We’ve heard only recently about the thing called a “hay box cooking” and the idea hooked us instantly. The concept of the box cooker is so simple and commonsensical that when I think about it I start wondering why I haven’t come up with the idea earlier. Well, somebody has and although you can buy modern appliances, based on the same method, this type of cooking food was used during the times of the pioneers in the Wild West, and again later, during the WWII. Variations of the idea are known in every continent.
The method is simple: you place the ingredients in a pot then bring the whole pot to a boil, after which it goes into a box full of hay that will keep the heat so the food will cook slowly.
It’s a fascinating way to cook – not only will you use far less energy in the process but you don’t even need to be present, while the meal is cooked. There is no risk of burned dishes or overcooked vegetables. In today’s terms it may mean that a tasty and nutritious Saturday dinner will be cooking while you spend all your day in the park playing with the kids.
It is also clear that it will be a bit messy exercise to use hay in your kitchen, and not just because it tends to retain humidity and odors. Once they used also straw, wool, feathers, cotton, rice hulls, cardboard or fur. However you can use any of the modern materials with good insulating qualities and nowadays there are plenty of them, like aluminum foil, newspaper, fiberglass, rigid foam. We actually know of boxes using pressed paper trimmings for insulating, and it is brilliant idea. Far easier to find are various shapes of polystyrene foam, as it is commonly used as packaging material. It is light and low maintenance, and it is a perfect insulator.
Then comes the box itself – originally it would be a sturdy and rather big pine box, but the idea we really loved is to give another use to the big cooler, we only use once in a while. Well, this is if you are a traditionalist. There are other valuable options, like the South African “hot boxes” – a modern replica of the local variety of haybox cooker, resembling pillow rather than box.
Depending of the measures of the cooler (or the box you choose), you need to figure out the size of cooking pots you’ll be using. It is important that the pot has good heat retaining qualities (think of a Dutch oven) and a lid with a rim, which ensures that condensation on the lid is returned to the pot. It is also necessary to allow enough space for insulation between the pot and the sides of the box.
And then is actual cooking. This method produces wonderful slow cooked soups, stews and casseroles, i.e. any recipe that calls for boiling, simmering, steaming, or roasting. It will often even taste better. You need to load up the cooking pot with your ingredients as you would do with a crockpot, add oil, water or stock, heat it over the hot plate until boiling briskly and transfer it in the cooking box.
Since every cooking box, made this way will be different, it is difficult to set absolute rules about cooking time, but there are few basic principles to follow:
- Add less liquid (water, stock) than you would normally add to your soups or casseroles, as the cooking box prevents the evaporation;
- Initial cooking time depends on the quantity of the food and its size, so make sure even the big chunks are heated through.
- I bet you’ll be curious, as with any new method or appliance to try, but here no peeking is allowed. You better leave you box to do the work for at least 6-7 hours.
- Generally the box cooker works most efficiently when the pot is almost full of food.
- Of course, you can brown the chunks of meat, before putting them in the cooking pot, but that is not necessary – the meat cooked this way comes out tender and moist, melting in your mouth. As for the vegetables – they’ll keep their color, taste and form, and there is no risk they turn into mush as they can when overcooked on a stove top.
- Keep the insulation dry, as it will lose some of its heat retaining qualities, when wet.