haybox cooking on the homestead, homesteading

I first learned about haybox cooking in England, in the 1980s. It was part of a course in Biodynamic Farming and Gardening that included studies about what was known as Appropriate, or Alternative Technology. Because I was preparing to work in Africa, I felt sure I would need such technologies in my work in Botswana.

But once my husband, daughter, and I arrived in southern Africa, we were given a very different picture. Rural, village people did not want to be “talked down to” with the suggestion that they embrace simple solutions; they aspired to be like their friends and family in the capital city, Gaborone, only a few miles away from our village assignment. They wanted to go forward into a future of electrified homes and appliances, not backward to homely, even primitive, “alternatives.” Then too, we would be working with refugees from apartheid South Africa, mostly men who were not used to doing much cooking at all and who were largely urban, educated at least to a secondary-school level, and not at all interested in reverting to old-fashioned ways of living.

Older haybox cooker
Older haybox cooker

As transplants from the overly modernized world, we could see the value in alternative technologies—haybox cooking could make daily life for very poor people more possible, more comfortable, and safer in places starved for electricity, running water and, as is so often the case, cash. The basic principle is insulation. A haybox may use hay or any other insulating material inside a tightly constructed container, into which a well-covered pot of partially cooked food is inserted. The initial heat does come from the most available conventional source—fire, gas, or electricity—and is maintained, as in a crockpot or slow cooker, by the surrounding tightly packed material and airtight outer container. The whole device can be made from almost any local materials and use hay, fodder, or other natural insulation. Using the haybox saves energy on several levels and produces well-cooked, tasty food with almost no effort. And—importantly—the appropriate technologies like the haybox are environmentally friendly.

But we were not to teach those technologies to the Botswana people we had been sent to observe and assist. So we did what we could. My husband started a chicken business for refugees and I helped open a village nursery school. But no hayboxes.

After working in Botswana, we took community development assignments in the Dominican Republic and then in Kenya, for Mennonites and other like-minded organizations. Still, no hayboxes.

But when we found ourselves homesteading by choice in a tiny village in southern Spain (see “Paradise” on Homestead.org) we realized we had become much more like the people we had been assisting. Our life was simple by necessity—no electricity, water from a communal well, and a dearth of hard cash. We literally had to get alternative, get appropriate, asap.

So we decided to try some haybox cooking. It would save money, involving an absolute minimum use of propane for cooking, and no electricity. No hay, however. We had hay. Hay was everywhere, even in the basement that had traditionally served as housing for pigs or cows. Hay is an excellent insulating material and using it is obviously extremely cheap. But we didn’t know how clean our hay would be, and we were aware that any sort of insulating material would serve.

So we hit on the following version of a haybox:

  • Iron cooking pot with lid.
  • Large garbage can with well-fitting lid.
  • Down-filled sleeping bag. We generally cooked up about a 3-day supply of a staple food such as lentils using this “bag box.”

Here’s what we prepared: dry lentils, onions, tomatoes, oregano, and garlic. We sautéed all those ingredients in the afore-mentioned iron pot, added water to cover, left it on stove burner long enough to boil the water, then immediately put a lid snugly on the pot and put the pot in the garbage can lined all around and on top and bottom with sleeping bag insulation. In six hours we’d come home to a cooked supper of lentil stew. In all, our stew had spent no more than 20 minutes under fire, whereas if we’d cooked it, it would have required 3-4 hours on low heat, eating up our propane and messing up our limited budget. And forcing at least one of us to monitor its progress. I confess: I have the patience of a sand flea. Left to watch a pot for 4 hours, I would wind up serving burnt dinner. Not only did we save money and resources, but we didn’t have to watch the pot—it took care of itself.

Modern haybox cooker
Modern haybox cooker, though not our version.

Despite having been transmuted into a modern-day environmentally suitable technology, haybox cooking is actually ancient. Wikipedia offers what it calls a “medieval recipe” for clay-on-clay thermal cooking:

“Take a small earthenware pot, with an earthenware lid which must be as wide as the pot, then take another pot of the same earthenware, with a lid like that of the first; this pot is to be deeper than the first by five fingers, and wider in circumference by three; then take pork and hens and cut into fair-sized pieces, and take fine spices and add them, and salt; take the small pot with the meat in it and place it upright in the large pot, cover it with the lid and stop it with moist clayey earth, so that nothing may escape, then take unslaked lime, and fill the larger pot with water, ensuring that no water enters the smaller pot; let it stand for the time it takes to walk between five and seven leagues and then open your pots, and you will found your food indeed cooked.”

Thermal and vacuum cookers were marketed in Europe in the early 20th century, and later, the simple wooden kinds gained a vogue in countries like Denmark where folks tend to be quite eco-conscious. In around 1869, a woman named Margaret J. Mitchell composed The Fireless Cook Book: A Manual of the Construction and Use of Appliances for Cooking by Retained Heat, with 250 recipes. It’s been recently reprinted.

There are certain strict guidelines for successful, safe haybox cooking:

Keep the stew pot about 80% full. The contents of the pot preserve heat, while air on the top quickly brings the temperature down.

Don’t open the pot to check on it during its six-hour cooking time. The outside air will rapidly cool off the pot and it will not reheat.

On the other hand, leaving the food too long can cause it to cool down enough to start growing bad bacteria. So our 6 hours for lentils, was a rule, not a guess, and we had to be home to open the pot at the right time.

Be aware of the possible hazards of thermal cooking, as detailed on Wikipedia: “If a large part of the cooking time is spent at temperatures lower than 60 °C (as when the contents of the cooker are slowly cooling over a long period), a danger of food poisoning due to bacterial infection, or toxins produced by multiplying bacteria, arises. It is essential to heat food sufficiently at the outset of vacuum cooking; 60 °C throughout the dish for 10 minutes is sufficient to kill most pathogens of interest, effectively pasteurizing the dish.[4] Some foods, such as kidney beans, fava beans, and many other varieties of beans contain a toxin, phytohemagglutinin, that requires boiling at 100 °C for at least 10 minutes to break down to safe levels. The best practice is to bring briefly to a rolling boil then put the pot in the flask. This keeps it hottest longest. With big chunks of food, boil a little longer before putting into the flask.”

The good news is that if you fail to get the stew, or whatever you are cooking, completely done in the time allotted, there’s no harm in taking it out and cooking it swiftly on the stove, still a savings of your cooking fuel source.

Because all the ingredients have been “stewed in their own juices,” haybox meals are unusually savory. No taste or aroma has been lost to the open air. Another advantage of hayboxing is notable in the summer months: no extra heat in the kitchen. It’s all stored inside.

One beauty of haybox cooking is that you can make your own cooker to your own specifications. I have seen photos of hayboxes made to fit inside a deep kitchen drawer, for example, and hayboxes that use bean bags for insulation. The important thing is using it correctly, making sure you have a tight-fitting lid to keep air out, keep flavor in and prevent microbes from proliferating.

After our experience of being told not to teach hayboxing to our African village friends, I was pleased to learn about Sarah Collins, an award-winning female entrepreneur who lives in South Africa. Sarah saw the great advantages of thermal cooking in her home country where many people are unable to get electricity or to afford it. Cooking on an open fire can be dangerous, not only for its potential for injury but for the perils of poisonous fumes in small, enclosed spaces such as a typical African hut.

wonderbag haybox cooking
Sarah Collins’ Wonderbag

Sarah invented what she calls the “Wonderbag,” a large plump fiber container filled with styrene. Styrene is notorious for its bad properties, but Sarah’s repurposing of styrene keeps it from going to the landfill where, uncovered and unbagged, it offers far more potential for danger than when sewn up in a cloth bag. Too, the bags are sewn by African women, providing employment.  Saving firewood also saves trees, a major issue in all third-world locales.

Sarah says the Wonderbag idea came to her during a severe blackout in Johannesburg in 2008. Realizing how much the poor people of her region would suffer in this emergency, she resolved to help solve their cooking problems. Here is the story of the early Wonderbag invention, from their website:

“Sarah brought her first bag to a grandmother she knew who cared for nine orphans. The woman earned a meager living selling food that she cooked all day over a wood fire but still struggled to meet her family’s basic needs. The tarpaulin where they lived was always full of smoke. The kids weren’t in school, because they had to spend their days gathering firewood. ‘I said to her, “I’ll live with you while we see whether this works.” But she got the idea right away,’ says Sarah. “Their lives were completely changed. Within three months, the children only needed to gather firewood once a week, and they were all in school. They had money for shoes. It was a catalyst out of poverty for them.”

Sarah’s Wonderbag, made of colorful African batik materials, is now available for online sales here in the US. It’s so simple to use that even a husband could do it, and it would be a blessing for a very impatient prone-to-burn-things wife (not that I know anyone who fits that description…).

A more codified, organized, and thoroughly modern version of the haybox, also available for online sales, is the “thermal cooker.” I learned of this marvelous contraption while visiting with an Asian family who lives near us. The woman of the family showed me a well-used metal contraption that I took for a 2-gallon water jug. But when she took off the top, I saw that inside was a metal pot with its own glass lid. She told me she used it every day to cook rice for her large extended family. The method was exactly the same as for a haybox, requiring about ten minutes on high heat to bring the rice and water to a boil. She said that she had another such pot that she used for keeping food cool. Of course—the same principles apply to both heating a cooling—the vacuum. So the Chinese thermal pot is sometimes referred to as a vacuum cooker.

And she reminded me of another beauty of her thermal cooker: no burning ever, so almost no work to clean the pot once it was empty. Yes!

Many homesteaders, preppers, and generally thrifty folks are aware of haybox cooking, by whatever name. So you can look up recipes and learn more about the specifics of cooking times and proportions from those who have explored this wonderful device in all its potential avenues. For me, lentil stew is about as good as it gets, and the dense hayboxed aroma reminds me of Spain.

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