Shh… don't tell anyone I'm poor. They all think I'm living frugal and green just like everyone these days. This is a blog about a senior citizen living a frugal life, on a fixed income, in a low income food desert, and passing along knowledge from lessons learned. Some she learned from her Grandma Mama many years ago and some learned only a few days ago.
Grandma Mama had no electricity and cooked with a wood stove. During the really hot summer days she would sometimes use a small outside fire and a hay box to cook meals so the house didn’t get too hot. If you are not familiar with what hay box cooking is then let me give you a condensed version of how it works. Food is heated to boiling for a short time in a pot. A heavy pot works best. Grandma Mama had a cast iron soup pot with lid. The boiling hot pot is quickly put into a box that is heavily insulated with hay all around the pot. Top and bottom too. The food will finish cooking without further need of fuel or energy. No peeking or stirring! Its similar to crock pot cooking but without electricity. Extremely frugal!
Recipes for hay box meals can be found in cookbooks from the 1800s. The hay box way of cooking became popular during WW1 as a way to extend rationed cooking fuel in the fighting trenches but then its use faded after the end of the war. Hay box cooking came back in popularity again during the Great Depression when many people became transients. The hay box could cook while traveling and had a hot meal ready to eat when people stopped to camp for the night. Its use faded away again after the depression ended. The most popular time of hay box use was during WW2 when all types of fuel was rationed. Especially in countries outside the USA where rationing was much more severe. After the WW2 ration years ended hay box cooking again fell out of favor.
Grandma Mama had a really nice hay box made out of a small round top steamer trunk. The hay had a permanent spot for the pot with pillow ticking fabric holding the hay in place. She changed the hay with the first hay cutting of the year making sure it was absolutely dry. Moist hay would start to compost. A few years ago I had started researching alternatives for hay so I could make one for myself without all the mess of using actual hay. Well let me tell ya, the hay box is back again. But much improved! There are modern versions of the hay box without the hay. The hay box has gone through some remarkable changes and there are several brands available. How do they work? Hmm. Do you remember the old metal thermos bottles that construction men used to carry coffee in lunch boxes? If you are too young to remember them you may have seen them in old movies.
Anyway, the modern hay box is now called a thermal cooker. It’s a bit like one of those Stanley Thermos bottles but revamped and enlarged to cook whole meals. Wow! I just HAD to get one for myself! Gee whiz, why didn’t I know about these sooner? Which one should I get? The Stanley Thermos company does make a thermal cooker but is expensive. I did more research to find one I liked at a price I could afford. Then I raided every change jar I had to pay for it. I bought the Saratoga Jack version which is medium range priced.
I ordered and paid for it in May. After a reasonable length of time without any message about a tracking number I emailed the company to see when I could expect it to be shipped. The way things grow legs and walk away these days I like knowing when a package is going to be arriving so it won’t be left on the porch too long. The company is on the west coast which meant I might not hear back for awhile. Time difference ya know. Well, as things so happened that was the very same day I went back to the hospital and ended up in surgery.
When I returned home a few days later there was a very nice voice on the answering machine apologizing for the delay in sending me a thermal cooker. He had replaced a broken part and would send it out right away along with some measuring cups and spoons. He really didn’t need to do that but I’m certainly grateful for the gifts. It arrived this morning. Here it is. My modern day hay box. And…. no messy hay. 🙂
I bought the smaller size which would be for three or four people. I can divide the food into four parts. One for the meal, one for leftovers, and two as pre-made frozen meals. This brand comes with two internal pots and one lid.
You can use both pots to cook different things at the same time. If, for example, you wanted to have curry chicken over rice you would cook the chicken in the bottom pot and the rice in the top pot. Or you could cook two different meals. One in each pot. Or if you are expecting company for dinner you can do pot roast with vegetables in just the large pot. I also ordered the steamer basket and the cake pan for baking. I was thinking of beef stew with biscuits or maybe Cajun red beans with cornbread. The possibilities are nearly endless. Grandma Mama often made Hasenpfeffer or Burgoo in her hay box. Hasenpfeffer is rabbit stew. Burgoo is also a stew but made with whatever meat was available. Today its made with pork and chicken, but back when I was young, squirrel, turtle, opossum, or even raccoon might be in the pot. Grandma Mama made everything taste good.
I was disappointed that there was no information packet with my cooker. No cleaning, care, and use instructions. No warranty information. No first time practice sample meals. Nothing. I thought those things were pretty much standard for anything sold in the USA. Maybe he forgot to include those when he repaired the pot? I did check the website and the packet should have been included so I’ll email the company.
There is a cookbook available for purchase with recipes suited for the large family size thermal cooker. I made the choice to buy the extra pans instead of the cookbook and ran out of money. I’ll get a few recipes from pinterest to get me started. I think I can improvise after that. Maybe I can find a used copy on amazon or something.
All the reviews I saw of this thermal cooker showed it with tops that simply snapped shut. I was surprised to find this one doesn’t. This one has a separate top and turns to lock. I found it difficult to locate the right place to close it. Speed in closing the pot is important. I put an arrow on masking tape at the spot where the top should meet the pot so that I’m not fumbling around trying to figure out the right place while the pot starts loosing heat.
The arrow shows which direction to turn the top to lock it. When locked the arrow is in half. I may mark this with some nail polish or something at a later time.
I plan to get a command clip to hold the thermometer in place and as soon as I find one I’m going to tape a food safety temperature chart on the top. That way both will be right there to use and no guessing if the food is safe to eat. If the food temperature isn’t high enough it can be heated on the stove again before serving.
If too much liquid is put into the bottom pot it could be potentially dangerous. Putting the top pot inside a too full bottom pot can spill over. Overflowing boiling liquid is NOT COOL. Its also messy. So, I used a permanent marker to mark the high water line in the bottom pot for when I use two pots. It would be nice, as a safety feature, if an etched or embossed visible line was incorporated during the manufacturing process.
I was really surprised there was no information packet included. No first time use test recipe. No care and cleaning instruction manual and no warranty information. I thought those were pretty much standard packets with any purchases here in the states? Maybe he forgot to put them back in the box when he repaired the part? I checked the website and yes, the information packet should have been included. I’ll email the company.
At some point, if money allows, I do plan to buy either a 3 liter sized or a 1.6 liter sized or maybe both from other brands. Why? Because I may not always want to cook four meals at once. Saratoga Jack doesn’t make the really small sizes. The smaller sizes only come in other brands and are more expensive so I may just be wishing of getting one for a long time.
Have you seen these thermal cookers before? Did you buy one? Do you use it regularly? Do you have any special tips for me?