Holiday (and Everyday) Cooking Help: My Styrofoam “Hay” Box


IMG_6123I did a lot of cooking over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays this year. I have always wished that I had a second oven, but I don’t, so I depend on my Nesco cooker and, of all things, a big Styrofoam box with a lid that I picked up at a garage sale for $1 a couple years ago.

Cooking meat in the Nesco freed up my oven, and the Styrofoam box allowed me to keep food hot without changing its character. I’ve found that the starch in mashed potatoes gets funky and glassy when held in a warm oven for too long or at too high a temperature.

When I am cooking up a storm, I need the oven to cook food not to keep it warm until serving. I was in a real bind while preparing the Thanksgiving meal until I remembered that darn box in the garage and some information I’d run across on the internet while researching solar ovens and rocket stoves! I have initially purchased the box to use as a form for a tufa planter for the garden, but now I had thought of another use for it.  I put an big, clean bath towel in the bottom of the box, placed the hot pot of mashed potatoes in the box on top of the towel, and then placed a clean pillow in a clean pillow case on top of the pot, tucking it in well around the pot, and replaced the box lid. I weighed the lid down with a heavy object to ensure a tight fit.

When my Brussels sprouts were done roasting, I opened the box, put another clean towel over the mashed potato pan, and stacked the covered pan of vegetables on top of it. Then I replaced the pillow and lid until it was time to serve the food. Both pans of food were still hot at serving time.  I’ve done the same with sausages that were done a bit too quickly to remain warm until the pancakes were done.

I’ve also used the box for the first and second rising of dinner rolls this past Christmas. Usually, I would raise my yeast dough in my electric oven with the door closed and the light on. This doesn’t work if I need to use the oven to cook something while my dough should be rising!

IMG_6121I used a large, heavy earthenware bowl to raise my dough. I let the bowl stand filled with hot water while I mixed my ingredients, and then I emptied out the water and dried and greased it before adding my dough. I covered the top of the bowl with greased plastic wrap, which created a nice warm environment for the yeast to multiply and raise the dough. Next, I put the dough in it’s warm bowl in the box to rise. It worked wonderfully. (I probably should have checked the dough sooner because as you can see, the dough had already risen and started to fall before I had a chance to punch it down!)

I found this description of an insulated box cooker called a “fireless cooker” in an old high school home economics text, copyright 1919, that I picked up at a library book sale.

Fireless cookers are made from a variety of materials, but all have the same underlying principle of operation.

Construction.–Fireless cookers consist of a covered box lined with tin or zinc; packing, usually felt or excelsior, or any material that is a non-conductor of heat; food chambers for cooking; and radiators, consisting of iron or stone discs, which are heated and placed under and over the dish containing the food to be cooked. The efficiency of the cooker depends largely upon how nearly the packing is a non-conductor or heat.

Care of the fireless cookers: 1. Keep all parts clean and dry. 2 Keep cooker tightly fastened when in use. 3. Air out frequently to keep sweet and clean.

There were no real instructions on how to cook with the fireless cooker, but I found references to insulated box cookers and how to build and use them in a book I downloaded from the Aprovecho Research Center website.

The Historic Foodie had a nice blog post on the history and use of fireless cookers with pictures and references. I have seen an article on hay box cooking in an old Mother Earth News as well. I haven’t cooked with my box yet, but I’d like to try. I will definitely monitor temperatures closely to ensure that the food I’m cooking in the box stays at a safe temperature.

I can see this method of cooking as way that people who are being pinched by the rising cost of living can get some relief from their fuel bills. Begonia

This entry was posted in Cooking and Food Preservation, Make It Yourself, Recycle Reuse Renew and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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