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).

    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.

    Erik’s EDC

    It’s about time I listed my “everyday carry” or “EDC” for short. For those of you not familiar with the EDC subculture, there are entire websites devoted to posting, critiquing and obsessing over the items you carry every singe day (not, say, just when going on a hike). I went through somewhat of an EDC mid-life crisis last month and emerged on the other side with the following items:

    1. A nice Saddleback Leather Wallet that Mrs. Homegrown bought for me after she got sick of my ugly overstuffed old wallet.

    2. My old Leatherman that I use every single day.

    3. A mini pen–I got a box of 12 from an office supply place. It fits nicely in a pocket and I don’t have to worry about losing it.

    4. Ferrocerium Fire Starter “nanoSTRIKER” –this neat little tool has a blade and a ferrocerium rod. You strike the blade against the rod and you get a shower of sparks.

    5. Small keychain pill holders–the red one contains a cotton ball soaked in Vaseline to use as kindling with the fire starter. The blue one contains ibuprofen (I’m a runner) and Benadryl (for insect stings).

    6. MAGLITE K3A016 AAA Solitaire Flashlight. I had tried a smaller flashlight that used watch batteries, but it had a tendency to open up in my pocket and those watch batteries are expensive. This one has not turned on accidentally or opened up.

    You’ll notice that I don’t have a cellphone–Mrs. Homegrown and I share an old one with next to no battery life and I don’t have it with me everyday. That may change soon when we switch plans. And I’ll admit I have yet to use the fero rod for anything other than a bizarre time killer when I deliver lectures to college students.

    What’s your EDC? Comments . . . 

    Many thanks to Jack Spirko of the Survival Podcast for the handy EDC list he put together that turned me on to those pill holders and fero rods. And read an interesting interview with Bernard Capulong, founder of EDC.com, here.

    Scott’s Pepsi-G Stove

    If you’ve ever backpacked any distance you’ll appreciate the need to reduce weight, taken to its logical extreme by the sort of folks who cut their toothbrushes in half. This ultra-light subculture, to our benefit, seems to be populated by engineering types who like to create useful lists and detailed instructions. And, even if you don’t backpack, these innovative ideas can be used in your emergency preparedness plans.

    One of my favorite ultra-light backpacking gadgets is the Pepsi can stove, which has reappeared on the interwebs, after a prolonged absence, here.

    To make a Pepsi stove you take the bottom of a 12 oz Pepsi can and the bottom of a Guinness Draught can and, after a series of precise cuts and pin pricks you end up with a nifty cooking stove that uses denatured alcohol or methanol (both easily obtained at any hardware store) as fuel.

    Efficiency-wise, if you consider the ratio of weight to heat output, you’re better off with a commercial backpacking stove and fuel canisters. But such stoves are expensive and the fuel canisters are only available at camping and sporting goods stores. The nice thing about the Pepsi can stove is that it’s almost free to make and you can find the fuel at any hardware store. I keep both a Pepsi can stove and a MSR backpacking stove in my backpack. That way I’ve got a backup in case one fails to work.

    Mrs. Homegrown here:

    I thought I’d toss in a little more detail for those of you unfamiliar with the concept. A Pepsi can stove is tiny and very light weight, good for two things–ultralight backpacking and as a simple cooking device for what some people call a bug out bag–emergency gear that is ready to grab and go.

    I’ve taken one with me backpacking, as my only stove. It works fine, but it is limited in its capabilities. It can boil a cup or so of water at a time, enough to make one person a hot drink, or enough water to rehydrate a pouch of something. You certainly can’t make pancakes over one, and if you have a family to serve, you might want to consider carrying more than one of these stoves.

    My camping set up included the stove, a sawed off Foster’s can (you know, those extra large beer cans) as a cooking pot, a circle of chicken wire to balance the Foster’s can upon over the stove, and a bit of foil to block wind. It all tucked inside the Foster’s can for transport and weighted hardly anything. Oh, and I kept the fuel in one of those plastic collapsible water bottles.

    As Erik says, a lightweight camping stove and proper fuel canister is a much more flexible and powerful option, but little Pepsi can stoves can’t be beat for price or weight.

    Here’s our 2006 post on the same subject–along with a nice photo of ours burning.

    Emergency Supplies: It’s all about the lids

    Above you see one five gallon bucket transformed into a toilet, and another into a food storage container, by virtue of specialty lids.

    The toilet seat lid I have here is called Luggable Loo Seat Cover and, miraculously, it is made in Canada. I bought it at REI.

    The other lid is called a Gamma Seal, and it is USA made. Do I see a trend, here? Anyway, this I found at an Army surplus store. The Gamma Seal is a two part lid that fits most 3-7 gallon buckets. One part of the lid is an adapter ring that snaps on the rim bucket. (“Snaps” is a euphemism for “Fits on after straining, swearing, hammering and finally calling for the husband.” In the end, Erik held it down while I beat it–er–I mean, snapped it into place.)  The lid itself spins and seals with a gasket. This gives it a nice, bug and moisture proof seal for all sorts of storage needs, transforming your ordinary buckets into superbuckets.

    The set up above is actually a birthday gift for a friend who’s expressed interest in being better prepared for emergencies. Especially as regards what we like to call “Toilet Freedom.” Okay, so a toilet doesn’t scream birthday–but you know, she’s used to us and our ways.

    We’re giving her the black bucket and matching loo seat with a plastic bag full of wood shavings inside and a tp roll, so it’s ready to rock as a composting toilet. (For more on composting toilets, see this post of ours  or go straight to the source, The Humanure Handbook.)

    The green bucket holds enough preservative-filled, ready-to-eat food to hold her for a day or two without access to cooking water or a stove. I deliberately chose foods that she wouldn’t be tempted to eat prior to the natural disaster/zombie attack. Not gross things–you don’t want to be challenging your stomach in an emergency–but kind of boring things, such as plain crunchy granola bars, as opposed to the tempting, chewy, chocolate-dipped variety. There’s also some raisins in there, pop-top tuna cans, applesauce cups and peanut butter crackers.

    There’s plenty of room for her to add more, depending on what she wants to be prepared for. And there are so many types of emergencies to choose from! I mean really, where do we start? She might want to add some dehydrated stuff and drink mixes for situations in which she has plenty of water and a fire source. It’s nice to have hot food, even if it is packed with sodium. Or for longer emergencies, she might want to consider storing fast cooking dry goods, like white rice and lentils, and high calorie foods, like oil, peanut butter and honey.

    Sealed buckets like this are also a good place to store other things you’ll need in an emergency, including medications, first aid kits, extra glasses and copies of important documents.

    A few snacks in a five gallon bucket won’t feed a person forever, but it’s a start. It can make the difference between misery and comfort for the first day or two after a disaster. In disaster preparedness, don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. Do what you can. Everything helps.

    With these two buckets we’ve got food and sanitation covered. The third big category–and perhaps the most vital of all– is stored water, which our friend already has under control. For tips on water storage, see our recent post on water storage.