Written by Steve Osborn

Cooking When the Utilities Are Out

Whether you need to cook in an emergency depends on your tolerance for snack foods. For most people, after a few meals of dried fruit, granola and energy bars, crackers, beef jerky and Crystalite, you will be as happy for something hot and tasty as the America G.I.’s were in WWII when they were lucky enough to capture a German camp kitchen, and could eat something other than their C-rations.


Here are a few options:

Stove inserts -You can cook on top of a wood stove, of course. Many stove inserts don’t leave a very large area for cooking, however, and so are not ideal. Some older wood stoves made for cooking have an oven in them.

Fireplaces - Cooking over an open flame is not easy, and requires tongs or other implements for lifting pots on and off the fire. Cooking over coals is easier, and the heat is more consistent.

Coleman-type camp stoves produce a lot of heat and allow you to cook on two or three burners at once, depending on the model, but a little practice is valuable. These stoves are large and don’t transport well, but do a good job of cooking if working properly. After long use the gaskets on the thumb pump need replacing. Check yours to be sure it working well. There are shops in the Valley which repair these stoves for a reasonable price. These stoves require white gas, often called Coleman fuel, which costs about eight dollars per gallon, and is less explosive than gasoline. Don’t use these or similar stoves indoors.

Backpacking stoves commonly burn white gas, but some will run on kerosene, gasoline, and some on propane and butane. Butane is a clean fuel, but doesn’t work well in cold weather. Most require a stand to hold a pot, and allow cooking only one item at a time, but if operated correctly, can be quite efficient; many weigh under a pound. Practice using these – you don’t want to learn to use it for the first time in an emergency.

Alcohol Stoves are popular with lightweight backpackers, and can be made from an aluminum Pepsi or Heineken can according to instruction to be found on the Internet. These stoves require denatured alcohol or pure ethanol; isopropyl alcohol found in the pharmacy is 30% water, and so is a poor fuel. Alcohol burns with about half the heat of a white gas stove, so it takes longer to cook a meal; these are best for just heating water and simple meals that require little cooking. Two oz. of alcohol will keep a small stove going for 10-15 minutes. Some backpacking and emergency stoves run on fuel tabs or Sterno.

Dutch ovens are made in many sizes, from two quarts to 12 quarts or larger. The six-quart, 12-inch model is most popular but these are heavy, weighting about 22 lbs, so you don’t want to carry it far. The traditional cast-iron Dutch oven is almost indestructible, and can be used to cook just about anything you can cook on a home stove or oven, from stews, to pies, biscuits, or bread on an outdoor fire, usually over wood coals or charcoal briquettes, or in a confined space, such as in a Volcano stove (12-inch dia. max.). They say that the flat lid of a Dutch oven can be inverted and used as a skillet. Dutch ovens are usually used over coals or charcoal. The typical Dutch oven has three legs so it can stand up over the coals. For baking, put coals or briquettes on top of the lid.

Propane Bar-B-Que grills are designed for grilling meat, but can also be used for heating pots and pans. Many have a side burner for heating pots. Extra propane cylinders may be desirable.

Solar Ovens can be made from simple materials, such as a cardboard box and tin foil, or you can buy them commercially made; some cost up to $300. A solar oven requires reflected light from the sun to cook the food, and so can only be done during the part of the day when the sun is high, and when there is minimal cloud cover. Food must be prepared before the midday, and needs to be cut into smaller pieces to cook properly. Most homemade solar ovens reach temperatures of 250-300o F., enough to boil water and cook most foods, but it takes longer than a normal oven. One benefit is that you can hardly overcook food in a solar oven. There are designs and instructions on line. A black pot to absorb the light works best. Covering the pot to keep the heat in improves efficiency. Building one could be a fun family or Scout project.

Volcano stoves, belying their name, are reportedly quite dependable and can be used to cook with wood, charcoal, or with added attachments, a five-gallon propane tank or smaller propane cylinders. A round 18-gage steel shell which sits on legs and keeps the heat of fuel in a chamber where its more efficient than an open fire; when expanded, the stove is about 18 inches high and can be used for grilling, or with a pot, pan or 12-inch Dutch oven. Collapsed, the stove is six inches high by 16 inches in diameter. The legs raise the stove so you can cook on a table. A Springville, Utah company makes this well stove which has been well reviewed. Jeremy Wall has used one of these at home, and on Scout campouts.

Storing Fuel - Coleman fuel (white gas), propane, butane, kerosene and gasoline fuel should not be stored in the house or in your garage: not only is doing so unsafe; it may void your fire insurance policy.

If you have further questions or concerns please contact:

Steve Osborn, Emergency Preparedness Coordinator

Cell: (801) 856-9128