November 21, 2020

Haybox (aka Thermal) Cooking

I'm always on the lookout for methods of alternative cooking, so I was quite intrigued when I learned about the haybox cooker. I was also surprised that this new-to-me idea is actually a very old method of cooking! Haybox cookers (also spelled hay box) are sometimes referred to as wonder boxes, fireless cookers, or thermal cookers. They cook food by using retained heat. In other words, the food is partially cooked first, then allowed to finish cooking in an insulated container.

Early haybox cookers were wooden boxes which used hay as insulation. People still use hay, but wool fleece is popular too. The box itself can be anything from wood to a thermal bag. They tend to be susceptible to moisture build-up, so probably the only thing that wouldn't last long would be cardboard. Dan made my haybox from an old travel cooler and leftover foam board from our pantry insulation project.

The cooler is from Dan's trucking days. Plugs into a cigarette
lighter and keeps food cool without needing to replace ice.

We had quite a few foam board scraps left from our pantry
. As you can see, he cut them to fit a particular pot.

Two more pieces of foam board cover the top of the pot.

The other day I tested it out by cooking rice. To get the cooking started, I used my rocket stove.

I bought this little camping stove years ago and can no longer find the website. So much more convenient than campfire cooking, although it constantly has to be fed to keep it going. That's why it pairs nicely with the haybox cooker!

My recipe for rice is one cup brown rice and one pint of bone broth.

After the rice was allowed to simmer for about ten minutes, I put the pot in the haybox.

I had no idea about timing the cooking. Some
sources say one hour, some say several hours.

Then I covered it up, closed the lid and waited. It's hard not to peek, but every time the cooker is opened heat is lost, so it's best not to open it if at all possible.

After about an hour and 20 minutes in the haybox, the rice looked to be pretty much done. It was, pretty much done, and was edible, but it could have gone a little longer. I'll do that next time. 

I see a lot of use for this kind of cooking, all seasons. I'm not always around to tend to a wood fire, so this is the perfect solution for one-pot meals. Summer too, when we often have clouds rolling in during the late afternoon. Those clouds mean my solar oven stops cooking. The haybox will be the perfect way to finish up whatever I've got going for dinner. 

If you're interested in more, there are tons of websites and videos on haybox cookers, all easy to find with a simple search. There's also a free cook book by Margaret J. Mitchell, entitled The Fireless Cook Book. It was originally published in 1913, but is now public domain and available for download at the Internet Archive. Amazon has an inexpensive paperback option, which I recently ordered, along with a more recent publication, Fireless Cookers Haybox Cookers & Retained Heat Cookers by George Eccleston. I ordered it too and will give you a review of both books soon.


Gorges Smythe said...

I think I've read of the Amish using the method when they have a ways to travel. They just pack it in the buggy and go.

Leigh said...

Gorges, I hadn't thought about cooking while traveling, but that's a great idea for a long trip!

Boud said...

This is the classic camping stove. My brothers, back in the thirties, would make breakfast oatmeal overnight this way, so they had breakfast first thing in the morning, hot and ready to eat. I think it was in my girl guide handbook, too, in the fifties.

daisy g said...

Fascinating! I've never heard of a hay box cooker, but I could see it working great for camping, even if it's in the backyard! ;0D

wyomingheart said...

Wow! We use a specific cooler to rest the smoked meat we make, and it keeps cooking on the inside, but I have never heard of finishing the cooking of something off. Fascinating! What an awesome thing to research! You are so great at coming up with useful information and projects for us to try! Well Done!!!... or half done...HaHa!

Leigh said...

Boud, I've heard of making oatmeal overnight in a thermos, but never gave it a thought. Wish I still had my old Girl Scout handbook, or even my brother's old Boy Scout handbook.

Leigh said...

Daisy, it would work well anywhere! I can see mine getting a lot of use!

Wyomingheart, sometimes I'm amazed at what turns up when i'm poking around the internet! That's a great idea for smoked meat. I'll have to pass that on to Dan.

Rosalea said...

I have read about this cooking method, but haven't tried it. How 'Dan-like' to make the perfectly sized container! He is an artist.

Cockeyed Jo said...

I've seen many variations of this old barn raiser technique of cooking. Including using pillows sewn together to make a surrounding insulating barrier.

Your system raises some concerns for me. Have you considered the off gassing of the materials in the insulation aka foam, fire retardant chemicals used to meet code, and the vapor barrier over time and heat. These gasses are very toxic. Not to knock a brilliant idea, but safety first.

I'll keep building my boxes with heavily matted wool (Think a fleeced, 3" thick mat of wool (Bot, I was mad when I did it and it wasn't my intention) and other natural products. I'm actually making a crockpot Thanksgiving dinner in mine. I'm using my Coleman oven on my wood stove heater to start it off.

Once again, Leigh, an opportune post.

Leigh said...

Rosalea, it was just a matter of using what we had available rather than buying materials. Always the best way, IMO!

Jo, great use for a matted fleece! Yup, there are many variations. And nope, I'm not worried about off-gassing for this particular product (but I won't speak to other brands of similar products).

Renee Nefe said...

We did something similar to this at Girl Scout camp one year. We dug a hole about 4 feet down (I wasn't on the digging crew so I don't remember how deep) and started the stew on the fire in a cast iron dutch oven. I think that they put some coals around the oven and put it in there. Filled in the hole and left it for a few hours doing other campy things. When we came back and dug up our dinner, it was all ready. :D
You could probably keep the Haybox in your kitchen (or summer kitchen) to cook up dinner. I can see that being really handy in the summer.

Hill Top Post said...

I am glad to know this. I often wrap cooking vessels with towels to keep them going - a kind of hay box, I suppose.

Leigh said...

Renee, I seem to remember doing something similar in Girl Scouts too. Handy to know! I think the haybox cooker will get a lot of use, all seasons. :)

Mary, yes, that's the same principle!

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Very interesting Leigh. I use a version of this for making yogurt: Heat and then cool the milk in the crock pot, add the starter, then put a towel over the lid and wrap the outer shell with a blanket, and let it sit for 12-16 hours. Works like a charm every time - I am surprised how much heat is retained.

Leigh said...

TB, yogurt, yes! I've done that too, but with a small cooler instead of a crock pot. I like your crock pot idea. Maybe I should try something similar for my kefir. My kitchen has reached autumn temperatures and not as warm as it used to be. Why didn't I think of that? Thanks!

Ed said...

I have never heard of a haybox cooker until today. The closest is just wrapping things in towels in the back of the car as we drive to the potluck... in years gone by of course.

Leigh said...

Ed, well, the idea is logical! I reckon we've always done something similar from time to time. I do like this application for cooking.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Leigh, I never thought to check the temperature after I let it sit. I will do so next time.