Alcohol is one of the safest fuels to burn indoors. It has an indefinite shelf life and is fairly safe to store long term, making it a valuable fuel for emergency preparedness. We decided to experiment with different alcohols to determine exactly which alcohol is the best choice for cooking indoors.
What is the best alcohol to use for emergency cooking? Our testing determined that denatured alcohol is the best choice for cooking. It burns hot, clean, is reasonably priced and highly efficient. We also tested isopropyl alcohol, Everclear and SafeHeat. The results of our testing were not exactly what we had expected.
Jonathan ranked each of the alcohols as noted below. Read on to see why.
# 1 – Denatured Alcohol – 16 Cents an Ounce
Advantages: Hot, clean flame that produces a very small amount of soot and almost no odor when burned. Reasonably priced.
Denatured alcohol is an excellent alcohol fuel and is readily available in stores in both the camping section under the label of “alcohol fuel” or in the paint section labeled “denatured alcohol”. Manufacturers of devices that burn alcohol usually recommend denatured alcohol for fuel. It has unique characteristics (clean, hot, flame with little soot or odor) that make it the top pick for burning.
Denatured alcohol will store indefinitely in a tightly sealed container. The shelf life varies depending on the type of container it is stored in. The manufacturer of Klean Strip Denatured Alcohol recommends the following storage conditions:
Keep container tightly closed when not in use. Store in a cool, dry place. Do not store near any source of heat or open flame, furnace areas, pilot lights, stoves, etc.
#2 – SafeHeat – 17 Cents an Ounce
Advantages: Disposable can, clean almost invisible flame, and inexpensive
Disadvantages: Does not cook as hot as other varieties of alcohol
Canned heat comes in a small metal can filled with alcohol or a flammable gel that does not burn quickly. These fuel cans are made to be used as a chafing dish fuel or in a portable Sterno camping stove. Not all varieties of canned heat or Sterno are safe to use indoors. Carefully read the label. The amount of burn time varies by variety. Burn time can be anywhere from 2-6 hours so be sure to note that little tidbit to ensure you have enough fuel to complete the job.
SafeHeat is our personal favorite because it can be safely burned indoors, stores neatly, is inexpensive and portable. It may be purchased in cases of 12 cans that stack and store nicely. The cans are disposable which means there is no mess or risk of spills. Shelf life of unopened cans is 10 years if stored in a cool, dry place. Click here for current pricing on SafeHeat.
SafeHeat does not burn as hot as denatured alcohol and requires a significantly longer cook time which is a bit frustrating. Conservation techniques such as using a lid, or perhaps using 2 or 3 cans at a time, will produce better results. Note that the manufacturer does not recommend using more than two cans at a time and some stoves will not accommodate an additional can.
Sterno recommends the following storage guidelines for safely storing SafeHeat:
Store in a cool location. Store away from foodstuffs. Do not store together with oxidizing and acidic materials. Do not store together with alkalis (caustic solutions). Store in cool, dry conditions in well sealed receptacles.
SafeHeat creates an almost invisible flame which goes straight up with little spread. This direct heat requires frequent stirring to prevent scorching.
#3 – Ethanol or Ethyl (Everclear) – 96 Cents an Ounce
Advantages: Hot, clean flame that produces a small amount of soot and little odor when burned.
Cost is the only reason why SafeHeat beat out Everclear in our ranking. Everclear can be a bit cost prohibitive, but in every other way it is a fabulous cooking alcohol. It definitely out performs SafeHeat.
Everclear is a grain alcohol that can be purchased at a liquor store and is about 95 percent alcohol. One benefit to storing Everclear is the value it may have when it comes to bartering during an extended grid down situation. It burns cleanly with a blue flame. It produces some soot and almost no odor when burned. Other than the expense, Everclear is a fantastic choice for a cooking fuel.
# 4 – 91% Isopropyl Alcohol – 8 Cents an Ounce
Advantages: Inexpensive, does not burn as hot as denatured alcohol or Everclear.
Disadvantages: High, yellow, sooty flame that is a bit smelly and messy to clean off pots.
Isopropyl alcohol is by far the cheapest of all the fuels we tested, but it did not perform as well as the other fuels. Isopropyl alcohol produces a dirty, yellow, sooty flame when it burns. It is the only one of the alcohols that we tested that has an offensive odor when it is burning. The bottom of the pan was covered with soot that had to be scrubbed off using a lot of muscle and a Brillo pad.
Rubbing alcohol (isopropyl) is an acceptable alcohol fuel. It may be purchased in different strengths. The higher the percentage of alcohol, the better it will burn. There are two types of rubbing alcohol readily available, 70 percent and 91 percent strength. The 91 percent strength will burn better due to the higher alcohol content whereas the 70 percent strength contains 30 percent water (water does not burn). 99 percent isopropyl alcohol is a bit more challenging to find, but can be purchased online. Check price here.
According to one manufacturer, isopropyl alcohol should be stored and handled with these simple precautions:
Handle containers carefully to prevent damage and spillage. Incompatible materials: Anhydride, isocyanate, monomer and organo-metallic. Keep away from heat, sparks and open flames. Keep container closed.
I would personally not store isopropyl alcohol to use as a cooking fuel, but would definitely use it for cooking if that is all I had. Denatured alcohol is a much better choice and worth the extra expense to ensure you have a quality fuel when you need it.
Alcohol Fuel Test Results
We tested each variety of alcohol in the following categories below. The results were quite revealing.
We calculated the cost of each form of alcohol by the ounce. Everclear was the most expensive form of alcohol at $.96 an ounce. Isopropyl alcohol was the least expensive at $.08 cents an ounce. When comparing these two fuels, you get what you pay for. Denatured alcohol and SafeHeat are similarly priced and good options.
Amount of Alcohol to Boil 2 Cups of Water
Jonathan weighed out the amount of fuel before and after bringing the water to a boil to determine the exact amount of fuel used in the cooking process. The fuel consumption results were similar:
- Denatured alcohol burned 1.2 ounces
- Everclear burned 1.2 ounces
- Isopropyl (91%) burned 1 ounce
- SafeHeat only burned 1 ounce, but never reached a true boil. It hovered at 189 degrees until covered with lid and then it achieved a rolling boil.
Time to Reach Boiling Point
Denatured alcohol, Everclear and 91% isopropyl alcohol achieved similar results when the amount of time to reach boiling was compared. Denatured alcohol was 9.83 minutes, Everclear right behind at 10.05 minutes and isopropyl alcohol was only lagging by a minute at 11.25 minutes to reach boiling.
This experiment was conducted without a lid on any of the pots. SafeHeat did not achieve boiling, even after 30 minutes. Once a lid was placed on top of the pot the water boiled within just a few additional minutes.
Cost to Boil 2 Cups of Water
The least expensive fuel to bring 2 cups of water to a boil is isopropyl at a total cost of $.08 to bring the water to a boil. Denatured alcohol came in at $.19 and Everclear at $1.15 to bring the same 2 cups of water to a boil. SafeHeat was only successful in achieving a boil when the lid was added to the pot. We are unable to include it in the results because the parameters of the experiment had to be changed to successfully reach a boil.
We compared the flame produced by each variety of alcohol as you can see in the photo below.
- Denatured alcohol produced the cleanest flame of all of the alcohols. It burned hot, blue and did not leave any observable soot.
- Everclear produced a flame very similar to denatured alcohol. It did produce some mild soot, but overall was a hot, blue, clean flame
- SafeHeat produced a blue, practically invisible flame. It has a very direct flame with no residual soot produced.
- Isopropyl alcohol (91%) produced a wild, dirty, yellow flame along with a significant amount of soot.
Any flame has the potential to produce carbon monoxide when there is insufficient oxygen for complete combustion. Therefore, it is possible for even these pure forms of alcohol to produce carbon monoxide. Note the digital carbon monoxide detector in the background of the photo above. We conducted this research in a small room and burned alcohol for several hours. The door to access the rest of the home was opened periodically to gather needed items.
The carbon monoxide detector never registered any observable levels. I am confident that clean forms of alcohol are a very low risk option for indoor cooking during emergencies.
How Much Alcohol Fuel to Store
Just how much alcohol should you store to meet your indoor cooking needs when disaster strikes? I wish I could give you a straight answer. The amount of alcohol required depends on the stove you use, the type of alcohol that you burn, what you want to cook, and how long you plan to be without power.
Jonathan prepared this little table to help give you a baseline for your calculations. The numbers are based on the amount of alcohol fuel required to bring 2 cups of water to a boil. The Safe Heat would not actually boil until we covered the pot with a lid and then it performed nicely. Conservation methods can decrease the amount of fuel you need to get the job done.
As noted on the table, I plan to store more that what my minimum calculations indicate to ensure that I have enough fuel when the unexpected happens. When stored correctly, alcohol will remain viable indefinitely. You don’t need to worry about rotating it or it going bad.
Practice cooking with your choice of alcohol to ensure you have the tools and skills you need to make cooking indoors the least of your worries when disaster strikes.
Our Overall Impressions
Alcohol is a great fuel for indoor cooking and has a long shelf life when stored appropriately. It is a valuable resource to add to your long term emergency storage. We will store isopropyl alcohol for medicinal purposes, but not as a cooking fuel. I just didn’t like the way it performed as a fuel. Each of the other fuels; denatured alcohol, Everclear and SafeHeat are great candidates for our personal storage.
The ability to safely cook indoors may be vital in an emergency situation. Alcohol is an inexpensive, safe option with a very long storage life. Perhaps it is time to stock up!
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