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The hay box: the original slow cooker.

I was recently struck when reading The War Time Kitchen Garden, a BBC book, that during the Second World War the population of Britain needed detailed instructions from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Food in order to survive the rationing then imposed. One of the things that was rationed was the amount of electricity one could use in cooking meals, and so the simple hay box cooker was recommended to the public.

Hay Box Cooking

During the Second World War the hay box came into its own. The Ministry of Fuel informed the British housewife that it took the burning of 5 lbs of coal to supply electricity to an oven for two hours. This same coal could be used to make one hundred bullets!

In addition to fuel rationing, gas ovens were often difficult to cook on, as gas was cut off following air raids, or the pressure was just too low.

The hay box cooker had been used extensively during the First World War and many people turned to it again in WW II as a cheap form of cooking.

The general idea is that the box be very well insulated on all sides, top and bottom, and that the pot of food be boiling before putting it in. This is not an entirely unfamiliar idea these days as many people cook beans overnight in a vacuum flask. The hay box acts like a large vacuum flask by simply retaining the heat in the cooking pot so that the food can continue to cook slowly over a long period of time, usually about 10 hours or overnight.

Our boys love woodworking and were eager to get their hands on electric saws and the like, however having other things to do that morning I looked around in the shed for a readymade wooden box. We found an old packing trunk with lid.

My source of information on hay box cookers then told me to line the box on all inside surfaces with four layers of newspaper, attached with a staple gun or drawing pins.

Next make a thick mattress of hay, any old material would do.

Then the pot must be placed in the middle. Any pot could be used, but it would need to be one which could be heated up to the boiling point, and with short handles to fit easily into the box.

It is essential that the pot be filled up to the top, excluding as much air space as possible. A Dutch oven would do well.

Hay could be packed in around the pot and another mattress stuffed with hay should be laid on top, at the same time making sure there are not cinders sticking to the underside of the pot that might set the hay on fire.

Not having a bag of clean hay available, I decided to line our trunk with some slabs of rigid insulation foam. We then poured in polystyrene packing chips all around the pot and on top, and lined the lid with the same rigid foam.

This worked very well, but I would caution that polystyrene chips are rather messy and must be completely removed after each pot is taken out, which is inconvenient. Our toddler was convinced that they were edible and we spent some time gathering them up from around the house.

After about 10 hours the dinner was cooked well, and the meat very tender. I brought it up to the boil again in order to thicken the gravy (beef stew).
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Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Matthess, W.R.
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Jul 1, 1998
Words:590
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