By Beth Buck
If you call yourself an Emergency Preparedness person, you probably have a crock pot and use it all the time. What kind of 21st century emergency preparedness is there if you don’t have crock pot meals at least once a week? The fatal flaw with crock pots, however, is that you have to keep them plugged in, which is a problem if you experience any kind of power outage.
It’s always useful to acquire various off-grid cooking methods. Campfires are great for marshmallows and hot dogs, but to cook something like a stew, you need to have a lot of fuel handy. I have always been interested in learning to use a solar oven, but creating an efficient one at home can be tricky, and a nice commercially-made one can run into real money so I’ve been afraid to try it.
If only there was a way to create slow-cooker meals without having to rely on the power grid – something energy-efficient that has the reliability of a crock-pot but without being as fussy or intimidating as a solar oven. Someone should invent something like that.
With this introduction, may I humbly suggest the haybox. Simple, easy-to-use, hayboxes have actually been around in one form or another for ages—at least over a century. Original hayboxes were, as the name suggests, boxes full of hay. You cook with it in a way that does not involve using the hay for fuel.
Here’s how it works: If you’re making a stew or a small roast, put everything on in a conventional pot and heat it over your range to boiling. Once it has reached a boil, cover and place in your haybox. This was originally a crate or some other container that had been stuffed with hay for insulation. More hay was then placed over the lid of the pot. The insulation keeps the temperature up so the food continues to cook even in the absence of an outside heat source.
Hayboxes were used extensively during the second World War as a way to save fuel during rationing—you only need enough fuel for that initial boil and no fuel at all for the ensuing hours. Today you can get up-scale versions of the haybox; the Wonderbag is essentially a haybox that relies on polystyrene beads instead of hay. I saw a tutorial on Pinterest for making a haybox from pallets (of course!). Another popular variation involves using a Styrofoam cooler. All of these are superior to the old method, as styrofoam, being sterile, is much more hygienic than hay.
It is recommended that you bring your food back up to to boil just before you consume it. One of the pitfalls of the haybox is that without external temperature regulation, there exists the possibility of the food spending too much time in the “danger zone,” or the range of temperatures at which bacteria can flourish. (The “danger zone” is between 41 to 141 degrees F) Another quick boil will solve this problem. Even if you need to raise the temperature of your food before consuming it, the haybox remains an efficient cooking method.
Beth Buck has been involved with emergency preparedness since her very earliest years. She enjoys hiking, martial arts, reading, and writing about food storage. Beth lives in the Intermountain West with her family.