Heat-retention cooking is an age-old method that can be used to conserve energy not only during times of crisis, but anytime. Depending on the food item and amount cooked, the use of a haybox or insulated cooker saves between 20% and 80% of the energy normally needed to cook a food. The longer an item usually takes on a stovetop, the more fuel is saved. For example, with a haybox, five pots of long-cooking dry beans will use the same amount of fuel to cook to completion as just one pot cooked without a haybox.
The principle of retained-heat cooking is simple. In conventional cooking, any heat applied to the pot after it reaches boiling temperature is merely replacing heat lost to the air by the pot. In haybox cooking, food is brought to a boil, simmered for a few minutes depending on the particle size (5 minutes for rice or other grains, 15 minutes for large dry beans or whole potatoes), then put into the haybox to continue cooking. Since the insulated cooker prevents most of the heat in the food from escaping into the environment, no additional energy is needed to complete the cooking process. The hayboxed food normally cooks within one to two times the normal stovetop cooking time. It can be left in the haybox until ready to serve, and stays hot for hours. “Timing” is much less important than in stovetop cooking: stick a pot of rice, beans, or stew in at lunch time, and it will be ready when you are, and steaming hot, at dinner time.
The haybox itself is any kind of insulated container that can withstand cooking temperatures and fits relatively snugly around the pot. Hayboxes have been made using hay, straw, wool, feathers, cotton, rice hulls, cardboard, aluminum foil, newspaper, fiberglass, fur, rigid foam, and/or other suitable materials as insulation. The insulation is placed between the rigid walls of a box, within a double bag of material, or lining a hole in the ground. “Instant hayboxes” have been created 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. 2 to 4 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. Important characteristics of any insulating material incorporated into a haybox include:
- It must withstand cooking temperatures (up to 212°F or 100°C) without melting.
- It does not release toxic fumes (any kind of foam insulation needs to be covered with aluminum foil or mylar) or dangerous fibers (fiberglass also needs to be covered).
- It can be fashioned to be as snug-fitting as possible around the pot. A little pot in a big box will not cook as effectively; it’s better to wrap pillows, towels, or blankets around it to fill up the space.
- It can be made to form a relatively tight seal, so that heat does not escape from the cooking cavity. Since hot air rises, a container designed to open at the base rather than the top will retain more heat.
- It is dry, and can be kept dry, since wet materials don’t insulate as well. An inner layer of aluminum foil or mylar helps keep cooking moisture from entering the walls of the box. Mylar, which can be salvaged from used food storage containers, balloons, etc., tends to be a more durable inner layer than aluminum foil.
- Cooking containers, too, should have tight-fitting lids, to prevent the escape of heat and moisture.
Since water is not lost in haybox cooking the way it is during extended stovetop simmering, the amount of water used to cook grains and beans is normally reduced by one-quarter. Instead of adding 2 cups of water per cup of dry rice, try adding 1 1/2. Also, the larger the amount cooked, the more effective haybox cooking is, since a full pot has more mass and therefore more heat storage capacity than a half-full pot. Haybox cooking is ideally suited for a family or large group, or anytime there’s a reason to cook in quantity. If you’re cooking alone, try cooking full pots of food using a haybox, then reheating small portions for individual meals–this too can conserve fuel.Retained-heat cooking has many other advantages in addition to energy and water conservation. As mentioned, it makes “timing” less critical, since it keeps meals hot until serving time. Once the initial boil-and-short-simmer stage is past, it also eliminates the danger of burning the food on the bottom of the pot (the sad fate of too many pots of grains, beans, or other foods left simmering too long without stirring on the stove). Hayboxed food can actually be better for you, and tastier, than food prepared exclusively on a stovetop, because most of the cooking takes place in the 180°F to 212°F range (82°-100°C), rather than at a constant 212°F (lower temperatures preserve more flavor and nutrients, as they also do in crockpot cooking and solar cooking).
If you want to prepare multiple items for a meal but have only a limited number of flame sources, hayboxes can also greatly facilitate the logistics of food preparation. For example, you can bring your beans to a boil, simmer them 15 minutes, put them in a haybox; then bring your rice to a boil, simmer it 5 minutes, put it in another haybox; then prepare your vegetable stir-fry or soup, etc. At the end, you’ll have a uniformly hot, unburnt, multi-dish meal, all off a single flame, probably consuming less total fuel than you would have used simply to cook the longest-cooking item alone without a haybox. You’ll also have used one-quarter less of your drinkable water supply in preparing the food.
Presoaking and draining beans always makes them easier to cook, as well as 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.
Hayboxes are second only to solar cookers (which, however, are dependent on sunshine) in their potential to conserve resources. They’re easy to build, easy to use, and have many other advantages. Y2K or no Y2K, they deserve a place in every home.
[The original text above was copied from http://www.lostvalley.org/haybox1.html.]
Using a solar box cooker as a retained-heat cooker
When combining retained heat and solar cooking, if food has gotten thoroughly hot in an solar box cooker (SBC), but clouds arrive before the food is finished cooking, a switch from solar to retained heat cooking should be made before the oven temperature drops below the boiling point. For large recipes this may be accomplished by simply closing the reflective lid on the pots of cooking foods. For smaller recipes, the solar oven is opened, taking care not to allow steam to escape from under the lids, pots are pushed close together along with any heated additional mass. Insulating pads or soft cushions are tucked closely around the pots and well heated mass. The SBC lid is then closed. This effectively makes the transition from solar to retained heat cooking. The cooker lid remains closed until shortly before serving time, when the food is tested. If not completely done, a very little conventional fuel will usually finish the job.
Usually solar/retained heat cooking is done right where the SBC is located. However, a lightweight portable SBC can be moved temporarily indoors for its retained heat cooking time if the sun clouds over or if it rains. It may also be brought inside more or less permanently during the off season or at night and function as an insulated box for retained heat cooking. Used in this way the SBC continues to save fuel rather than simply being stored until conditions are right for solar cooking. Combining solar cooking and heat-retention cooking has led to greater acceptance.
Tips and Tricks
- Keep the steam in the pot. The more steam you start with, the longer your food will stay hot. Do not lift the lid to check right before hayboxing!
- Wrap the pot(s) tightly in aluminum foil if possible, two pieces for each pot unless the pot is very small. Use heavy duty foil if you can get it. Then re-use the foil each time (wipe and dry, if needed). The more you use it, the more crinkled it will get, creating thousands of small air pockets that help to insulate the heat the foil reflects back to the food. This can really make a difference in how long your food stays hot enough to keep cooking.
- If possible, wrap the foil-wrapped pot(s) tightly in thin cloth before putting in the haybox and insulating with thicker materials.
- Terrycloth towels can be good insulation to pack around foods in a retained heat cooker.
- If you cook in a box oven and eat after dark, get some black cloths and towels to pack around your foods before the sun gets too low (also use extra rocks in the cooker to soak up more heat, if there is room for them). Wrap and cover the food with the black cloths and leave the cooker open for the last of the good sun before closing, so even your insulation will start out warm to keep your food hot longer.
News and recent developments
- November 29, 2012: The Environmental Protection Agency will be sponsoring a webinar on Retained Heat Cooking at 15:00 – 16:30 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)/Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), which is 10:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. Vincent Okello from Practical Action East Africa along with Miguel Granados and Malcolm Gribble from HELPS International (Guatemala) will share their case studies, including successes, challenges, and lessons learned in retained heat cooker design, commercialization, and community engagement in both rural and urban areas. Registration is required. Register for the webinar...
- November 2007: At the 2006 International Solar Cookers Conference in Spain, Wietske Jongbloed of the KoZon Foundation learned a useful trick from David and Ruth Whitfield: a heat-retention cooker can be made from empty rice bags. The Whitfields advised that two large rice bags, with insulation such as wool or cotton in between, make a sack that will keep a pot of food at cooking temperatures long after it is removed from a heat source. KoZon introduced the idea in Tahoua, Niger, where cooking pots are typically very large — 12 to 16 liters. For these pots, four rice bags are needed to surround the pot, and a fifth bag stuffed with insulation covers the top. Of this five-bag system, Jongbloed says, “It is named ‘Idadafoua’ and works marvelously.” Jongbloed writes that women in the Sahel cook meals for families of 10 to 12 or more people. The KoZon project in Tahoua teaches the use of three cooking devices — fuel-efficient wood stoves, heat-retention cookers, and solar CooKits. CooKits are used on sunny days for meat or fish sauces, eggs, sweet potatoes, and groundnuts, and for cakes that are sold by the slice to earn money.
Articles in the Media
- March 2009: Hot Pot Cooking - Los Angeles Times
- November 2010: Fueling the Future - Maximizing fuel conservation with the Integrated Cooking System - Patricia McArdle
- 2009: Engaging Communities in Alleviating Smoke, using heat-retention cooking - Vincent Okello
Retained Heat Cooking ... the Wave of the Future Again
by Leslie Romano
Discover how easy it is to make and use your own off-the-grid cook box to cook uncommonly good food of all kinds. This is a frugal, time honored method of cooking that saves time, space, money, resources, nutrition and electricity. Includes sections on the history and science of retained heat cooking, how to make and use your own cook box, tips and suggestions based upon personal experience, recipes, homeschooling ideas and ten incredible advantages to cooking highly nutritious, perfectly cooked food with the natural, easy to implement retained heat cooking method.
50 pages. $6.99
Audio and video
- Integrated Cooking Method
- HotBag Project
- Using rice bags to build a heat-retention cooker
- Kapok Cooking Basket
- Guide to Designing Retained Heat Cookers
- Heat storage
Sometimes it is desirable to keep fresh foods cool, rather than focussing on gathering and storing heat for cooking purposes. A simple evaporative cooler can provide a solution. The Pot-in-pot cooler uses two clay pots, one inside the other, separated by a sand barrier. The sand is saturated with water and the cooler is covered with a wet towel. As the water slowly evaporates, heat is taken from the clay pots, keeping perishable food inside cool and fresh for some time.
- Solar, Off Grid, Green & DIY Videos
- Cooking in a Basket blog
- Thermal Cooking Weblog: Fireless Cookers
- Crest page: Haybox, Retained Heat or Fireless Cooker
- Haybox how to and description
- A good external resource on this topic is BioEnergy Lists: Haybox, Retained Heat or Fireless Cookers.
- An audio interview with Mike Bridgwater about his work in combining solar cooker and heat-retention cooking in Tanzania.
- Heat Retention Cooking vs. Solar Cooking - Mike Bridgwater
- A Wikipedia article on Vacuum flask cooking
- Bioenergylists directory of heat-retention cooking links
- How to make a cooking basket with banana leaves (and a basket). The top of the webpage is slightly broken, but it has good pictures and instructions and some cooking suggestions.
- GreenCooking - Solar cooking and other green cooking methods.
- February 2008: Stewin' the Box - The Times
- Thermal Cooking Weblog: A Hay Box Cooker An Old Invention – Out of New Materials
- Using a solar box cooker as a heat-retention cooker
- The Heat Retention Solar Oven by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
- Making a Wonderbox from polystyrene beads