “repurposed” pot lid as shown in photo 13.

pothole cooking
Ugly Cover

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