Canned Food? No Stove? No Problem!

I was pondering my collection of emergency and camping stoves. I’m ready for anything. At least a dozen stoves in at least 5 fuel types I can think of right off. (Gasoline, Kerosene, Propane, Butane, Methanol, Ethanol, Isopropanol, Hexamine tablets, wood… OK, so more than 5 ;-)

That got me thinking about times I’ve been on the road, well, really, in the air, and without all that nice kit. What would I do if I flew into somewhere and the AwShit happened and I had none of them? So suppose I was looking at a few packages of ramen, a tin of sardines, and maybe some other canned foods. Was there a way I could cook the ramen, heat some Ravioli from a can, and do it with just things regularly found around the house or on the road?

Well, first off, I figured there’s rubbing alcohol / hand sanitizer everywhere now. Then if you ate the sardines, that would make a decent tray for burning alcohol. While Methanol would be ideal, as it doesn’t soot, even strong booze or rubbing alcohol will do. But what about the pot holder?

Well, the classic is the “three rock fire”. You put some wood in a small pile with three rocks around it and then place your pan on the rocks. But I don’t have any rock in my yard and rarely find them in hotels. But I do have cans of food (or I’d not really need a stove all that much ;-) So can I make a “3 Can Stove”?

Why, yes, I can:

4 empty cans stove

4 empty cans stove

The cardboard box in the background is a bit of a wind screen as it was a bit blustery on and off today. It also let me test radiant heating of nearby surfaces. It got very warm, but not hot enough to be an issue.

Here you can see the three regular sized cans arranged in the “3 rock” pattern and the empty sardine tin as the burner (a tuna can would also work). These (15 oz. or 2 & 1/2 size) cans are a little taller than ideal, but as everyone has canned food in this size it was what I wanted to test. The smaller 10 ounce soup cans or even the smaller oyster / clam cans would heat better being closer to the flame. Also note that I used a Visions (Corningware) glass pot. This takes a while to heat, but lets me watch what is happening. It also assures that if IT works, a regular tin pot will do better. Also, soot cleans from it easily (more on that below).

I chose to use 70% propanol as it is the most common medicinal / rubbing alcohol found in houses. Methanol would work better as it does not soot, and even Bacardi 151 rum, while expensive, would soot less. But the test was to use the “worst choice” at each turn. I filled the sardine can about 1/2 full and lit it.

After 10 minutes (in less than ideal gusts of wind, and without a lid) the noodles did reach a bare occasional simmer. I stopped the test there since the fuel was running out (and letting it burn dry to refill would throw off my timing while filling while flaming makes a big bonfire…). Plus, I wanted to eat the noodles ;-)

The ramen was cooked “al dente”, or a little stiffer than my typical “getting mushy”. Quite fine to eat. Improvements in the can spacing, height and fuel type used (not to mention out of the wind and with a lid) would work faster and likely get to a full boil.

All in all, I count the experiment a success. I would recommend removing the labels from the pot stand cans though ;-) I chose to leave them on just to see how much a problem it would be if folks didn’t remove them. It isn’t much of a problem at all, but probably added a bit to the sooting. Speaking of which, here’s a photo just after I finished the noodles, showing the bottom of the pot and the soot. (Yeah, you really want to buy a can of fuel line dryer methanol if possible ;-)

Cans Stove Soot After Burn

Cans Stove Soot After Burn

The soot mostly all came off with a wet paper towel. The rest was removed with a slightly soaped paper towel and a bit of sponge time. Note that the cans have burned labels on the side facing the flame, but no bad thing came of it. Also note that the soot free rings on the pot bottom are rather large. As this was a glass pot over concrete, I was VERY conservative in support area. It would likely have heated faster had I been willing to “push it” and have less hanging on the can pot support.

So, overall, my conclusion is that this is a simple to make emergency stove that will work with commonly available fuels found in most homes, drug stores, and many other stores (auto parts, hardware, …) and requires not much more than eating some sardines (or tuna) and opening 3 cans of other food to eat (say, chili, canned fruit, and a vegetable to be named later…) then heating the chili… Oh, and you might need a can opener if they are not all pop-top cans.

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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9 Responses to Canned Food? No Stove? No Problem!

  1. pouncer says:

    I used to heat up canned food by letting is rest against the radiator in either the truck or the generator …

  2. H.R. says:

    So what would happen if you left the can contents in the cans while heating the ramen noodles?

    I’m thinking maybe a can of pork and beans or beanie weenie, perhaps green beans or corn or mixed veggies, and maybe a can of spaghettios to form the three can stand. and then boil noodles of some sort on the “stove top.”

    You could get a whole meal out of a tuna can of alcohol.

    I suppose you’d need to open the lids of those cans so the contents wouldn’t explode, but you could leave the separated lids on top to keep the contents from boiling over.

    Anyhow, my vote is for the tuna can as the better burner can. The three round cans will nestle around that better than an oblong sardine can. But obviously, the sardine can works.

  3. ossqss says:

    I wonder how long it would take the noodles to cook using a glass lid on the glass pot, or regular pot, in the Sun with a reflector helping put more Sun on it. I don’t think you need to boil noodles to soften them. Everything else, I would just eat out of the can at room temperature, like I always do :-)

    Heck, I saw a guy start a fire with a clear plastic bag with urine in it as a magnifying glass. I don’t know how that is related, but it came to mind >

  4. E.M.Smith says:


    I used the sardine can as that’s what I’d already eaten. :-)

    Yeah, strip the labels and partially open the lid, it could work…


    It is hard to boil water without a significant concentrator. Just hot water and wait a long time can soften noodles, but not really cook them (I.e. ramen works but regular pasta need a boil.)

  5. Power Grab says:

    You all are getting way too clever!

    How about this: Since the ancients used oil lamps, could you drain off the oil from the tuna or sardines (assuming it was packed in oil) and use that as fuel?

  6. E.M.Smith says:

    The oil in oil pack will burn fine. It will require a wick and burn like a candle. So a bit slow for cooking… pipe cleaners bent in a pinky finger sized ring then the end perpendicular up the center 1/2 inch make nice wicks on a wax block. Ought to work in shallow oil and you can use several…

    For a realy big and very smoky flame, fill a tuna can with a cardboard spiral then fill with wax or oil.

    But I’d rather burn the oil inside me and keep warm ;-)

    Oil pack tuna has a lot of water from the cooked fish mixed in the oil. Would need to let it stand and separate.

    I have a commercial floating wick glass oil lamp in the garage. Note that the oil does smell a bit when burned. Like burning sonething on the stove.

  7. Crashex says:

    A light coat of soap on the bottom of the pot before cooking over an open fire will make the cleanup much easier.

  8. Compu Gator says:

    E.M.Smith posted 6 July 2020 GMT:
    Here you can see the three regular sized cans arranged in the “3 rock” pattern and the empty sardine tin as the burner (a tuna can would also work).

    Wouldn’t the cans simulating a “3 rock” pattern provide much more secure supports for your glass cookware if they were all turned with their open ends down, so the cookware could rest on the broad intact bottom-surfaces of the cans? I’ve seen instances of minor nudges to loads supported by such trios of unballasted open-end cans that quickly produced weight shifts that collapsed the whole ad hoc structure. Possibly catastrophic for loads that are made of glass. Glass or not, having the load land on a can of burning fuel in such a manner that it flipped it (i.e., the latter) seems likely to be troublesome.

    Or did you stabilize your upright open cans for supporting the cookware load with impromptu ballast, e.g., dumping found rocks, dirt, or sand into them? Or maybe even various liquids? How fast would a water ballast boil away?  Or an alternative ballast inspired by ‘ossqss’,  urine? Unless severely dehydrated, 250–350 mL (8–12 oz.) ought to be easy for an adult male to produce within an hour or so.

  9. E.M.Smith says:

    Because the pan sits on the can rim, up or down doesn’t change the support point.

    I’d use a tin pot in the real case. I used glass to better observe the experiment and as a worse heating option only.

    It was quite stable with the large overlap I used. At some spread it will destabilize. A wire loop around the cans would also help. I like the idea of stripping the label and using food as ballast and secondary warming pot.

    As I wanted to test the worst case, I deliberately used non-optimized choices. Since it worked well enough, any improvements will just work better.

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