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Hay Box Cooking: Wonderbag and Nissan Thermos
- Time spent in tending and watching your food cooking.
- Finding room to carry the fuel in your car, van or RV. Adding a thermos to your cooking supplies can cut the amount of fuel you use in half, greatly reducing the amount of fuel you need to carry.
- The hassle of running out of fuel unexpectedly with a half cooked meal.
- If you are using wood, you can save time collecting the wood and reduce the problem of keeping wood dry in the rain.
- In the summer a long period of cooking creates a lot of extra unwanted heat in the van or RV.
- Burning fuel damages the planet. I know you may think that is a just a wacko environmentalist thing to say but seven billion people collectively burn a huge amount of fuel for cooking and if they all reduced it by a third it would make an immense difference to the environment.
There is a method of cooking called “hay-box cooking” that has been used for thousands of years because it solves many of those problems. The idea behind it hasn’t changed over the millennia and it is as simple as these three steps:
- Bring your food to a boil (some foods will need to be left on the stove to simmer for a while)
- Turn the stove off,
- Put the pot into some kind of insulated box to let it continue cooking.
Thousands of years ago they didn’t have the kind of insulations we have today so they used the best thing they had available which was hay. A big pile of hay has a very high insulation value and if you put your pot into the middle of one it would stay steaming hot for a long time. Because they ate a lot of tough meats, roots, tubers, grains and legumes that needed a long period of time simmering they found they could cut their fuel use drastically by allowing the insulating value of the hay to do the simmering instead of burning wood, coal or dung. When you had to walk many miles to find more fuel that became very important!
Most cooks have taken a pot off the stove and wrapped it in a towel to keep the food hot until it was ready to serve. The Wonderbag is that idea on steroids! It is a bag designed to keep a pot of food hot for several hours. In effect it turns any pot into a slow cooker!
I know exactly what your first thought is going to be, “What a bunch of baloney! Nothing can turn a plain old pot into a slow cooker, I can wrap a pot in a towel and it will work just as well.” No, it honestly won’t work as well; this thing is truly amazing and totally lives up to its hype! I have to admit that when I first showed it to Judy that was exactly her reaction, “Just another gimmick you’ve fallen for!” But now that we’ve been using it for a while she has become a believer and loves it as much as I do! See it on Amazon here: Wonderbag Non-Electric Slow Cooker
Essentially it is a bag filled with some kind of super-insulation that has an opening at the top with a draw-string closure. It also has large, insulated “plug” (I don’t know how else to describe it) that sits on top of the pot to keep the heat from going out the opening. Here are step-by-step instructions on how to use it:
- Put all the food in a pot and bring it to a full rolling boil.
- Some foods take longer than others so you may have to let them continue at a low boil. How long to leave it at a s low boil is going to be a matter of trial and error experimentation (I have a table of suggested times later in the post). We’re starting out by letting it boil for half the recommended time, then putting it in the Wonderbag.
- Turn off the stove and put the pot with the lid on it into the Wonderbag, put the plug on top of it, and close the drawstring tight.
- Leave it in for as long as necessary.
- Open and serve!
We’ve been experimenting with different foods and every one of them has turned out well. For example, she cooked a pot of potatoes and quinoa by bringing it to a rolling boil and then letting it continue at a slow boil for about 8 minutes and then put the pot in the Wonderbag for 3 hours. When we opened it the food was still at 130 degrees and the potatoes were fully cooked the way I like them; soft but not mushy. That cuts the time it normally takes to boil potatoes in half, saving at least 10 minutes of cooking. Here is a chart of typical cooking times for common foods using a Wonderbag (at higher elevations you will need to extend the times):
Here are some tips on using the Wonderbag:
- The tighter the lid fits, the better it works. Anything that lets the heat out of the pot will tend to cool off the food.
- The food should fill the pot nearly full. Empty air in the pot doesn’t insulate as well as a pot full of food.
- Put a folded dish towel under the pot on the bottom of the Wonderbag to make cleaning spills easier.
- Long handles leaves open spaces which waste heat so try to find a pot with short handles.
We think the Wonderbag works so well it’s worth looking for a pot that works great with it. I bought a MSR (Mountain Safety Research) specifically to work with the Wonderbag because it has a tight fitting lid that actually locks closed. It works wonderfully well in the Wonderbag and is extremely strong and durable. At $25 it’s fairly expensive, but because MSR makes premium backpacking products, it will last for many decades. I think it was money well spent! See it at Amazon here: MSR Stowaway Pot 1.6 L
Probably many of you have heard of, or even tried Thermos cooking. In essence it’s exactly the same thing as hay box cooking with the Wonderbag except you must 1) pre-heat the thermos with boiling water 2) pour the food into the Thermos and 3) wash both the pot and thermos. I own a Nissan Thermos and it works well for thermal cooking, but it isn’t nearly as convenient because it burns more fuel and takes more time pre-heating the thermos. And cleaning them is usually a pain in the butt! For those reasons I greatly prefer the Wonderbag and recommend it instead. Thermos 48-Ounce Wide Mouth Stainless-Steel Bottle
You may be put off by the price of the Wonderbag which is $50—and I must admit that is a lot of money. But when you buy one, one is donated to a family in Africa and that is something I wanted to support. The woman who owns the company grew up as a child in Africa and she created the Wonderbag to meet a huge need she saw there. Because her heart goes out to the women of Africa, for every one sold in America, the UK and Europe she gives one away to a woman in Africa for free. You may be thinking, “Why would women in Africa want one of those?” Because many of them are so poor they can only afford food that needs very long cooking times and yet they are also too poor to afford to buy fuel for the stove. That means a huge amount of their time goes to cooking and a large part of their tiny budget goes to fuel or they have to spend many hours a day gathering wood. Having something like the Wonderbag frees them (and their female children) from breathing cooking fumes and allows them to do other things than cook all day like go to school or get a job.
I’d encourage you to go to the page on the Wonderbag site to see all the wonderful benefits that come to women in the third world from a Wonderbag: http://nb-wonderbag.com/Pages/WonderbagImpactSubpage and also http://nb-wonderbag.com/Pages/QuickFacts.
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