A winter storm rages outside when suddenly you are surrounded by an eerily, silent darkness. After grabbing a flashlight you realize that in a few minutes your hungry family is going to want to eat. How are you going to cook dinner without electricity?
Preparing to safely cook indoors may be easier than you might think. There are a variety of great indoor cooking devices and fuels that you can safely use to cook indoors. The trick is to use a combination of the right device and the right fuel for indoor use.
These are our top picks for safe indoor cooking solutions when the power goes out.
- A wood burning cook stove is the perfect solution for cooking indoors in the cooler months.
- Alcohol has an indefinite shelf life and burns cleanly.
- Canned heat is a convenient option for cooking indoors.
- Butane may be carefully burned indoors with a little bit of ventilation.
- Propane can only be burned safely indoors in an appliance rated for indoor use.
- Candles are an emergency fuel source which may be used to slowly heat foods safely indoors.
- Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MRE) Heaters may be used to heat foods indoors.
- Conservation techniques are not an actual fuel, but can make the fuel you have last significantly longer. They are worth exploring.
Emergency Powerless Cooking Advice
Simplify the menu! Any crisis brings a multitude of challenges which will occupy much of your time. Meals should be simple, nutritious and comforting. Heating canned foods or boiling water to make mashed potatoes from potato flakes are great emergency options.
Store a supply of shelf-stable foods which can be eaten without cooking. Prepare only the amount of food that will be consumed immediately due to the lack of ability to refrigerate leftovers.
Fuels that Produce Carbon Monoxide
Carbon monoxide is your enemy and exposure to it must be avoided. Any flame can produce carbon monoxide if there is not adequate oxygen for complete combustion. Venting these combustion products to the outside (think fireplace chimney) allows the safe burning of some carbon monoxide producing fuels indoors.
Charcoal, coal, gasoline, diesel, Coleman fuel (white gas), kerosene, natural gas, fuel tablets and wood are examples of fuels which produce carbon monoxide when burned. We strongly recommend only using these fuels in properly vented appliances or outside.
Be sure to have working carbon monoxide and smoke detectors in your home. We recommend keeping a carbon monoxide detector with a digital readout that will warn you of low levels of carbon monoxide nearby when burning anything.
Historically, a wood burning cook stove was a central fixture in every home. The stove warmed the house and was the sole appliance for baking and cooking.
Our lifestyle has changed significantly, but if you are lucky enough to have a good wood burning stove, it will bless your life when disaster strikes.
I adore our wood burning stove. I admit that the ashes are a bit messy and the stove takes a bit of tending in order to regulate the temperature properly, but the incredible warmth is worth the effort. Our particular model has a 5-gallon copper water reservoir which does a great job of keeping us in hot water.
Cooking with Alcohol
Alcohol – My favorite fuel for indoor cooking
Alcohol is a great cooking fuel because it burns clean, lights easily, and stores indefinitely in a tightly sealed container. It does not burn as hot as some fuels. However, it is not explosive like some other fuels.
Pure forms of alcohol can be safely burned indoors with a little ventilation. Use caution as some forms may be toxic such as methanol (wood alcohol) which can be harmful if absorbed through the skin or inhaled.
Note: Burning any fuel in a low oxygen environment can result in the production of carbon monoxide.
Ethanol or ethyl (Everclear) is a grain alcohol and is about 95 percent alcohol. It is a fantastic cooking fuel. Everclear produces a nearly invisible blue or clear flame so be careful not to burn yourself.
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 three varieties of rubbing alcohol readily available, 70 percent, 91 percent strength and 99 percent. Isopropyl alcohol produces a yellow sooty flame and doesn’t burn as cleanly as some other forms of alcohol.
Alcohol Cooking Devices
The Dometic Origo 1500 Single Burner or 3000 Double Burner is a non-pressurized free-standing alcohol stove that I would love to try. Fueled by denatured alcohol it will boil 1 quart of water in 6-8 minutes and produces 7000 BTUs per burner. One quart of alcohol will provide 6-8 hours of cooking time.
The Dometic Origo Heat Pal 5100 provides a safe, non-pressurized heat source that doubles as a single burner stove. We love this stove because it can serve as both a heater and a single burner stove.
The Heat Pal holds 1 quart of alcohol and will burn up to 5 hours. It is relatively light (5.10 pounds) and compact, yet puts out up to 5200 BTUs. This stove was designed as a marine device, but is perfect for cooking indoors during a power outage.
The small metal burner is filled with alcohol, lit and placed under a portable folding stove. The vapors escape from a ring of small holes which creates a nice even fire. Two ounces of alcohol will burn in a stove for approximately 10-15 minutes depending on the stove and type of alcohol.
Smother the flames to extinguish. If you blow on them, you just might lose your eyebrows. Do not screw the lid back on until the burner has completely cooled. The lid will tighten as it cools, making it almost impossible to get off.
Alcohol burners are small and are frequently used by Boy Scouts and backpackers. A quick internet search will reveal DIY alcohol burners made from soda cans. Quality burners are available in brass, titanium, and aluminum-alloy.
A military grade alcohol burner can be purchased at a military surplus store. These burners are almost indestructible and quite convenient to use.
The FireCone is a uniquely designed, indestructible alcohol burner. It has a base and a cone that create adjustable inlet ports which provide more versatility. This is another product that intrigues me. If you have tried the FireCone let me know what you think.
Canned heat is a disposable version of the alcohol burner. These little metal cans are commonly used by caterers under chafing dishes to keep hot foods at serving temperature. A case of SafeHeat and a folding camp stove is an inexpensive way to provide 72 hours of emergency indoor cooking fuel.
Depending on the brand, the can will provide a burn time anywhere from 2-6 hours. I prefer the 6 hour cans. The fuel inside canned heat are forms of alcohol or petroleum gel which are flammable, but do not burn quickly.
The can puts out a visible flame and a good amount of heat. The heat and flame go straight up, with little spread, concentrating the heat in one spot, thus requiring frequent stirring to avoid scorching foods.
Canned heat is safe to burn indoors with adequate ventilation. It stores nicely, and is a good option to safely heat foods indoors during a power outage. Canned heat is typically used with a portable folding stove, chafing dish (similar to a double boiler), or fondue pot.
We like to get a little bit creative using canned heat because it is such a fantastic fuel for indoor cooking. The number of cans used will determine the amount of heat output. We can use up to 4 cans of SafeHeat in an EcoQue portable grill, formerly known as Pyromid.
We converted a portable, countertop charcoal barbeque into a little stove for 3 cans of canned heat. It worked very nicely. Note: The manufacturer recommends that no more than 2 cans be used at a time. Proceed at your own risk!
We purchase canned heat by the case on Amazon or in the catering section at warehouse stores. They come in flats of 12 and stack nicely for storage. The shelf life varies depending on the manufacturer, and ranges between a few years to indefinite. Store cans between 40°-120°, upright, away from heat sources, and dispose of damaged or dented cans.
Butane is highly flammable, colorless and easily liquefied. When burned, it produces both carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Adequate ventilation must be provided. Butane does not perform well at near freezing temperatures.
Butane cylinders must be carefully stored above freezing (32° F) and below 120°F away from open flame or heat sources. They are an explosive risk. Butane is heavier than air which means that leaked fuel may pool and pose an explosive risk.
Butane is a convenience fuel. It is a bit expensive, but it performs nicely in many conditions. Butane does not vaporize well at near freezing temperatures, and may sputter or misfire. The recommended shelf life for a butane canister is eight years.
Caterers use butane stoves because they are light weight, convenient, and safe to use indoors with adequate ventilation. Most stoves have good flame control and many come with an automatic piezo-electric ignition. One eight ounce butane canister may provide 2 hours of burn time at maximum output and up to 4 hours on low.
Butane is not my favorite indoor cooking fuel because it does produce a little carbon monoxide and I have some concern about storing the fuel safely. That being said, butane stoves are highly convenient and very easy to use. Most butane stoves are rated for indoor use in a well-ventilated area only.
Propane creates a nice hot, clean fire. The fuel will store indefinitely. Propane is heavier than air and any leakage may collect in low-lying areas creating an explosive risk.
When propane burns it produces carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water vapor. However; incomplete combustion may occur if there is not enough oxygen, which can result in the production of carbon monoxide.
Propane is a great fuel, but can only be used indoors in an appliance rated for indoor use. A propane Coleman stove should not be used indoors. Coleman released this statement about using their products indoors:
Your Coleman® stove and lantern using liquid fuel or propane are designed for outdoor use only. All fuel appliances (Stoves and Lanterns) should be used outdoors in well-ventilated areas clear of combustible materials due to the danger of fire and the emission of carbon monoxide (CO) from burning fuel and the effects of carbon monoxide exposure.
It can be a little challenging to find a propane appliance rated for indoor use which is not built-in. Tar Hong makes a portable single or double propane gas stove that is rated for indoor cooking. I know nothing about the quality of this product. I personally would use alcohol indoors and propane outdoors.
Wax candles are a good old standby to provide light and a little warmth. Paraffin and beeswax both can produce a small amount of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and small amounts of sulfur and nitrogen when burned. I prefer not to use scented tea lights for cooking.
Did you know that you can actually heat up a can of soup or bake bread using candles as a fuel source? It is true.
We created a make-shift stove by using a couple of bricks, a cooling rack and some tea lights. You will never reach a rolling boil using this method, but you can sure warm up a can of soup in 20 or 30 minutes.
A HercOven is a well-designed oven which uses tea light candles for fuel. Kristofer Johnson designed this masterpiece to harness thermal energy, convection and radiant energy to enable 20 tea lights to bake for 4-5 hours.
Be sure to trim the candle wicks and stand them up straight as pointed out in the directions before placing in the HercOven. I skipped that step and had a little fire inside my oven. Totally my fault. I sometimes have to learn the hard way.
The HercOven is a great way to bake with candles indoors during an emergency, or whenever it sounds life fun.
Meals Ready-to-Eat (MRE) heaters are designed by the military to heat MRE meals quickly and safely without fire. They are made from powdered food grade iron, magnesium, and sodium. When water is added to the chemicals in the heater, a chemical reaction heats up almost instantly.
MRE heaters have a shelf life of about five years. Older heaters take longer to heat up. MRE heaters are safe to use indoors. If using 10 or more heaters in a small space, ventilation is required. The heaters produce hydrogen gas which may displace air and potentially cause and explosive risk.
Usually an MRE meal is placed into the activated bag to warm up. We were lucky enough to have a case of these to experiment with and got a bit creative.
We placed a couple of activated MRE heaters in a personal sized ice chest with a can of chili, closed the lid and left it for an hour. When we opened the ice chest the can was hot and ready to eat. Just one more way to be creative with whatever resources you have.
Indoor Cooking Fuel Conservation Techniques
Fuel conservation is absolutely critical in a crisis scenario. Make the most of the fuel resources that you have by employing conservation techniques whenever possible. Let us explore a few of our favorite strategies for fuel conservation.
Hay Box/Fireless Cooker/Insulation Cooker/Wonder Box/Thermal Cooker/Retained Heat Cooker – Different names but the same concept. These cookers have been used throughout history to make the most of limited fuel, but do not actually “cook.”
The food is brought to a good strong boil and placed in an insulated box or container. The meal continues to simmer for several hours due to the excellent heat retention.
Insulation can be hay, Styrofoam beads, blankets, towels or anything that will insulate the pot with at least four inches on each side as a general rule. The secret is to insulate well against outside temperatures.
We experimented creating hay boxes with rigid packing insulation in a cardboard box with an old bean bag placed on top. Over time the insulation started to smell bad due to the high moisture level. It is preferable to use something washable.
Starting the food in a pressure cooker and then placing it in a hay box combines the best of both tools. We were skeptical when we first tried the hay box, but when dinner time arrived, we removed a steaming hot pot from all of the homemade insulation. The meal was fully cooked and, at 170 degrees, too hot to eat.
Our record for maintaining appropriate serving temperature is 14 hours with retained heat.
Thermal cooking takes about four times as long, but uses much less fuel. Soups, chilis, and stews are ideal candidates for this method.
Large roasts are not ideal, because even if the liquid is boiling on the outside, the center of the roast is cool. Cut the roast into small chunks and add some type of liquid or sauce that can be brought to a rolling boil before placing it in a thermal cooker to finish cooking.
A word of caution–It is possible to create an environment where bacteria can flourish if this is not done correctly. Food should still be hot (above 140 degrees) when you take it out, not just warm. If the food has fallen below 140 degrees, heat it back up to boiling to kill any bacteria that may have been breeding.
We like to snugly pack a boiling pot of deliciousness into an ice chest with old blankets and towels to create a thermal cooker. Remember the trick is to insulate well and don’t peek. Opening the cooker releases the heat you are trying hard to retain.
There are fantastic commercial thermal cookers available. Thermal cooker names include Shuttle Chef, Tiger Non-Electric Thermal Cooker, Saratoga Jacks or search for the terms: thermal cooker or vacuum insulation cooker.
I love the convenience of our thermal cooker. It has a stainless steel cooking pot and lid for heating food. The pot is placed in a double wall vacuum insulated outer container to finish cooking and/or hold at temperature for up to six hours.
We wrap our thermal cooker in a small blanket and tuck it in a box to significantly increase efficiency. Honestly, it doesn’t work as well as our homemade hay box, but it is much more convenient.
One other great thing about a thermal cooker is that it will also keep cold foods cold.
These variations of homemade thermal cookers are made from soft cotton or broadcloth (any washable cloth will work) and filled with Polystyrene beads. The hot pot is set in the bottom of the insulated fabric box and covered with the attached insulated fabric lid (pillow).
It is important to use materials which are washable because after a little while the bag will start to stink. Make sure you allow the bag to dry and air out well. These bags are lightweight and are very effective tools for retained heat cooking.
Vacuum Insulated Bottle Cooking (Thermos Cooking)
Start with a quality, wide-mouth stainless steel vacuum insulated bottle (such as Thermos or Stanley). It will hold the heat well and is mostly unbreakable.
Preheat the bottle by filling with hot water. Dump out the water just before placing the ingredients in the bottle and add the boiling water. Quickly secure the lid and shake 20-30 seconds. Place the bottle on its side and allow it time to work its magic.
Foods cooked in liquids such as; rice, pasta, soups, and hot cereals are good candidates for cooking in a vacuum insulated bottle.
A pressure cooker is an airtight pot which cooks food quickly under steam pressure. This is a must when it comes to conserving energy. Pressure cookers cook food up to 10 times faster than standard methods which translates into significant savings in fuel.
Pressure cookers are available in many different sizes and styles, but I much prefer stainless steel. A pressure cooker can soften up tough older beans in just 10 minutes.
When fuel is limited, consider bringing the food just up to where the weighted pressure regulator (rocker) on the top of the cooker starts to rock. Remove it from the heat and insulate it, either in a thermal cooker or bury it in a pile of towels or blankets. Be careful not to release the pressure by displacing the regulator. Using a pressure cooker will result in considerable fuel conservation.
Word to the Wise – Use Kerosene Outdoors
Kerosene is a fairly safe and efficient fuel. It stinks and smokes when lighting and extinguishing, but burns nicely. It should be used outdoors, whenever possible, as it produces carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide when burned. We do not recommend using kerosene for indoor use.
If you choose to use kerosene indoors, you must provide adequate cross ventilation. That means a window open on one side of the room and another open on the other side of the room. It is just best to plan a safer option for indoor cooking.
Make sure all appropriate safety precautions are clearly understood and applied. It would be a great tragedy to survive an initial event only to create a more dangerous situation that may seriously harm the ones you are trying to protect.
We are ordinary people who have made family preparedness a priority. We love to experiment and have learned a tremendous amount. The burnt meals and failed ideas have sparked a greater desire in us to succeed. The successes have been most sweet and immensely satisfying and the failures, great learning experiences.
One thing that I have learned is that it is miserable to try to cook outside in freezing weather. Windy days make cooking outside frustrating. Planning for safe alternatives to cook indoors when the power is out is an important part of preparing for emergencies.
Now you know how to safely cook indoors during a crisis. Use your creativity and get excited about the learning process. You can do this with very little money; or you can spend a lot for the best of the best. Be creative and practice while food is cheap and Wendy’s is still open.
Most importantly, make steady progress and enjoy the journey!