It Started with a Sterno

I was at an outdoor store, looking at all the camping gear and dreaming of the overnight hikes I might do. Specifically, I was thinking about what I might eat and how I would cook. I like to hike, I like to camp, but I especially like to eat. I like to eat so much that I ought to hike more.

It had been years since I had been on a backpacking trip. I had used a buddy’s stove to boil water for my mashed potatoes, lentil soup, refried beans and suchlike. I was grateful for his generosity but wanted a stove of my own some day.

A cheap one. I’ve seen some of those backpacking stoves with the pressurized fuel bottles: nifty little high-tech things, but expensive. And, to be honest, as irrational as this might be, those pressurized fuel bottles have always made me nervous.

So there I was, looking at camp stoves at the store, and not having much money, I wanted something cheap – cheap and simple usually go together (but not always!). And there it was: the folding Sterno stove. I confess that although I don’t like pressurized fuel canisters, those little sterno cans fascinated me. After all, “canned heat” is well established in the vernacular, and I had eaten from my share of chafing dishes at buffets. Could you cook a meal with this stuff too?

The folding stove was cheap enough that I decided to find out. I took it home and then tested it by treating my five-year-old to a front porch picnic.

The alcohol gel fuel lights up beautifully when it’s full: I could get it going with either a match or just a spark. I loved watching the clear flame, nearly invisible. I filled up one of my old scout cooking pots with water and in about 10 minutes it was near enough to a boil that I was able to make a nice cup of alphabet noodle soup for my daughter. I also cooked some ramen for myself.

Over the next few days I tried this little device with other things, and we ventured out to a nearby park for our picnics. Hot chocolate, couscous, mashed potatoes again . . . yes, this was all simple heat-water-and-stir stuff, but it was fun. I used the stove in the house too, to test how well it might work in an emergency power out. It smelled as mild as a gas stove. I wished we had had one of these during the cold snap of 2011 in New Mexico . . . that’s another story.

Sterno doesn’t have the best reputation among hikers, and it’s not really a hiking stove. Its fuel cans are not lightweight and you wouldn’t want to load up your pack with a bunch of them for a long trek. The fuel burns nicely, and I for one love its gently and leisurely flame, but it’s never going to win a contest for the most powerful or the quickest boil. It really shines as a heat source for chafing dishes, which is where it seems to have settled.

BUT, the folding stove is sturdy and does fold up compactly. As an emergency item in the house or in the car, one of these stoves and a can of fuel, which lights up so quickly, would be hard to beat for convenience. If you’re not in a hurry and don’t need to do anything too elaborate, it works very well. Speaking of elaborate, I’ve found at least one youtube video of a man cooking bacon and eggs over a sterno stove. That’s on my to-do list, as is trying a can of Coughlan’s fuel with it.  Still, I can’t explain exactly why, but I do love the nice, compact cans of Sterno fuel.  I love the purple gel, the way it lights so quickly and burns so quietly with such a clear flame.

And one other thing about the folding stove: it works nicely as a firebox for a nice little wood fire. I used mine in that capacity on one of our daddy-daughter picnics and it contained the fire very nicely, making it burn super efficiently and focusing the flame on the pots of water. They got a bit sooty but since I’ve discovered that soot comes off nicely with baking soda and a bit more elbow grease than your average lazy boy scout might possess, I don’t mind soot.

Of course, when it comes to harnessing and directing wood fire, making it more efficient for cooking – well, I’ll have much more to write about that!

In the next post I tell about entering the bewildering and fascinating world of DIY alcohol stoves.  Meanwhile, I’m glad I have my little Sterno stove.

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