In late 2010 we moved into our new ICF (insulated concrete form) home: it’s a bungalow with a walk-out basement that was built into the side of a hill and to maximize southern exposure. Although we installed a natural gas furnace, we’re realizing that with the Esse Ironheart woodstove that we purchased and situated in the centre of our main floor, we probably didn’t need to do this. This year we’re setting ourselves the challenge of heating the house 100% with the Esse Ironheart’s clean woodburning heat. In this series I will document our progress with this target, our observations and tips, and also our efforts to cook and bake as much as possible on the Ironheart instead of using our conventional electric stove.
November has been a month with wide temperature swings; we’ve had quite a few days this month with no need to heat our home, and other days where warming the house with the woodstove was very welcome. That has made it tricky to get into good routines with the Ironheart, but we’re getting there.
My own personal weakness in this area is that when I’m preparing to cook a meal I may often be setting a pot of water to boil, and it’s deeply ingrained in me to do this on the top of our conventional stove. I’m having to work to train myself to take this activity to the Ironheart. Baking or heating a casserole-type dish is the area where I find it easiest to remember the woodstove, and I find that I’ll naturally follow the woodstove’s temperature reading to see when it will be ready to heat something in the oven. Part of that is also naturally to do with the fact that baking or making a casserole or lasagna generally involves a little bit more forethought or planning, unlike walking into the kitchen to boil water for pasta for a quick lunch.
Now, this is where I need to add that regulating the heat in the Ironheart is not something that we’ve finetuned yet. The Ironheart comes equipped with a temperature gauge with a needle that tracks across a dial that reads ‘Cool, ‘Warm’, ‘Hot’ and ‘Very Hot’. To date, we’ve managed to successfully make bread, pizzas, and a pumpkin pie all without the aid of an internal stove thermometer, but it’s time that we bit that bullet. Today I burned a double batch of banana bread, which was really frustrating. The mistake was all mine: the trend we’ve noticed so far is that even when the dial reads ‘Very Hot’, it can take somewhat longer to bake an item than it would take to cook in our conventional electric oven. On this basis alone I set the timer for the amount of time that I would normally bake the loaves in the conventional oven and proceeded to forget all about them. When the time came to pull them out, disappointment was mine. There are two small shelves inside the oven, and it’s the loaf on the upper shelf that had a nearly charred top (inside it was still pretty nice; we just cut off the burnt shell!). The lower loaf was ‘overbrowned’ rather than burnt, and it’s the loaf that my husband and I will eat anyway. (When making banana bread, I typically double the batch and bake one loaf plain for my sons and bake the other with dates, nuts or other more textural additions).
Overall, we’ve cooked and baked a fair amount on the Ironheart this month, including breakfast fry-ups, sauteing various dishes, heating up casseroles, baking bread, pumpkin pie and banana bread. In general, the results have been good: the cooking surface on top of the stove heats up very quickly and it’s possible to start preparing a meal on top of the Ironheart within minutes of lighting the day’s fire in the firebox. I haven’t yet timed how long it typically takes to get to a good baking temperature inside the oven box, but it’s definitely within the hour as suggested by Esse in its documentation.
Regulating the temperature of a woodstove is a lost skill for many modern folk, ourselves included; we’re undergoing a real learning experience and fortunately enjoying it very much. There is something extremely simple and satisfying about starting the first fire of the day, getting the stove to cooking/baking strength and then managing the heat peaks and troughs throughout the day. The challenges that we’ve got include:
1. No hob lids; we’re still unclear from Esse whether our Ironheart should have come with lids as standard, but we’re in the process of ordering a pair (the question of the lids is a whole other saga which I plan to write about: the Ironheart is one of the best finds of our lives, but so far the North American support/sales arm has been disappointing). Hob lids are key to keeping the heat inside the stove and so, unless you are cooking on top, you would normally have the lids in the closed position unless you needed the extra heat that emanates out from the top of the stove. We most certainly do not need that extra heat usually because our home is so airtight and energy efficient.
2. Further to point 1 above, our house is made out of insulated concrete forms (ICF) and it retains heat incredibly well. Last winter when we were just getting acquainted with our Ironheart, we regularly experienced temperature spikes approaching 30 degrees celsius! It was summer clothes in January at our house until we learned how to make smaller, more controlled fires in the Ironheart (a topic I will cover in a future post), thereby keeping the heat production down. We’re definitely doing better with this overall this year, but getting our lids will be a welcome development. The wonderful upside to the fact that our house is concrete is the fact that it retains heat so well: as long as we regulate the temperature rise from the woodstove, we’re always toasty and on very, very little wood. Even in the coldest months, the house generally doesn’t fall below 18 degrees celsius overnight, and that’s with allowing the fire in the woodstove to die out early in the evening. The Ironheart is so safe and efficient that you could easily keep a fire burning in it overnight if you needed to, but we just don’t have the need. So, overall, the fact that our house is ICF is most definitely a huge advantage rather than a disadvantage, but it does present a challenge in terms of heat spikes.
3. I think our third challenge is just our need to completely adapt to living with a woodstove. We’re needing to put some time and energy into thinking about our meal plans and how we cook in the colder months so that we take full advantage of the cooking and baking options offered by the Ironheart. With some planning, we really shouldn’t need to be consuming much electricity to prepare our meals in the cold months, as the Ironheart can do it all for us. My current reading pile includes a couple of woodstove cookbooks and it’s helping me to think a bit differently about meal preparation. (I will be posting about our plans for cooking and baking in the hot months as part of this series, when using the Ironheart inside of our home would be madness!)
Because I’m composing this post at a truck stop (really!) tonight, I don’t have the photos to hand that I wanted to share with this post, but you can look forward to burnt banana bread some time soon.