The Haybox: Why Every Household Needs One
“Revolutionary Kitchen Device Guarantees
If the above were an actual ad, it would likely provoke a few questions:
(1) Is this just a lot of hype, a quick-sell con job?
(The answer is, fortunately, no. This essential kitchen device is not a fraudulent marketing ploy but an easy-to-build item, and it actually performs as described.)
(2) If such a device exists, why doesn’t everyone have one?
(I don’t know. Everyone should have one. We live in a commercial culture where do-it-yourself ecological practices are not promoted because they don’t make anyone a fast buck or increase the GNP. More education is necessary.)
(3) How can my household or community get one?
(It’s easy: make it yourself.)
The device I’ve described is a haybox, also known as a retained-heat cooker, insulated cooker, or wonder box. Of all the sustainable technologies I’ve encountered in my years of living in community, it’s the one that is the most universally applicable and appropriate. In short, every community and household should have one–or ideally, more than one. We at Lost Valley Educational Center have five; Aprovecho Research Center (which has led the way in educating about them) has at least half a dozen; other intentional communities, urban cooperatives, co-housing and activist groups are discovering them; and some eco-pioneers are even whispering about installing hayboxes in the White House once it is recaptured from its current occupiers in 2004. Good for people, good for the earth, and good for our country, hayboxes are the essence of patriotism. In fact, only terrorists wouldn’t like them.
Hayboxes work on the simple principle that if the heat applied to food in the cooking process can be retained within that food, rather than lost to the environment, no “replacement heat” is needed to keep the food cooking. In conventional cooking, any heat applied to a pot after food reaches boiling temperatures is merely replacing heat lost to the air by the pot. In haybox cooking, food is brought to a boil on the stove, simmered for a few minutes (5 minutes for rice or other grains, 15 minutes for large dry beans or whole potatoes), then put into an insulated box, where it completes its cooking. Food will be ready in anywhere from one to one-and-a-half times the “normal” completion time, with no tending needed and no danger of burning, and will stay piping hot for many hours, allowing maximum flexibility in the cook’s and the eaters’ schedules. For grains or beans, water is reduced by one-quarter, because water is retained within the food rather than simmered away into the air (it’s important to use pots with tight-fitting lids in haybox cooking). The larger the quantity cooked, the more effective this technique is (the hotter the food will stay, for longer), because increased thermal mass holds more heat. And because most of the cooking occurs in the 180 degrees F-212 degrees F range, rather than at a constant 212 degrees , more flavor and nutrients are preserved.
As in conventional cooking, presoaking and draining beans makes them easier to cook and to digest. A few particularly long-cooking foods, such as garbanzo beans, may need reboiling part-way through the cooking process. For health reasons, meat dishes should always be reboiled before serving–but all other foods should be safe to eat straight out of the haybox. (However, don’t put a partially-eaten pot of lukewarm food back into the haybox without first reheating it, since hayboxes are not only excellent cookers but also ideal incubation chambers for yogurt and other bacteria-rich food.)
Hayboxes are easy to construct through a variety of methods. The haybox itself is any kind of insulated container that can withstand cooking temperatures and fits relatively snugly around the pot. Effective insulation materials include hay, straw, wool, feathers, cotton, rice hulls, cardboard, aluminum foil, newspaper, fiberglass, fur, rigid foam, and others. The insulation is placed between the rigid walls of a box, within a double bag of material, or lining a hole in the ground. Campers have created “instant hayboxes” by wrapping a sleeping bag, blankets, and/or pillows around a pot. The most effective insulating materials create many separate pockets of air, which slow down the movement of heat. Two to four inches of thickness, depending on the material, are necessary for good insulation. Some materials, such as aluminum foil or mylar, actually reflect heat back toward the pot.
Any material used must withstand temperatures up to 212 degrees F without melting (exposed styrofoam won’t work), and without releasing toxic fumes or dangerous fibers (rigid foam and fiberglass both need to be covered). The insulation also must be dry, and be kept dry (an inner layer of aluminum foil or mylar can help prevent cooking moisture from entering the wall of the box). The box should be as snug-fitting as possible around the pot, with a tight seal so that heat does not escape from the cooking cavity. Build your haybox to fit your largest pot; for smaller pots in the same box, you can increase performance by wrapping towels, blankets, or pillows around the pot.
Hayboxes used on a regular basis or in a group setting need to be durable: I’d recommend constructing a wooden box, with a “hat” type lid (so that the opening is at the bottom, to minimize heat loss). Attach handles to make lifting this upper section easier, and line the inner walls with mylar if possible (it can be salvaged from used food storage containers, balloons, etc.). If you can’t find mylar, be prepared to replace your aluminum foil lining periodically. Depending on where you are using the haybox, you may want to attach casters to the bottom of your base. Find a good place to store and use your haybox, within or easily accessible to the kitchen.
One final guarantee: once you’re a haybox devotee, you will never willingly go back to conventional methods of preparing pots of grains, beans, or long-cooking soups again, especially if you’re feeding a group. Happy cooking!
A different version of this article first appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of Communities: Journal of Cooperative Living (see www.ic.org).
Chris Roth is a haybox devotee living at Lost Valley Educational Center.
©2003 Talking Leaves
Volume 13, Number 1
Communication & Eco-Culture