Home Cooking with DIY Kitchen Equipment

I’m a huge fan of home-cooking and, even as a teenager, learned to prepare meals from scratch for myself, which was pretty miraculous in the 90s but even more so these days. Whatever the case, cooking at home with real food is a huge part of the permaculture lifestyle. After all, we have to do something with all the fruit and veggies we are growing.

Having a decent grasp on cooking just about anything, I feel, has put me at a serious advantage with regards to tackling certain perennial, “permaculture” crops that others might find challenging. I welcome the challenge.

What I’m newer to, however, is building my own cooking equipment. In the past couple of years, my wife Emma and I have been experimenting with several incarnations of homespun kitchen equipment, such as cob pizza oven and Coolgardie fridges, as we’ve tried to envision our future home, one in which we hope to build as an off-grid without modern appliances (save maybe a freezer).

The Cob Oven

Pizza Oven (Emma Gallagher)
Pizza Oven (Emma Gallagher)

They are fun and easy to make, that’s true enough. We’ve done a couple of them now and used a couple of others, throwing great pizza parties then cooking several loaves of bread as the oven cooled. Once the oven is sufficiently hot, quite an undertaking, it will turn out pizzas often in literally seconds and maintain a comparably quick pace (a couple of minutes each) for hours if fed wood slowly.

The problem I’ve had with cob ovens, at least the pizza variety, is that they require such an abundance of wood. It wouldn’t really be a practical way to cook for a few a people on a daily basis, but in the right situation, it could be a possibility for one or two well-planned days in which lots of things can be baked and dehydrated as the heat waxes and wanes.

Read about the first pizza oven we built.

The Rocket Stove

Most recently, we’ve been trying to solve our stove situation, ditching propane for an efficient wood-burning cooking stove. The rocket stove has seemed an obvious choice. We dig the ability use small diameter wood, stuff we could begin producing regularly in abundance within a year. We’ve done quite a bit of research about it, and we’ve even experimented with making a quickie version out of old tin cans.

First Run on the Rocket Stove (Emma Gallagher)
First Run on the Rocket Stove (Emma Gallagher)

It worked well enough for boiling a kettle, but when we tried to use the pressure cooker for a pot of beans, the heat just didn’t cut it. However, so far, for us, the rocket stove for us still feels a bit like a great theory. As a mass heater, something we don’t need in Central America, it seems practical enough compared to a fireplace, but with regards to cooking breakfast everyday, some pieces are still missing. We are still holding out to find them.

Here’s the tin can version we made.

The Coolgardie Safe

Coolgardie Safe in Progress (Emma Gallagher)
Coolgardie Safe in Progress (Emma Gallagher)

Refrigeration of some sort has also been a big concern of ours, as, here in the tropics, fresh food goes off quite quickly at room temperature. We’ve tentatively had the plan of including a solar-run chest freezer in our kitchen, but for our weekly fruit and veggies, we need a means of storing them longer. We learned about Australian’s own Coolgardie safe, a simple box that uses heat displacement through evaporation to keep things cool. We made one.

As vegans, fruit and veg and the occasional bit of leftovers are all we really need store, so we don’t have the worry of milk going bad or meat turning rancid, a definite advantage in this case. Even with lazy water techniques, our Coolgardie got the job done. Our market-bought veggies stayed true from weekend to weekend, and our odd pot of beans or container of pasta was always fine the next day. It wouldn’t have kept beer cold, but it worked.

Here’s some info on a Coolgardie fridge, and we’ve also considered the model Holmgren had done, as seen on Mollision’s Global Gardener series, which uses a cabinet with airy shelves set above a hole in the ground and with a heat vent going out of the top.

The Solar Dehydrator

Solar Dehydrator (Courtesy of fishermansdaughter)
Solar Dehydrator (Courtesy of fishermansdaughter)

The utility of a dehydrator when a garden is producing is unquestionable. In Panama, with mangoes dripping from the trees, we had our dehydrator full to the brim and constantly on for two or three months. And, that was without a well-established banana crop coming in, not to mention sweet potatoes (great dehydrator crisps), tomatoes, and so on. That was an electric dehydrator, though, and we are hoping to run a solar dehydrator.

We’ve yet to build our own, but we’ve helped restore one and watched a crude experimental version. The obvious issue from both cases was that, for us, in the wet/dry tropics, we basically have six months of each year when things are just far too humid to get it done. We’ll definitely include a solar dehydrator in our equipment, but we are also hoping to develop a system using the passive heat from our rocket stove and/or cob oven as a drying, air flow element for dehydrating in the wet season.

There are lots of solar dehydrator designs.

The Other Stuff

As our off-grid kitchen plans have continued to evolve, we’ve included lots of other equipment we’d like to have. Mason jars for pickling and simply storing things like dried herbs and spices. A pressure cooker is a must, for canning but especially for cooking dried beans faster. A hand grinder, which we’ve used for making rice flour, homemade chocolate (we’ve lived in the right places!), and various other things. We want a drying rack for dishes, pots and pans over our kitchen sink with greywater irrigation. We’ll be looking for cast iron cookware for longevity, both in heating and durability, and we hope to build counters and such either out of cob or repurposed wood. The whole thing well be open-air with the option of dropping screens in buggy weather.

For us, though, we are happy to have the time to experiment with different DIY kitchen equipment before building them permanently (as permanent as we do) into a space, which we don’t have yet. There are definitely some kinks and wrinkles to be ironed out of our attempts at building these devices, but the drive to make them work, to not succumb to convenience versions, at least the ones that are unsustainable and wasteful, like petroleum and coal power, remains strong and hopeful. Sometimes, it just helps to know other people are out there making them work.

P.S. We’d love to see and get details on an off-grid kitchen (not relying entirely on solar or using propane) that works as a daily set-up on a small-scale. If anyone out there is getting it done, providing some links in the comment section below would be an amazing inspiration for us (and I’m sure many others). We invite your sage-like wisdom into our lives.

Header Photo: Cooking by Fire (Courtesy of Josh Larios)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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