How to Make a Simple Fuelless Cooker or Hay-box - No Power? No Worries. Hot Food.

Here's a quick and easy way to use less fuel, less water and still have a tasty and nutritious meal from a cardboard box. Get one ready in case of power outages or for hot food on a journey or emergency.

The Hay-box or fuelless cooker was a popular item around the turn of the 19th to 20th century. 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. Furthermore, it provided a form of cookery which used less water and in which, precious food, cooked at an even temperature by residual heat had no chance of burning and becoming spoiled. There was also the added and important factor that nutrients were retained through the slower and lower cooking times and temperature.

We cook all our meals and heat water with our wood-burning cooker. In the colder weather it is alight most of the day heating the house as well. As we move into the milder weather we tend to eat more raw food and as we have no need of the heating so the cooker is alight just around meal times. This poses a problem in that we do need hot water for washing hands when we come in from the garden prior to preparing our food .


We solved this problem by using a Hay Box to keep the water, heated at meal-times, hot. We made our first box from scrap wood and filled it with organic lucerne hay which we are given by the organic dairy farmer from whom we buy our chicken grain.

The idea is not a new one, in our 1920’s copy of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management the Fuelless cooker was used to cook meals for a fraction of the fuel cost. Nowadays it is just as important to consider the fuel-saving benefits of such a system as well as bearing in mind the possibility of providing hot food during power outages in the colder weather.

The principle is that the heated food is placed, in its pot or saucepan, into a well-insulated box , the lid which is also insulated is put in place and that’s it! The food takes about 4 times longer to cook completely within the box and may need to be reheated prior to serving but the only  energy consumed has been that needed to get it to boiling point. Of course, the ‘box’ part of the system is only required for safety and neatness and possibly transporting, I know of others that have simply wrapped duvets around the heated pan and achieved the same end result and have a warm duvet to boot!








I used an ecological, non-toxic insulation for my box and there are a multitude of suitable insulation you can use: fleece material, multiple layers of corrugated cardboard, hay, straw even expanded polystyrene, the choice is yours. 

The first box I’ll share is the simplest and cheapest. We are very fortunate in having a local ecological building supplies company (in fact it’s next door to our organic supermarket) and I could buy single panels of  wood wool insulation 30mm thick for around $3,00. On  the same visit to buy the insulation we popped into the organic shop and picked up two cardboard boxes of similar proportions but different sizes. 

The insulation needs to be cut to line the four sides and base of the larger box and the smaller box should fit in the cavity that remains. I was able to find cartons whose sizes differed by about 60mm hence the 30mm insulation on the inside walls of the larger carton would be sufficient to form the space for the smaller carton.


To make the lid to the Hay Box I cut two rectangles of cardboard to the size of the larger carton and made a ‘sandwich’ with the insulation between them. The lid was held together with broad masking tape. I adhered the tape around the perimeter of the lid so as to seal in the insulation.

And that’s it, the box is ready to go. When the saucepan is put into the box, the voids at the box corners can be filled with triangular-shaped pieces of cardboard (a bit like ‘Toblerone’ boxes) or stuffed with tea towels, ideally any kind of insulating material which will reduce heat loss due to convection currents.

Next time I’ll share  my design for a wooden hay box, more robust than the cardboard one it is more suitable for carrying hot contents in a car so you can enjoy your own hot food on a journey.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to, sit back and enjoy the film:

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All the best, Andy

© Andy Colley 2014


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