Hay Boxes or Fireless Cookers

Illustration from The Fireless Cook Book

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Jessica from Holland sent us a letter recently praising our work, but very, very gently scolding us not including the hay box, a groovy old energy saving technology, in our book. We do stand corrected! And her enthusiasm for hay boxes has reignited our interest, too.

We actually considered hay boxes for Making It, but didn’t end up building one for a variety of reasons, including just plain running out of time. But I have to admit one of the primary reasons was that natural gas here is really inexpensive, so the cost savings of starting and finishing a pot of soup on the stove, vs. starting a pot of soup on the stove and finishing it in a box, just wasn’t compelling enough for me to make a lifestyle change. This is a silly excuse–water is also inexpensive here, but I’m obsessed about saving that resource. I guess a lot of what we choose to do just comes down to our various quirks and passions.

I’m thankful to Jessica for reminding me of the hay box. I believe that my New Year’s resolution will be to meditate on the sources and real costs (in terms of the environment, human health, etc.) of gas and electricity, and work on new ways to conserve energy. The hay box, or fireless cooker, may be one of these strategies.

What the heck is a hay box?

Sorry if I’m leaving some of you out of the loop. A hay box aka fireless cooker is a very old fuel saving technology, which perhaps has its origins in Scandinavia.  It is simply an insulated box that you put a hot pot of food into, and leave it all day (or all night) to finish cooking. It’s the forerunner of the crockpot.

This cooking technique isn’t limited to hay boxes. The same concept is used by people who put oats and boiling water into a Thermos at bedtime and enjoy the finished oatmeal in the morning, or by campers who wrap their sleeping bags around a cooking pot so they’ll have hot food when they get back to camp.

As far as I can tell, no one is selling fireless cookers made in the old style, but they are quite easily fabricated at home–or improvised in emergencies. However, if you are in a buying mood, a very similar technology exists in something called thermal cookware. These are essentially giant Thermoses–I’m including a link to a random example of one on Amazon here.

Why would you want to build a fireless cooker?

  • To save time at the stove
  • To have food ready when you get up, or come home from work
  • To save energy, because you’re a do-gooder.
  • To save energy, because energy is expensive/unreliable where you live.
  • To learn this technology well so you’ll know how to use it in case of emergencies. (A fireless cooker combined with something that can boil water, like a camp stove or a rocket stove, would be a great combo for any emergency, long or short.)

Okay, so how do you build one?

It’s really simple. You’re just insulating a pot. There are many ways to do it, including simply bundling the pot up in a bunch of quilts. But if you’re going to do this regularly, you probably want a more stable system than that. You’ll want to build a box.

First, though, you should probably start with your pot and build from there. This technique works best when the pot is full, so you’ll want to choose a soup pot/dutch oven sort of pot that is the right size for you and your family. It should have a lid, obviously, and should be made of something can come and go off the stove top–i.e. no ceramic.

 Once you’ve chosen your pot, you’ll need a box to keep it in. This box should allow enough space for at least 4″ of insulation all around your pot. (We’ll talk about the insulation next.) So the pot height/pot width plus at least 8″= the minimum dimensions of your box.

The cooker could be anything sturdy with a lid, but the tighter built, the better. A big cooler would work great. I’ve just had a crazy inspiration that one of those newfangled ottomans that are hollow inside for stashing away your junk when company comes would also work nicely!

You can make a “two holer” if you want to have the ability to cook more than one dish at a time. In that case you might be able to build one in a hall bench or a big toy chest or trunk. If you can’t scavenge anything, you could build a wooden box with a hinged lid. A well-insulated, box-style solar oven can do double duty as a fireless cooker, too. Whatever you choose, the box should have a lid that either latches or can be weighed down so it closes securely.

If your box is not built pretty much airtight–say it’s pieced together out of wood–you should seal it up before you insulate it. In old manuals they recommend gluing a layer of  paper all over the interior. You might choose to use tin foil or a Mylar space blanket. A space blanket would help reflect heat no matter what your box is made of.

Then you need to choose an insulating material.

Early 20th century options, as per old books:

  • Hay or straw, cut fine
  • Sawdust
  • Wool (they mention this is the best material)
  • Southern moss
  • Ground cork (it seems fruit used to be shipped in this!)
  • Softwood shavings (“excelsior”)

Contemporary recycled options:

  • Styrofoam or foam. Carving a pot-shaped hole into a block that fit your chest would be the best, but scraps could work, too.
  • Shredded paper. At last, something to do with all those bills!
  • Cotton or polyester batting taken from old pillows or quilts. 
  • Wool in the form of cast off sweaters and blankets, perhaps shredded?
  • This might sound nuts, but if you cut down a bunch of weeds, let them dry and chop them up, they would work as well as hay. Straw has that nice hollow stem construction which probably holds heat better than hay, but some weeds have the same sort of stems.
  • Note: I’d discourage using fiberglass insulation for safety reasons. It’s nasty to work with and you don’t want to risk any of it getting in your food.

    Fill the box up all the way with insulation. The box should be filled to the top, but the material shouldn’t be packed so tightly that there’s no airspace. Tiny air pockets are where the magic happens.

    Next, make a permanent nest for your pot in the box by hollowing out a pot-shaped hole in the insulation material. Line that hole, as well as the top surface of the insulation, with a one big piece of fabric. Secure that fabric to around the edges of the box with staples or something. That will allow you to lift the pot in and out easily and will also keep bits of insulation out of your food.

    The final insulation step is to make or find a cushion sized to fill all the empty space in the box from the top of your pot to the closed lid. It should be fat enough that you have to use a little pressure to close the lid. There should be no open space at the top of the box. And again, the lid must latch or otherwise secure tightly. In the image at the top you can see the two cushions that come with that set up.

    It’s often easier to understand something just by looking at pictures. If you do an image search for hay box, you’ll see lots of them, many improvised quickly. Whereas searching fireless cooker brings up more antique images.

    A fireless cooker from a 19th century German catalog, image courtesy Wikimedia.

    Cooking with the Hay Box

    Okay, this is all very theoretical for me because I haven’t done it yet, but this is what I know, and I hope those with experience will comment to help us newbies out.

    The cooker is perfect for anything you’d associate with a crockpot, like pot roasts and other stewed meats, soups and stews and chile, bean dishes and also hot cereals, polenta, whole grains and rice.

    First, it’s pretty much impossible to offer up exact cooking times. It’s going to vary by both quantity of food and the construction of your box. In short, you’re going to have to play with it.

    But the gist of it is that you start your cooking on the stove. If, for instance, you’re doing an initial saute, you’d do that first, then you’d add all your ingredients and liquids and bring it up to a simmer (for how long may vary by recipe–the old cook book I’m consulting most often recommends 10 minutes boiling on the stove for meaty dishes, but if I suspect for non-meat things you could just bring it to a boil and then take it off immediately) then move it to the box to finish cooking. A good box should hold heat for 8 hours. The actual cook time will be less–how much less will vary by dish. But it will not burn or overcook and it will keep warm until you’re ready to eat.

    I’ve heard that in general you would use less water than with stove top cooking because there’s no evaporation.
     
    Here’s some of Jessica’s tips:

    Suggestion: put the beans/lentils/wheat/rice/peas in a thermos flask together with the absorbable amount of boiling water/stock. Do this in the morning. In the evening you have a thermos with still warm and well-cooked food. With just a few seconds of boiling water. Think of the hours per month that you can turn off the stove and still have warm, cooked food!
     …

    It works fine with other things as well:
    Eggs: put pan with eggs and boiling water in, take out of hay chest after 10 minutes (or more, or less, depending on your experience.
    Vegetables: take out of hay chest after 110 to 125% of ordinary cooking time. Experiment! Don’t use a lot of water.
    Stock… why not?


    It even works with things like meat balls and chicken wings. Have the meat on high fire until the outside develops the right crust or color, then keep in hay chest for xx time until inside is ‘done’,

    Mr. Google can lead you to various resources on this technology, but my favorite resource so far is this old book: The Fireless Cook Book by Margaret Mitchell (1909), which is actually both a construction manual and a cookbook–a wonderful crusty old cookbook with recipes for things like Mock Turtle Soup. You can read it online at Archive.org, or download a pdf or even as an e-reader file–for free!

    Do you have any recipes, tips or techniques to share? Please do!

    An obligatory nanny-state warning: If food drops below 140F (60C) for an hour or more, bad bacteria can move in. You might want to take the temperature of your food when you pull it out of the box and see where it is. If it has dropped below that temperature, put it on the stove and rewarm it to at least 165F(74C).

    Acquainted with the Night


    Light from Sunday Paper on Vimeo.

    This poetic video, shot in my own overlit hometown, likely expresses the filmmakers ideas about wasting electricity. But like all good art it has multiple interpretations. I’m going to suggest that it shows how electric lighting has stolen the gift of night, robbing us of our night skies and peaceful sleep.

    There’s a large body of evidence that artificial light plays havoc with our sleep patterns, health and psychological well being, to say nothing of its detrimental effect on wildlife. And then there’s that night sky. You can actually count the number of stars in the sky in Los Angeles.

    Thankfully this is one of the issues that we can help change on the home level. Other than one small LED light at the bottom of our entrance stairs we have no landscape lighting (though Mrs. Homegrown did sneak a string of Christmas lights past my bah-humbug filter). We can also take measures to darken our bedrooms at night. While this may at first seem like tin foil hat talk, consider that the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified night shift work as a carcinogen.

    Several years ago I heard a psychologist speak eloquently on the need for dark nights (unfortunately I can’t remember his name). He proposed getting a small town do a trial period of shutting all their lights out at night to see how it would change the well being of the town’s inhabitants. It’s a great idea. So let’s get on it. I’d like to think we can experiment with returning night to our towns and cities before that dinosaur juice peaks out.

    Chill Hour Calculator for California

    Please excuse another California-centric post, but if you’re in the Golden State and like to geek out on keeping track of your chill hours here’s a handy tool bought to you by UC Davis: Cumulative Chilling Hours. Each year this page keeps track of chill hours between November 1 through end of February. If you know of a similar resource for other states/countries leave a link in the comments.

    As cool (so to speak) as this tool is, what constitutes a chill hour and what kinds of fruit will grow in a particular climate is a complex question. For more on this debate see a provocative article on the Dave Wilson Nursery website, “Chill Out“.

    CoEvolution Quarterly Online

    While hunting down old appropriate technology resources on the Internet, I was delighted to find the winter 1978 issue of CoEvolution Quarterly, put out by the folks behind the Whole Earth Catalog. This issue of CoEvolution profiled Robert Kourik (which CoEvolution spells “Kourick”) who practiced permaculture before Bill Mollison gave it a name:

    [Kourick] is developing methods of growing edible and ornamental plants together for maximum beauty, minimum upkeep, and a self-sustaining yield of food.

    He does it by concentrating on growing perennials that do not need to be replanted each year and annuals that reseed themselves spontaneously. He uses ground cover plants that fertilize other plants, such as the beautiful pastel-flowering lupin which puts nitrogen in the soil. . . Kourick’s goal is to develop what he calls a “self-reliant” garden that produces all of the nutritional needs of each plant. “The gardener,” he says, “can then supply his own nutritional needs by adapting his diet to the garden’s produce.”

    Amen is all I can say to that. A garden that requires fewer inputs is exactly what I’m working on right now.

    In the same article Kourik mentions incorporating fruit trees, kept pruned small, into his gardens,

    Robert Kourick believes that tree crops can be a mainstay of any garden, and he has discovered a plant breeder in Modesto, whom he calls the “new” Luther Burbank. This man is Floyd Zaeger [I think that should be "Zaiger"] who has developed genetic dwarf fruit trees that are strong on adaptive qualities and perfect for Kourick’s garden.

    Floyd Zaiger, incidentally, is the person who developed several of the fruit varieties I mentioned in yesterday’s blog post including the pluot, the aprium and the necta-plum. He developed these varieties through a herculean breeding program involving hand pollinating something like 150,000 trees.

    Robert Kourik went on to write an excellent series of books, Drip Irrigation for Every Landscape, Roots Demystified, and Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally

    You can read CoEvolution Quarterly and the Whole Earth Catalog for free on the Interwebs at wholeearth.com or download individual pdfs for $2. One of these days I’ll put up a separate page of links to more free appropriate tech and prepping resources when I get the time.

    Dave Wilson’s Top 21 Fruit Trees for the Southwest US

    A Necta-plum from our tree harvested in July 2010.

    Do you live in a warm climate and have less than 500 chill hours? “Rock star orchardist” Tom Spellman, with the Dave Wilson Nursery, has some suggestions for low chill fruit tree varieties based on productivity and performance. His recommendations:

    • Dorsett golden apple
    • Fuji apple
    • Pink Lady apple
    • Cot-N-Candy Aprium
    • Flavor Delight Aprium
    • Minnie Royal cherry
    • Royal Lee cherry
    • Arctic Star nectarine
    • Double Delight nectarine
    • Snow Queen nectarine
    • Spice Zee Necta-Plum
    • August Pride peach
    • Donut peach
    • Eva’s Pride peach
    • Red Baron peach
    • Burgundy plum
    • Emerald Drop pluot
    • Flavor Grenade pluot
    • Flavor King pluot
    • Splash pluot

    Of the trees on this list, we’ve got the Spice Zee Necta-Plum, a beautiful tree with pink blossoms and  red leaves in the spring that produces a super sweet fruit. It’s still too young to evaluate it’s performance but I’m happy to have it in our garden. We also have a Fuji apple that’s a few years old which is growing but has yet to produce fruit. Last year we also planted a Flavor Delight aprium (in a less than ideal location), and it’s also too early to evaluate its performance.

    We sourced almost all of our trees by mail through the Bay Laurel Nursery, which carries Dave Wilson’s trees (Dave Wilson is wholesale only). Get your orders in now as Bay Laurel sells out of many varieties by the time they ship in February.

    You can read the complete list of Tom Spellman’s low chill fruit suggestions with his  comments here.

    If you have mature versions of any of these trees please leave a comment and let us know where you live and how your trees are doing.

    Thanks to Ari Kletzky for suggesting this list.

    Gingerbread Geodesic Dome


    Scout Regalia Reel 02: Gingerbread Geodesic Dome from Scout Regalia on Vimeo.

    Now you can bake your own version of Drop City without getting “baked” yourself! Some local designers, Scout Regalia, have cooked up a gingerbread geodesic dome and offer a kit for making one.

    Now when it comes to geodesic domes as shelter I’m with former dome builder Lloyd Kahn who concluded that “Domes weren’t practical, economical or aesthetically tolerable.”

    But when it comes to gingerbread domes, I’m all for it!

    Via the Eastsider.

    Three Power Tools Every Urban Homesteader Should Own

    On nearly all the work I’ve done on our house, everything from chicken coops to wood floors I’ve used just three power tools:

    • corded drill
    • circular saw
    • sabre sawjig saw

    While I also own a router, a miter saw, a sander and a few other miscellaneous power tools, the three tools above I consider essential. Even if you don’t own a house, but would like to build some furniture or help a friend or relative with a repair project, this great triumvirate of tools will get you through 99% of all jobs. For that 1% of problems that require an exotic tool, you can rent one.

    I prefer corded tools as I hate it when a battery dies in the middle of a day’s work and corded tools have more power. That being said, there are a few times when I wish I had a battery powered drill. I’d also recommend spending a little extra to get high quality models of these three tools. They’ve all lasted 10+ years of heavy use.

    I’ve got a non-powered backup for each of these tools, with the exception of the drill. Sometime before that that zombie Apocalypse/Mayan 2012 meltdown thing happens, I’d love to learn how to use hand tools. But in the meantime, I’ll stick with electricity.

    Michael Reynold’s Beer Can Houses

    Construction of One of Three Experimental Houses Built from Empty Beer and Soft Drink Cans.

    The National Archive just put thousands of 1970s era images from the Environmental Protection Agency online. One of the photographers working for the EPA, David Hiser, captured New Mexico architect Michael Reynolds building houses out of adobe and aluminum cans. See a selection of these photos after the jump . . .

    Detail of a Wall in an Experimental Home Built of Aluminum Beer and Soft Drink Cans near Taos, New Mexico.

    Caption: “Detail of a wall in an experimental home built of aluminum beer and soft drink cans near Taos, New Mexico. for this wall the cans were laid horizontally in two thicknesses which are separated by a vertical sheet of foam insulation. The exterior will be a combination of glass, exposed can ends and unpainted concrete. Unskilled labor and the cheapness of materials will allow the structure to be built as much as 20% less than conventional housing.”

    Exterior of an Experimental All Aluminum Beer and Soft Drink Can House Under Construction near Taos, New Mexico.

    Caption: “Exterior of an experimental all aluminum beer and soft drink can house under construction near Taos, New Mexico. This shot was taken two months after the foundation was laid. the wood forms on the top will be used to pour concrete beams.”

    Interior View of the All Aluminum Beer and Soft Drink Can Experimental House near Taos, New Mexico.

    Interior view of the all aluminum beer and soft drink can experimental house near Taos, New Mexico. the owners report the house seems to work well so far and gives the feeling of being very solid. the south facing windows capture heat from the sun, a good feature because the winters of the southwest are severe.”

    Bottle Window in the Entranceway to an Experimental Home Built with Empty Steel Beer and Soft Drink Cans near Taos, New Mexico.

    Caption: “Bottle window in the entranceway to an experimental home
    built with empty steel beer and soft drink cans near Taos, New Mexico. the ends
    of the cans used in a non-load bearing wall are seen around the window.”

    Another Experimental House Made of Empty Steel Beer and Soft Drink Can Construction near Taos, New Mexico.

    Caption: “Another experimental house made of empty steel beer and soft drink can construction near Taos, New Mexico. This house will be plastered with adobe like the other homes in the area, but will have cost up to 20% less, according to architect Michael Reynolds”

    A View of the Experimental House Made of Empty Steel Beer and Soft Drink Cans after Completion with Adobe Exterior.

    The same house, above, with an exterior coat of adobe.

    Lawyer Steve Natelson, Who Lives near Taos, New Mexico Relaxes on the Bed of His Experimental Home Built of Empty Steel Beer and Soft Drink Cans.

    Caption: “Lawyer Steve Natelson, who lives near Taos, New Mexico, relaxes on the bed of his experimental home built of empty steel beer and soft drink cans. On the wall is a mural of cans left exposed. It was the first such house built by the architect Michael Reynolds who believes this type of housing can be built for as much as 20% less than the conventional method. The Federal Housing Administration has shown interest in issuing loans on this type of housing. The cost is $25,000 to $30,000 for a two-bedroom home.”

    See more of David Hiser’s photos of New Mexico here.

    For more about this EPA photo collection read an article in the Atlantic, “Documerica Images of America in Crisis in the 1970s“.

    Earthquake Proofing the Pantry

    So I finally got around to earthquake proofing the pantry. All it took was a bunch of four foot bungee cords which seemed to have just about the right amount of stretch to span our seven foot shelves. You could probably use the same four foot bungee cords to span an even longer shelf. I used eye hooks to anchor the ends of the cords.

    Looking at the picture, the height of the cords on some of the shelves might not be optimal (looks like some of the jars could slip under in a good shaking). But, all in all, I’m pleased with the results.