Na Na pinches her pennies (aka frugal living)

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.

Hay box cooking

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?

30 comments on “Hay box cooking

  1. Tamara
    June 17, 2017

    I found several blogs that use this method but use a wonder oven. Two pillows filled with bean bag beads are used for the insulation.

  2. Margie in Toronto
    June 17, 2017

    I have something along this line that a woman in England made – it’s a cloth “bag” that is full of insulation and works on the same principle. I can do a quick cook of soup or stew – something like that – just put it all together, bring to a boil for a few minutes and then place the pot/casserole dish into the bag and tie everything up.

    As you say, works just like a thermos – and I have a few of those – I especially like my pretty pink one but also have a slightly smaller one in turquoise! Good for hot or cold drinks and good for picnics, days out or taking to the office.

    Glad to hear that you are feeling better.

    • Anita
      June 18, 2017

      I’m going to look for some nice thermos bottles when school supplies go on sale this fall. Or at thrift stores.

  3. Jill
    June 17, 2017

    I just thought that they way your cooker seals closed would be ideal for those times of year that ants and other such nuisances make their appearance. Washed off with soap and vinegar once it was closed food cook safely.
    My sister can’t use her slow cooker when they have droughts or torrential rains because of the influx…Everything needs to be sealed or cooked, washed up and put away immediately.,

    • Anita
      June 18, 2017

      Yes, it does seal well. Does your sister, or you, have any special way to save water during droughts you could share with us? I’ve become hooked on searching for ways to save water.

      • Jill
        June 18, 2017

        We both have 1.25 GPM shower heads. Mine is a very inexpensive one from a local Green Fair, but I have seen them for below $10 on the web.
        We also use a.5 GPM sink aerator and like you do not run the sink to brush teeth or wash hands and faces.
        Sister is in a relatively new building so she has the proper piping for a low flow toilet, but my house is from the 40’s and the plumber told me that the new toilets will back up frequently when they are put into old homes because the angles of the drains are very different. I have sealed a regular building brick with one of those food saver vacuum bag machines that my neighbor has and dropped it into the tank.
        Per what I have read it will displace .5 gallons of water with each flush. My brick was free and I have no backups…low tech for the win!!
        Like you I flush selectively.

        I don’t wait for the water to reach temperature when I shower in the summer. I get right in, wet myself all over and then turn off the water. After scrubbing I turn the water back on to rinse. If I wash my hair I repeat the process again. I use very little shampoo as it’s easier to wash out and requires less water for the rinse.
        Water has usually heated by the last rinse. I grew up in a cold water tenement so in some sense I guess I’m going backward.
        In the winter, it it’s very cold, I will run the water into a stainless bowl and save it for the pets water dishes or start the dishwasher first to bring the water froup from the tank.

        In the kitchen my biggest water saver is actually the dishwasher. Dishes are wiped with a rubber spatula just like I do if I wash them by hand and packed in like a jenga puzzle. I cook in batches so I always have a very full load…pots as well. It has an Eco cycle and uses 4 gallons or less if I scrape them off properly beforehand so that the water sensor doesn’t do and extra rinse.. I also keep a pan in the sink to catch waste and use it for various tasks. Kitchen also has a low flow aerator on the faucet.
        Dishes are difficult for me as my CFS flare ups often makes my hands do odd things..not good with soapy glassware! I had to break down and get one when I was ill for quite a while. I could manage to feed myself more or less, but cleanup was a real problem.
        It killed me to get it, but I found it really saved on water and hot water in particular. so I felt better about the extra expense.

        • Anita
          June 19, 2017

          Thanks Jill

          I wish I could turn my shower off to lather up. My shower doesn’t have that option. Turn the shower off and it flows into the tub. Its either the shower or the tub, no in between. Turning the water off completely with the single knob means back to running clean water again. I can’t take completely cold shower as it makes my joints stiff. I’ll need a plumber to change the shower which is expensive. I’m saving for that.

          I must have one of the early water saver toilets. It isn’t marked the way new ones are marked for one or two. It flushes more or less by the way the handle is pushed. A light handle push for little water and heavier handle push for more water.

          The dishwasher sure was a good investment for you. I’ve never had a dishwasher but my daughter does. She tells me it’s a water saver kind. For her it’s a work saver too with a house full of kids. She often has 8 or 10 at one time. Hers, his, nephews, nieces.

  4. T
    June 17, 2017

    We are really battling the heat here so anything which cooks without challenging the a/c is a help! Be useful after a storm too.

    Hope you are feeling better.

    • Anita
      June 17, 2017

      Yes, I am feeling better. Thanks for asking. We’ve had highs in the 90s here and expecting storms tomorrow. So far I’ve been lucky enough I haven’t had to turn on the AC but today that may change. The instruction booklet had been left out when I got my thermal cooker. It arrived yesterday by priority mail so today I get to test it.

      • T
        June 17, 2017

        I have decided no oven, no clothes dryer for the rest of the hot season…

        High 90s here too, been looking at solar blackout panels and blinds etc. to try and help.

        • Anita
          June 18, 2017

          I’m going into vampire mode too. I’ve been looking at those but they are a bit above my budget right now. I’ve been looking at cheap lined tablecloths and clip on rings as a thrifty alternative until I can do better.

  5. Katja
    June 16, 2017

    My grandma used some like Sandy and put it under the bedding. More insulation and cozy warm in colder nights!

    • Anita
      June 16, 2017

      I guess I shouldn’t be so amazed that many have memories of grandparents and hay pots. It was very popular during WW2.

  6. Pam E-P
    June 16, 2017

    Here’s a tutorial for making a thermal cooking bag. I know it’s too late for you to do this, but there are some recipes included on the page.

    • Anita
      June 17, 2017

      Apparently several people read her blog because I got messages about her. Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out.

  7. Lilly pickles
    June 15, 2017

    Is this the same as the instant pot I see advertised that is the hottest item?

    • Anita
      June 16, 2017

      Um, no. The instant pot uses electricity to cook food. Its function is to replace several appliances with only one. The thermal cooker uses no power at all except the power of insulation. There is no electrical cord. The heat from the initial boiling is held inside and slowly finishes the cooking. Thermal cooking does not require the purchase of a thermal cooker because you can create one yourself. Read the other comments to see how other people made theirs.

  8. Jill
    June 15, 2017

    keep losing my message..hope you don’t get multiples!

    Anyway you might find Elaine’s blog interesting, She has designed a sewn thermal cooker bag.
    It downloads for about $4.50 ish US depending on the current exchange rates.
    I might be good for the smaller portion cookers you were contemplating.
    She is a very frugal Scottish mother living on a teensy budget since the recession ate her former business.. She is very high energy and innovative.
    It’s interesting how world wide so many of us have found cause if fighting and surviving the austerity crush aimed at us!

    I have come to prefer my stove top pressure cooker for very fast energy efficient cooking, especially in the hot and humid summer.
    I even make risotto and polenta in it.

    • Anita
      June 17, 2017

      I finally figured out how to move your comments from the spam folder to the blog. Thanks for the link. I’m going to check it out. I have stove top pressure cooker on my future purchases wish list. Thanks for the link. Yes, it is interesting there are so many of us world wide fighting against the austerity crush. I fear it will get much worse over the next few years.

  9. Jill
    June 15, 2017

    This looks interesting for road trips and camping.
    I have come to prefer my stove top pressure cooker for very fast low energy use cooking, especially in the hot humid summer months.
    I even make risotto and polenta with it. My sister has a new whiz bang electric one that she prefers.

    Have you seen this website?

    Elaine is a very frugal mother of two living in Scotland and has designed this sewn cooking bag. There are downloaded-able instructions for 3pounds UK..about $4.50 US… This might be useful to you for the smaller portion size cookers that you are considering purchasing.
    You might enjoy her blog..she lives on a teeny budget and is very high energy and innovative. Its interesting to get frugality and survival living ideas from various perspectives. It seems that country and world wide there are many of us who are fighting back and refusing to be ‘austeritied’ into submission.

    • Anita
      June 17, 2017

      I passed the link to someone I know that’s in a very similar situation here. I thought reading about someone else might give her hope. I like her blog and plan to visit more. Thanks for letting me know.

  10. ruralreality
    June 15, 2017

    I did not know about this product, looks very interesting! It gets so hot cooking during the summer in KY (the humidity is something that few can relate to!) that I sometimes set my crockpot outside to cook but this looks even better…can’t wait to see how you like it!

    • Anita
      June 16, 2017

      So true. The humidity here is rough. Can’t cool off by sweating if the air has more moisture than the body. I don’t believe I’ll use it anymore often than I would a crock pot but the amount of energy saved will keep my bill lower.

  11. craftytadpole
    June 15, 2017

    What a neat idea. I look forwards to seeing how this works out for you.

  12. Linda S
    June 14, 2017

    I have a good-sized styrofoam cooler I bought for $0.99. I lined the bottom with rice & the sides with pieces of foam wrapped in foil. I place the boiling pot in the middle then place wadded up newspaper around it & replace the lid. In summer I set it outside & in winter put in near a heat source. Cooks great!

    • Anita
      June 16, 2017

      Neat idea. I guess I should have done more research or asked my readers if anyone had made one. Do you have a recipe book or just cook soups and stews?

  13. captnmike
    June 14, 2017

    Interesting, never used one nor do I remember my Grandmother using one, she did use a Dutch Oven from time to time however. Also looks like these would be great for taking hot food to a potluck or picnic.

    Also seems to me that the crock-pot folks are missing a good new product, A crock-pot with lots of insulation around it so the power required would be less and heat your home less in the summer time. With the low cost of electronic controls the efficiency could be quite high.

    I have a couple of crock-pots that I used to use on a regular basis, not so much anymore. But good luck with your new adventure!!!

    • Anita
      June 16, 2017

      I agree, the crock pot folks are missing out on a good idea. Thermal cooking is more energy efficient than crock pots because they don’t require an energy source after the food is enclosed. Knowing how a thermal cooker works and how to make one is good information to have in an emergency preparedness kit too.

  14. Sandy
    June 14, 2017

    I have a homemade one made with layers of batting and cloth. It works well if you use a heavy pot.

    • Anita
      June 16, 2017

      Gosh Sandy I never thought about using batting. My mind wasn’t thinking frugal enough. I give away bunches of batting scraps all the time.

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