Following a widespread natural disaster or grid down situation, we are going to eventually look to our food storage for survival. You have been working on your food storage as well, correct? And depending on what you have been storing, you will, at a bare minimum, need to be able to heat up, if not cook, a large portion of your food. Many kitchen stoves are gas, which means they will probably still work when the power is out (keep a lighter handy as the igniter is probably electric and will not work). Following an earthquake, however, this might be a different story. You are going to want to have at least a backup method of cooking.

As I’ve mentioned before, I try to follow the rule of 3’s, which means, try to have at least 3 alternative cooking methods. Most of you probably already have 3 alternative methods, but may not even realize it. Do you have a barbeque? A camp stove? How about means of building a fire, including a small supply of firewood? How about a backup electric cook top? These are the obvious ones, and there are many more options out there. Let’s take a look at them, including their fuels, and you decide what you want to include as your backup cooking methods.

As we talk about these various cooking methods, please consider the fuels you will use, and know the limitations of those fuels. For example, make sure you know which of your stoves are “indoor safe” as opposed to “outdoor only.” Many of these fuels were covered last month in the Heating module, and I’m going to include them again, but this time as they pertain to cooking.

First, many people choose to include a small camp stove in their 72-hour kits. These camp stoves are very compact, very light, and quite efficient at heating things up and even handle some basic cooking. Options here include the Coleman type camp stoves as well as Sterno stoves. There are various other small options available at any camping store. I keep a small Coleman stove with a couple of fuel canisters in my 72-hour kit. It takes very little room and gives me the peace of mind knowing that I can at least cook my easy mac, instant oatmeal, and Ramon.

For a little heavier duty cooking, you always have your barbeque. Make sure you have several propane tanks on hand. Also consider the larger camp stoves. Coleman makes some great 2, 3, and even 4 burner stoves. These operate off of small propane canisters, and with a very inexpensive adapter and filter, you can hook them up to your larger propane tanks. After all, you already have several of these tanks stored for your barbeque, right?

If the stove in your kitchen is natural gas, it will be fully functional even if the power goes out, but keep some matches or a lighter handy as the electric igniter on your stove will not work. But if there is a moderate or greater earthquake, most cities, as a precaution, will shut off the natural gas to all the homes. So you are going to want to consider a backup for your indoor stove. They make single, dual, or even 4 burner electric stoves. You just plug them in and you're in business, but you are going to need electricity for one of these to work. I have a two burner electric stove that I will be able to run off of my small portable generator, if needed.

Charcoal is also a great way to cook. With several briquettes, a Dutch oven or a home made cardboard oven (see below for details on this), you can cook a lot of different things. If you have a generator, an electric stove is a great option. And then of course there is the open fire method of cooking. It may have been a while, but most of us have done this at least once or twice while camping. And those tinfoil dinners were some of the best dinners I’ve ever had. This provides several cooking options for you to choose from. While considering which options will work best for you, don’t forget to have some good camp cookware available, such as a mess kit, a Dutch oven, etc, and lots of tinfoil for the cooking you plan to do. One thing I learned as a kid while on my Boy Scout overnights is when cooking outdoors, always have a pair of leather gloves handy. They make great oven mitts.

Do you have a Kerosene heater? While our Shelter, Sleeping and Heating module talks about the benefits of heating with kerosene, you should consider these as a great cooking source as well. Because kerosene heaters put off so much heat, they are great to cook off of. Those heaters will boil a lot of water and fast. So take advantage of this and plan your kerosene heater use so that it doubles as your cooking source as well. Basically, just plan your cooking around your heating, or vice versa. And save those precious resources that would otherwise have to be allocated to boiling water and/or cooking.

A Note on Cooking Fuels:

  • Electric- great option as it is indoor safe, but they require electricity. They work well with a generator, but one must weight the cost of burning the fuel for the generator to generate the electricity necessary to cook. Maybe plan the cooking for times that generator operation is necessary for other functions.

  • Wood- Hardwoods such as apple, cherry, and other fruitwoods are slow burning and sustain coals. Hardwoods are more difficult to burn than softer woods, thus requiring a supply of kindling. Soft woods such as pine and cedar are lightweight and burn very rapidly, leaving ash and few coals for cooking. If you have a fireplace or a wood/coal-burning stove, you will want to store several cords of firewood. Firewood is usually sold by the cord, which is a wood pile that totals 128 cubic feet. This pile is four feet wide, four feet high, and eight feet long. Some dealers sell wood by the ton. As a general rule of thumb, a standard cord of air-dried dense hardwood weighs about two tons and provides as much heat as one ton of coal. Be suspicious of any alleged cord delivered in a ½ or ¾ ton pickup truck. For best results, wood should be seasoned (dried) properly, usually at least a year. A plastic tarp, wood planks, or other plastic or metal sheeting over the woodpile is useful in keeping the wood dry. With all this in mind, there are other types of fuels that are more practical to store and use than wood or coal.

  • Butane is a highly flammable, odorless, colorless hydrocarbon (a hydrocarbon is a compound of hydrogen and carbon) derived from petroleum. It is used primarily for camping, backyard cooking and in cigarette lighters. Butane exists in two forms: n-butane and isobutene. N-butane is technically butane fuel (where the n stands for normal).

  • Sterno fuel is a jellied petroleum product that is very light weight and easily ignited with a match or a spark from flint and steel. It is also safe for use indoors. One can of Sterno fuel, about the diameter of a can of tuna and twice as high, will allow you to cook six meals if used frugally. Sterno is not without some problems. It will evaporate very easily, even when the lid is securely fastened. If you use Sterno in your 72-hour kit, check it every six to eight months to insure that it has not evaporated beyond the point of usage. Because of this problem, it is not a good fuel for long-term storage. Compared to other fuels, Sterno is a very expensive fuel to use, but is extremely convenient and portable.

  • Coleman fuel (white gas) is another excellent and convenient fuel for cooking. It is not as portable nor as light as Sterno, but it produces a much greater BTU value. Like Sterno, Coleman fuel has a tendency to evaporate, even when the container is tightly sealed, so it is not a good fuel for long-term storage. Unlike Sterno, however, it is highly volatile. It can explode under the right conditions, and therefore, should never be stored in the home. Because of its highly flammable nature, great care should always be exercised when lighting stoves and lanterns that use Coleman fuel. Many serious burns have been caused by carelessness with this product. Always store Coleman fuel in the garage or shed. Like charcoal, Coleman fuel produces vast amounts of carbon monoxide, so NEVER use a Coleman Fuel stove indoors.

  • Propane is another excellent fuel, and if used correctly, is safe for indoor use (your specific stove instructions will indicate whether or not it is safe to use indoors). Carbon Monoxide is the product of incomplete gas combustion, often because appliances are improperly adjusted. Properly functioning propane appliances will produce what is called an "ideal burn" during combustion and present no danger of Carbon Monoxide poisoning. Incomplete propane combustion can occur in one of two ways: Lean burn is where the ratio of propane to air is less than 4 to 1. A lean burn can be recognized when flames appear to lift away from the burner and can potentially go out. Rich burn is where the ratio of propane to air is more than 4 to 1. A rich burn is when the flames are much larger than they are supposed to be and are largely yellow in color. Always make sure you check whether the device you’re using is rated as “indoor safe” or “outdoor only.” It does consume oxygen and produces carbon dioxide, so be sure to crack a window when burning propane. Propane stores indefinitely, having no known shelf life. Propane stoves and small portable heaters are very economical, simple to use, and come the closest to approximating the type of convenience most of us are accustomed to using on a daily basis.

  • Kerosene (aka Range Oil No. 1) is the cheapest of all the liquid storage fuels and is also very forgiving if you make a mistake. Kerosene is not as explosive as gasoline and Coleman fuel. Kerosene stores well for long periods of time, and by introducing some fuel additives, it can be made to store even longer. However, do not store it in metal containers for extended periods of time, unless they are porcelain lined, because the moisture in the kerosene will rust through the container causing the kerosene to leak out. Most hardware stores and home improvement centers sell kerosene in 5-gallon plastic containers, which store for many years. A 55-gallon drum stored in the backyard, or ten 5-gallon plastic containers is enough fuel to last an entire winter, if used sparingly.

To burn kerosene, you will need a kerosene heater. There are many models and sizes to choose from, but remember that you are not trying to heat your entire home. The larger the heater the more fuel you will have to store. Most families should be able to get by on a heater that produces between 10,000 and 20,000 BTU’s of heat, though kerosene heaters are made that will produce up to 180,000 BTU’s. If you have the storage space to store the fuel required by these larger heaters, they are an excellent investment, but for most families, the smaller heaters are more than adequate. When selecting a kerosene heater, be sure to get one that can double as a cooking surface (they also generate a decent amount light as well). They put off a ton of heat and are more than capable of boiling water or cooking as well. So plan to prepare your meals while you are using your heater. The heater to the right is a DuraHeat 23,800 BTU indoor safe portable kerosene heater. These are available at any sporting goods store or Home Depot.

When kerosene burns, it requires very little oxygen, compared to charcoal. You must crack a window about ¼ inch to allow enough oxygen to enter the room to prevent asphyxiation. During combustion, kerosene is not poisonous and is safe to use indoors. To prevent possible fires, you should always fill it outside. The momentary incomplete combustion during lighting and extinguishing of kerosene heaters can cause some unpleasant odors, so it is recommended that you always light and extinguish the heater outdoors. During normal operation, a kerosene heater is practically odorless.

A Note on Kerosene vs. Propane:

When it comes to portable space heaters, propane heaters and kerosene heaters are certainly the most popular. Each of these fuel types comes with their own advantages and disadvantages.

Propane is a clean-burning fuel and as a result, it is more popular in homes than kerosene heaters. Propane also produces low emissions, making it more environmentally friendly. Propane fuel is heavier than air and it is usually compressed into tanks. These tanks are sold at filling stations or hardware stores. One of the main problems with propane is that it is very combustible.

Kerosene fuel, unlike propane, comes in liquid form. This means that it doesn’t leak the same as propane. However, it does create small emissions and as a result, it is harder on the environment. Kerosene is capable of producing more heat per gallon of fuel than propane. When you consider the fact that propane costs more per gallon, kerosene is a far better fuel to use if you are concerned about value for your money.

  • Charcoal. Never use a charcoal-burning device indoors. When charcoal burns, it is a voracious consumer of oxygen and will quickly deplete the oxygen supply in your little “home within a home.” Furthermore, as it burns, it produces vast amounts of carbon monoxide, which is a deadly poison. If you make the mistake of trying to heat your home by burning charcoal, it could prove fatal to your entire family. Never burn charcoal indoors. With that said, charcoal is the least expensive fuel per BTU that the average family can store. Charcoal will store for extended period of time if it is stored in an airtight container. It readily absorbs moisture from the surrounding air, so do not store it in the paper bags it comes in for more than a few months or it may be difficult to light. Transfer it to an airtight metal or plastic container and it will keep almost forever.

Fifty or sixty dollars worth of charcoal will provide all the cooking fuel a family will need for an entire year, if used sparingly. The best time to buy briquettes is at the end of the summer. Broken or torn bags of briquettes are usually sold at a big discount. You will also want to store a small amount of charcoal lighter fluid (or kerosene). Newspapers will also provide an excellent ignition source for charcoal when used in a funnel type of lighting device.

To light charcoal using newspapers, use two or three sheets, crumpled up, and a #10 tin can. Cut both ends out of the can. Punch holes every two inches around the lower edge of the can with a punch-type can opener (for opening juice cans). Set the can down so the punch holes are on the bottom. Place the crumpled newspaper in the bottom of the can and place the charcoal briquettes on top of the newspaper. Lift the can slightly and light the newspaper. Prop a small rock under the bottom edge of the can to create a good draft. The briquettes will be ready to use in about 20-30 minutes. When the coals are ready, relocate them to your cooker (Dutch oven, cardboard box oven, etc). Never place burning charcoal directly on concrete or cement as the heat will crack it. A wheelbarrow or old metal garbage can lid makes an excellent container for this type of fire.

One of the nice things about charcoal is that you can regulate the heat you will receive from them. Each briquette will produce about 40 degrees of heat. So if you are baking bread and you need 400 degrees of heat for your oven, simply use ten briquettes (40 x 10 = 400).

To conserve heat and thereby get the maximum heat value from your charcoal, you must learn to funnel the heat where you want it, rather than letting it dissipate into the air around you. One excellent way to do this is to cook inside a cardboard oven.

To make a cardboard oven, take a cardboard box, about the size of an orange crate, and cover it with aluminum foil, inside and out. Be sure that the shiny side is visible so that maximum reflectivity is achieved. Turn the box on its side so that the opening is no longer on the top but is on the side. Place some small bricks or other noncombustible material (empty soda cans also work well) inside upon which you can rest a cooking grate (cookie sheets work well). Place ten (if you need 400 degrees) burning charcoal briquettes between the bricks or cans. Then place the cookie sheet or grate on top on the bricks or cans. Then place your item to be cooked on top of the cookie sheet or grate. Prop a foil-covered cardboard lid over the open side, leaving a large crack for air to get in (charcoal needs a lot of air to burn) and bake your bread, cake, cookies, etc. just like you would in your regular oven. Your results will amaze you.

I hope this information helps you as you consider which alternative cooking options you’d like to include in your emergency prep supply.

Page update: 2/16/21