Save Energy Costs by Cooking with a Hot Box

by Nora Dunn on 13 November 2007 17 comments
Photo: Nora Dunn

When it comes to preparing dinner, most of us simply cook our meals on the stove (or in the oven) until they’re done. It’s a pretty straight forward process, with not a lot of room for negotiation. At least you may think so.

However there are alternatives to using (and paying for) energy to cook your meals for the full allotted time. One of these alternatives is the use of a hot box. And you can fashion your own hot box with things that you can find around the house (even better, things that may have otherwise ended up in the recycling or garbage bins).

 

The sort of hot boxes I am accustomed to are simply cardboard boxes. Cardboard is a great insulator – it keeps cold things cold and hot things hot. You can also use coolers, or any material that is a good insulator.

The trick to making your hot box work is to create an extra few inches of insulation on the inside, forming a protective layer all around your pot. For this, you can use old towels or blankets, or even phone books and scrap paper. Don’t be skimpy though – you need to pack it tight to get the most out of your creation.

Next, it’s time to throw in your food, still in the pot it started cooking in, with the lid firmly on. The beauty of a hot box is that if you partially cook your meal and stick it in the box, it will slowly finish cooking over the next 6-8 hours. The most effective hot box delicacies are those that would do well in a slow cooker: rice, various legumes, or even stews. You may want to stay away from cooking meat using this method until you’ve worked out the kinks in your system, since bacteria from undercooked meat or poor temperature control could make you sick.

After your food is securely nestled in your layers of insulation, you must cover it up with a few more inches of insulation. Towels and blankets are usually the handiest for this, since the transfer process needs to be speedy in order to retain as much of the heat from cooking as possible.

Then, close up your box, and leave it for the day if you pack it in the morning, or overnight if you start the process in the evening.

Here are a few links I found about this topic:

http://www.hedon.info/goto.php/FirelessCooker

http://www.selfsufficientish.com/hayboxcooker.htm

http://community-2.webtv.net/adowning/FirelessCooking/

 

Using a hot box requires a little more forethought and preparation since you have to wait so long for the meal to finish cooking, but you will use half (or less) of the energy usually required to prepare your gourmet delicacies, hence being kind to both the environment and your pocketbook.

 

 

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Guest's picture
Naomi

Wow, this is the first time I've heard of this. I'd be scared to do it, but it is interesting!

Will Chen's picture

Wow, I thought you meant "hot plate" but it was a typo.  I never knew such a technique existed.  Thanks Nora, that's very interesting!

Guest's picture
Dwight

Backpacker's save the weight of extra fuel by using a pot "cozy". It is made to fit the pot and proved a bit of insulation.

I've found that pressure cookers are a great way to save time and fuel. REI has one that they claim is good for camping, but I use it at home.

MikeCinFLA's picture

Check this out it is a cooking method used in alot of third world countries in combination with the hotbox method. http://www.solarcooking.org

Myscha Theriault's picture

I've heard of the solar cooking boxes, but never this one. Cool.

Myscha Theriault's picture

I've heard of the solar cooking boxes, but never this one. Cool.

Guest's picture
Yitah

Assuming you put a layer of insulation so the inside doesn't melt, why couldn't you use a cooler?

Guest's picture
Cindy M

Sounds neat and I'd try it. What have you had great success with?

Nora Dunn's picture

In regards to the question about using a cooler - certainly you can! It just needs to be big enough to house your pot plus the additional layers of insulation. In fact, many people use coolers as their hot boxes.

So far I've had success with cooking rice and lentils/beans, potatoes (for mashing), as well as braised red cabbage. I'm still experimenting, but basically anything that could go into a slow cooker would work, and especially things that wouldn't suffer if they are overcooked. I haven't tried it with any meat, and as I said in the article I'd be nervous to do so. But the starchy staples work wonderfully. I cook them on the stove for a quarter to half the time required, and throw it in the hot box to complete the process. 

Suggested recipe ideas are welcome - I'll give them a shot and report back!  

Guest's picture
Cosgrove

There's a book called "Fireless Cookery" by Heidi Kirschner that goes into a lot of detail on this topic. Out of print, but available in libraries. She lived in VT, but learned about fireless cooking as a child in Switzerland or Germany, I don't recall which. Kirschner gives a lot of details for making insulated boxes. You can also find a fair amount of other info in a Google search of "fireless cooking."

Guest's picture

Hi!

The principle of fireless cooking was incorporated by John Chambers in his patented range of 1912. He insulated the oven so well that one could cook in it using retained heat, with the gas turned off.

This turned into a 60+ year episode in the history of fireless cooking. The Chambers Range became the premier range for home and professional use for many years. It's quality of manufacture, coupled with it's fireless cooking features (in the oven and ThermoDome, which later became the ThermoWell), made it one of the most highly sought after vintage ranges today.

In addition to healthful benefits from retained heat cooking, the Chambers is an energy miser, saving as much as 1/3 the amount of gas needed to cook the same food in an ordinary range by using retained heat cooking methods. The CHAMBERS was - and is - one of the most innovative ranges ever built.

So many were made that they are still available for reasonable prices, and parts and service can still be had for them.

If you're looking for fireless cooking without having to build your own fireless cooker, the CHAMBERS is the way to go!

A good article about the CHAMBERS Range can be seen here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chambers_stove

- Todd W. White

Guest's picture
Jamie

When I was taught how to do this, I was told one of the names is "wooden wife from wyoming." I've been using it for a few weeks for my pinto beans and it works great. We built a box from wood, lined it with wet hay on the bottom, put the pot in and formed wet hay around it and let it dry for a week. Made a pillow stuff with hay for the top and it works great. I'm going to be posting about it on my own blog this week or next with photos.

Guest's picture
Tracy

I have one made from a styrofoam cooler, stuffed with more styrofoam and fabric, towels, to use as insulation. Works great for beans and stews, I decorated the outside with fabric to make it a little more pleasing to the eye. I've also used one of the silvery heat reflecting emergency blankets that you can buy in the camping section. I did put a layer of terrycloth towel over that to protect it from the intense heat of the pot. Works great!

Guest's picture
Erica

I'm having my Wonderbox (that's what we call it here in Sacramento CA) made today. Went to someone's house and they had made bread in it for us to try. It was amazing! In these tough times, it is good to have viable options if an emergency arises. I am going to start using it now so that if/when there is an emergency and I have to use it for cooking, I'll already be well versed. I'm on the prowl for good recipes. I'm so excited about this new way of cooking!

Also, now would be a good time to start your food storage (if you haven't already begun). I'm testing out powdered eggs now. We've started a food storage/preparedness group in my neighborhood. Great way to buy dry packed goods, MRE's, etc., in bulk to get discounts and free shipping! Keep it in mind!

Guest's picture
Steve in W MA

This is great for making yogurt with.

Microwave the milk till it's around 190-200 deg F, then let it cool till like 130 or 125 F. Add the culture, then put in the container in a hotbox and leave for like 8 hours. Perfect yogurt!

You can also put the container in a big plastic bag, then put the bag in your sleeping bag, wrap the sleeping bag all around it and hold it together with twine.

Put in the corner for 8 hours.

You are done!

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@Steve - I've had such varied responses with making yoghurt, but you're absolutely right....your strategy should work like a charm. Maybe I'll give it another shot!

Guest's picture
Gisela von Brunn

In Germany, after the war, this type of "hot-box" called "Kochkiste" was very common in many households.
Thank you for reminding us!

Gisela von Brunn, Bolivia.