Years ago, the idea of living in a tiny space piqued my curiosity and I wanted to learn how people adapted to this alternative lifestyle. Learning about the details of materials and tools made the idea of “living tiny” less abstract and more practical. To address similar interests of readers I have started a series I’m calling “tiny house details” where I will discuss the tools, materials, and appliances I chose for my simple lifestyle and why I chose them.
Cooking in a tiny space is a big challenge. Fire safety, ventilation for carbon monoxide and moisture build-up are the primary concerns in small space cooking. Further, when you add the choices of fuels and appliances for the daily task of cooking, the challenge can feel overwhelming. To help Tammy and I decide how to cook in our tiny home we observed our cooking needs and looked for others with similar habits for examples. I found solidarity in Sheila and Kai on their blog 2cycle2gether.com. We both used bicycles for transportation, we shared the love for tiny living and baking and we both had concerns regarding energy sustainability. Kai’s article on their Swedish alcohol cooking appliance had a big impact on me. I hadn’t even considered alcohol as a fuel source but his reasoning intrigued me. The same day I read the article I looked on craigslist and found a used version of the alcohol range for sale and I was sold on the idea.
I covered the topic of fuel choice in an earlier article but I will briefly review my choice here. Propane stovetops and ovens were the clear favorite among tiny house and RV owners due to the low-price and ubiquity. However, I had concerns regarding how simple these systems would be to use and maintain in the long term. Specifically, because of my bike-centric lifestyle, fuel transportation and sustainability were my big concerns. In addition, an explosive pressurized gas made me feel a bit uneasy when it came to safety. Switching to an electric cooking system would seem to be the ideal solution to address these concerns but the demands of such a system and our dream of living off-grid made this choice similarly less favorable.
Alcohol requires relatively simple ventilation (open a few windows) when cooking, is easy to transport as a liquid fuel, easy to install (free-standing with no wires or gas lines), and is safe to use. Ultimately, it was the easy to understand nature of the fuel and cooking range that made alcohol attractive as a fuel source. Ideally I hope to one day learn enough to distill my own fuel through a solar still.
Materials and Installation.
Our cooking range is a Swedish made Origo 3000 and it uses alcohol as a fuel. The current model of this range is called the Origo 6000. I doubt the new models are twice as good but I’m sure name changes help sales. The number one thing I love about this appliance is how robust it is. This stove is robust because of its materials, simple design, and easy to understand operation. It is made of stainless steel, glass and wool is used as a fuel binder in the burners. This stove spent over 15 years on a sailboat and its still running strong. The Origo 3000 was designed without the planned obsolescence nonsense that plagues most of the recent appliances designed in the United States.
The Origo range is a free-standing appliance so installation was relatively easy compared to setting up gas or electrical lines. Basically you just bolt the cooking-range to a solid foundation that brings the top level with the surface of the counter. Because the oven is relatively shallow in depth we left the cabinet space behind the oven open with access via a hatch-type door in the counter that doubles as a cutting board. Using the oven generates some residual heat from the back of the appliance so we only store items that aren’t sensitive to the heat back there like metal baking sheets.
The Origo cooking-range is well designed not only in its longevity but also in its ease of use and cleaning. Adjusting the heat of the burners is similar to other stoves where you move a knob on the front left and right. The knob controls the heat through a simple burner door that adjusts the size of the flame. For example, opening the door completely gives a large flame for boiling water or frying food; partially closing the door is for simmering; and turning the knob back the starting position closes the burner-door and extinguishes the burner flame (turning it “off”). The oven works in a similar way. To pre-heat the oven, simply open the burner-door completely, light the burner and close the compartment. The oven has a glass door so you can see a thermometer mounted in the oven. Once the thermometer reads your preheated temp you can turn down the knob halfway to maintain the temperature.
Cleaning a traditional oven is usually a big chore involving harsh chemicals and getting down on your hands and knees to scrub. Thankfully, the Origo cooking-range was designed with cleaning in mind. Almost any surface that comes in contact with food can be taken out and scrubbed in a sink to give your knees a break. For example, the glass oven door can be dismantled and cleaned inside out and the bottom of the oven can be removed for cleaning if something was spilled while cooking.
Surprisingly, the biggest challenge we faced with this stove was how to ignite the burners. There is no built in igniter. It appears that the top of the stove was designed to make efficient use of the fuel but not to make it easy to ignite. To ignite the alcohol burner you have to get a spark or a flame very close, yet from the top of the stove the burner sits about 3 inches down a narrow flame well. To address this issue we tried a number of different tools for igniting.
- Matches – simple, cheap, and relatively easy to use by dropping the match into the flame well. The problem was the sulfur smell, the smoke from the wood and the left over bits of matches that accumulated on the burner.
- A butane trigger lighter – very effective for getting a flame into a small space and keeping your fingers safe from burning (e.g. barbecuing) but very poorly designed. Most of these lighters are made to be disposable after the fuel is used up. I find this design irresponsible so I paid a bit more for a refillable model from Coghlans. Unfortunately, this lighter quit working nearly a week after using it.
- Flint striker – Also known as a metal match, are used in science labs and in welding businesses all over. These tools are robust, easy to use, and still made in the USA. Squeezing the handle moves flint across the rough surface and produces a spark. The only issue with this tool is its size. It is too big to fit down into the flame well so we had to open the top of the stove to light the burner directly. Admittedly, the stove was likely designed to have burners ignited this way.
- Lantern flint striker – This is a variation on the tool above that is used to get sparks into a small enclosure. This tool was the best of both worlds. A hybrid between the long and narrow butane lighter with a robust flint spark to ignite the alcohol. Unfortunately, Coghlans was also the manufacture of this product and, like their butane lighter, it also stopped functioning about one week after using it.
Cooking Accessories and Size Limitations:
Due to the size limitation of the cooking range it may be difficult to find non-traditional accessories. However, it is possible because, as I like to say, if you want to buy something, chances are there is someone out there willing to sell it to you. Believe it or not, we have a perfect fitting cast iron griddle and indoor cast-iron grill for the stove and an insulated baking sheet for the oven.
People often jokingly refer to our cooking range as our “easy bake oven” because of its diminutive nature, but our range will cook what any other stove and oven can cook. Admittedly we won’t be cooking a 25 lb turkey in our oven for thanksgiving but we do use our stove and oven daily to meet our cooking needs. We bake biscuits, pizzas, breads, cookies, casseroles, roasts and all sorts of things. Our stove works just like any other and we use it for frying, boiling and griddle cooking all the time.
Fuel Reload and Cost:
Alcohol for marine stoves is relatively easy to find at any hardware or paint store. Specifically the product we use is called “denatured alcohol”. Denatured refers to the additive to the alcohol that makes it toxic to drink and can be regulated differently than drinkable alcohol. Denatured alcohol is commonly used as a solvent to “thin” oil based paints and so most paint sections of hardware stores have it in stock. We typically purchase a one-gallon container size that is specifically labeled “for use in marine stoves”. We pay about $15/gallon. This amount lasts us about 3 weeks on average. Maybe a bit less in the winter (cooking more) and bit longer in the summer (cooking less) and comes out to about $20/month. This is relatively expensive compared to tiny house friends that use propane at approximately $3/gallon but we figure the benefits of alcohol out-weigh the costs for our needs.
To refill the burners, simply open the top of the stove (or bottom of oven), lift the burners out of the stove, and take them outside. Pour alcohol in the top, wipe up any access spills and replace in the stove. This process takes less than 5 minutes for all 3 burners. We typically have to refill the burners about every 10 days. The burners are shallow, cylindrical steel cans that are stuffed with sheep wool to help keep the alcohol from evaporating. Amazingly, the wool does not burn. Although you can purchase replacement burners from Origo we have not had to replace ours in a year and we believe our current burners were the originals that came with the Origo range >15 years ago.
Do you have more questions that I didn’t address here? Or do you have other cooking appliances that you would recommend? Let me know by leaving a comment below.