Slow Food - Slow Cooker. Fuelless or Hay-box cookery an ideal way to cook organic food.

Hay boxes or fuelless cookers, as the name suggests use residual heat, this means the food cooks slowly and at even temperatures. This makes them ideal for cooking stews and in particular for cooking organic pasture-raised meat, which has a totally different composition due to the raising environment and nutrition. If you have a wood cooker, as we do, then it is also a great way to eke out fuel and provide cover for the times you may not want to light a fire. One of our favourite meals to cook in it is cassoulet (recipe follows shortly).

Home-made organic cassoulet
This is the simple version of our home-made fuelless cooker. It comprises two cardboard boxes of different sizes and a small panel of Holzflex wood fibre/wood wool, an ecological insulation fabric, purchased at our local eco builders' merchants for 3 euros/dollars/pounds. A film on how to make it can be found at the bottom of this post.

DIY simple cardboard hay-box or fuelless cooker

The above is a great standby for an emergency power outage or to take out on a picnic or long car journey. However, if you are thinking seriously about cutting your fuel bills or removing yourself from the grid, then you might like to think about a more robust version and permanent fixture in the Kitchen. There are also so many different ecological insulation materials to chose from and they are now readily available. You can also just simply leave an area of grass, cut it and make hay for an even more economical and traditional box filler.

Ecological organic insulation materials

The hay-box cooker below is made from pallet wood and cladding left over from when we made the hen house roof it is insulated with organic hemp and vegetable stalks. A film on how to make this version is also available at the end of this post.

Home-made wooden hay box cooker

A Little History

The Hay-box or fuelless cooker was a popular item around the turn of the 19th to 20th century, this in particular during the World Wars and the Great Depression when people were often displaced and the price of fuel rose steeply and/or was rationed. Many cookbooks of the period including my favourite, Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, had a chapter of recipes suitable for this type of cookery. These often included those eminently suitable for the hay-box method, such as stews made from cuts of meat which were cheaper and needed slow, low temperature cookery but which, with the hikes in coal and coke prices and the short supply of fuel, paradoxically had become expensive to cook. There was also the problem of food rationing, which made it ever more important to avoid spoilage and waste. Fuelless cookers used less water and as the precious foodstuffs were cooked at an even temperature and by residual heat, this meant the food had no chance of burning nor becoming tough and inedible. There was also an added and even more important factor, in that nutrients were retained through longer cooking times and lower temperatures, thus even smaller amounts of meat, for example,  gave maximum nutritional value.

Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management

The popularity of hay-boxes and fuelless cookers however went much further back in history to a time of the great emigration periods of the early and mid 1800s, when people travelled vast distances and often only had time to light fires and cook in the evening and before they started their journey each morning. The slow-cook method using residual heat allowed them to get their stews and crockpot meals ready in the morning and cook them throughout the journey so as to have a hot meal at mid-day. For this reason if you are organic like us and go on long journeys, often without certain hope of finding an organic restaurant, these boxes are ideal.

Fun Trial Run 

To test out this theory, in Winter we prepared a cassoulet and rice pudding in the morning and placed them in the hot boxes above and took them to the beach with us to gather oyster shells for the chicks. We were then able to eat a hot lunch on a very cold beach. 

Beach North Western France

In essence you need to allow at least three times the usual cooking time for the dish and you need to be sure that all areas of your box are well insulated. This also helps on a journey as it aids in holding the cooking pot in place, which is very important on a winding coastal road. I used a towel to go around the cooking pot and an old fashioned handkerchief holder with a piece of the organic hemp insulation tucked inside to totally insulate the space between the top of the cooking pot and the box lid. Remember, your food also needs to be placed in the hay box as it reaches boiling point.

How to make a hay box cooker

How to make a fuelless cooker

Organic apple rice pudding cooked in a hay-box

Apart from the fact that both dishes, the rice pudding and the cassoulet, didn't have the usual tasty golden crust on top, there really was no difference and the food was hot and well-cooked. In future we would use this as a way of slow cooking at home and then finish the dish off in the oven, thus making for an economy in wood and also a good way of having a meal cooking whilst we were out.

You can see the results of our trip here:

Preparation for Power Outages or Simply  Being without Power

Our wood cooker

We have actually been using the Hay-box system ever since we bought the wood cooker to keep a large pan of water hot. This means that when we come indoors  to light the fire for preparing food, we have hot water for hand washing. This also obviates the need for keeping a fire in, whilst we are out and/or starting up our DIY rocket stove.

If you are heading into the Winter and if like us, live in areas subject to high winds and the occasional hurricane, then having hot  food prepared and cooking can be a real plus. For us, however, who use very little electrical power and who don't have a boiler on the back of our cooker, it is the residual heat for keeping water hot that is of most use.

Of course if you find yourself in an emergency then just covering your pan in an eiderdown or duvet might be expedient. I have seen some fine examples on the net of people cooking a whole meal by just bundling up a crockpot in bedclothes!

However, forewarned is forearmed ... or rather why not make hay (box) whilst the sun still shines, as it is doing here today even though we are skirting the fringes of hurricane  Gonzalo.

Now if you'd like to sit back and watch the films: 

Please feel free to comment, ask questions and share.

Hope to see you here again for another recipe from an old farmhouse in Normandie,


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© 2014 Sue Cross 


  1. I saw this post on G+ and was interested in reading. In India we have solar cookers that uses the energy direct from sunlight. This residual heat idea is really very very interesting. Never heard it before though, but from the video I learnt its an old technique. Great way of cooking dinner in the summertime.

    1. Hi Balvinder, Thank-you very much for your comment. A solar cooker and solar dehydrator are on our list to make for this Summer! The hay box is a great way to keep water hot too, at times when you don't have a fire alight and really useful for us when we come in from the garden to prepare a meal. I checked out your blog and subbed - you have some great recipes, which are really well presented! All the very best from Normandie, Sue