Hay Box Cooking
Words and Image by Seren Hollins
At the beginning of the 20th century there was a fashion for something called fuel-less cookery, indeed there were a few early examples of fuel-less cookers manufactured including one called ‘Queens Fuel-less Cooker’, circa 1930, that was basically an insulated small oil-drum, however, most people simply made their own home-made versions called hay-boxes.
Hay-box cookery today is not just a great way to conserve resources, but a fantastic way to get a meal cooking without having to slave over a hot stove; so ideal when you are busy in the allotment or of course when you are going out for the day or have a million jobs to get through.
Hay-box cooking is fantastic for busy bees and I’ve also used the techniques when I’ve gone on picnics and fancied something more substantial than a sandwich. Indeed as I leaf through old cookery books I find lots of recipes and ideas for preparing a meal to eat while on a journey or out for the day.
I find this sort of cooking is particularly suitable for stews and casseroles, although it can be used to cook soups, rice, curries and porridge. Less water is needed than for other forms of cooking as there is less evaporation and of course no need to worry about burning.
Using a hay box
There is really nothing simpler than hay-box cooking; all you need is a box and some hay. The idea is really explained in the name and is that a container of food is heated up to boiling point and then immediately placed in a box surrounded by hay as insulation.
Now over the years I have used allsorts of boxes, from wooden ones with fitted lids, old drawers which I’ve topped with a pillow for insulation and indeed even a thick cardboard box.
The idea is to take a box with a tightly fitting lid and fill it with insulating material like hay, although you can use straw, shredded paper, wood shavings and even popcorn. A casserole dish with a lid is the rested on some of the insulation material and more is packed around it, to create a nest effect.
The casserole dish needs to have a closely fitting lid; I have used both cast iron cooking pots and crock pots, both with good results. Once the pot is nestled into its insulation nest you need to pack hay over the top of it and the lid of the box will need securing tightly. If you are using an old draw then you will need to pack hay over the top of the cooking pot and then used a feather filled pillow as a lid for the box (this will act as a good layer of insulation)
The food for your cooking pot needs to be heated thoroughly to start with, which is where the idea of boiling it for 10 minutes first comes from. Once it is hot, the sealed dish is put in the box and left alone until it cooks. This leads to quite a saving in the amount of fuel used. It also means that like with a standard slow cooker, it is possible to start the cooking process for a meal a few hours before it is needed and get on with other things while it is cooking which is useful at anytime of year.
Take Note – Top Tips for Success
It can take four times as long to cook food in a hay box than it would in the oven, so it’s something you need to get on the go well in advance and it can take a bit of trial and error to get the cooking times right when you first get into hay-box cooking. How long you leave it depends on the sort of food you are cooking, but if you allow plenty of cooking time you can’t really go wrong.
It is important that whatever is used, not to check the food very often if at all, as this will only lead to the food cooling down so that it will not cook properly. Most of the foods that can be cooked this way will appreciate a long slow cook and will take on an improved flavour and texture.
Foods cook better if the dish is nearly full. However, it is important not to get the insulating material wet from either the steam (hence the well fitting lid) or from spilling the food, so don’t overfill the dish and a clean tea-towel wrapped around the dish can be helpful in absorbing leakage.
If hay and some other insulating materials do get wet, they do not hold the heat in as well. Hay does not last well if it gets damp, so always check the condition of the hay after every usage.
A hay box left unattended for a while can look to a mouse like a ready-made home, so be careful where you keep it, mouse stew may not be what you are hoping to achieve!
Whether using a wooden box, cardboard box or even an old metal chest, the trick is to create lots of little air pockets. The insulating material can be used again and again, although you may need to add a little more hay as time passes. It is also essential to dry out any damp insulation so that the box works well next time and doesn’t form mould.
Out for the Day – Don’t forget your Flask
For cooking small amounts (say a single portion pasta or casserole), a quality thermos flask can be used in a similar way to a hay-box and is great for taking on picnics and long car journeys. The principle is the same as the hay-box, but the technique is different.
Pre-heat the flask with boiling water
Bring pasta or casserole to the boil in a saucepan
Empty the flask; carefully pour the contents of the saucepan into the flask; seal and leave to cook.
Don’t forget that rice and pasta expand when they cook so don’t fill the flask to the brim, and exercise caution when opening in case the flask has become pressurised.
Recipes to get you started
Seren’s Slow Cook Casserole
This recipe is adapted to use in the hay-box and will take 4 hours to cook.
- 500g pork, cut into cubes
- 500g venison, cut into cubes
- 1 tbsp freshly ground pepper
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil
- 3 medium onions, chopped
- 2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes
- 3/4 bottle of red wine (a merlot works well)
- 3 stick celery, coarsely chopped
- 4 large carrots, coarsely chopped
- 150g butternut squash, cut into cubes
- 150g sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes
- 225g mushrooms, cut into slices
- Ground sea-salt to taste
- Dust the meat with the ground pepper.
- Put the oil to a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the meat and brown in batches. When brown put the meat in the crock pot.
- Add the onions to the frying pan and cook until soft.
- Put the onions in the crock pot.
- Add the tomatoes, red wine, celery, carrots to the meat and onions and bring to the boil.
- Add the butternut squash, sweet potato and the mushrooms. Stir well and bring back to the boil.
- Cook on the stove for 5 minutes in a covered pan
- Transfer the vegetables and stock to the crock-pot with the meat and slow cook in the hay-box for 4 hours.
- Check the seasoning and adjust if necessary.
- Serve with crusty bread or new potatoes.
Good Old Fashioned Liver and Onions with a Twist
Liver I know is not enjoyed by everyone but I think it has gained a bad reputation due to bad cooking techniques. Liver is one of those dishes that appreciates a long slow cook and it is really good for you as it is rich in iron and vitamin A.
To make this dish will take no time at all and you can use any type of liver, but I find Ox particularly good.
- 350g ox liver, cut into strips
- 3 tbsp plain flour
- 2 tbsp salted butter
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 onion, skinned and chopped roughly
- 100g white mushrooms, sliced
- 400g can haricot beans, drained
- 400g tin chopped tomatoes
- 150 ml cup beef stock
- 2 tbsp tomato purée (paste)
- 1 tsp dried mixed herbs
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- Dust the liver with seasoned flour.
- Melt the butter and vegetable oil in the inner pot.
- Add the liver, onion and mushrooms quickly until brown.
- Add all the rest of the ingredients and bring to the boil.
- Turn down the heat, put on the lid and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Place the liver mixture into the crock pot
- Pack into the hay-box and leave for 2 hours.
- serve with hot buttered toast
Vegetable stews, curries, rice puddings and even nut roasts do really well in a hay-box and once you start cooking in this way you’ll find that the benefits in fuel reduction and increased taste make this method a real winner. For me the hands-off cooking approach during busy times is fantastic and sitting down with chores done, aching legs and a hot meal is a perfect end to a day.