Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Fireless Cooking

This blog post was originally created by Anna Downing on Web TV. She used to post on the old frugal usenet boards years ago, which is where I first learned about fireless cooking. At that time I had an old Stanley thermos from my dad’s working days that I used to cook oatmeal, and it worked surprisingly well. 


Fireless cooking is also known as "hay box" cooking. It's a method of cooking which uses heat retained by insulation of some sort. The main purpose of cooking by this method is to conserve fuel but it has many other advantages. The food can be left to cook unattended, no electricity is required, and the food can't burn. This is an excellent way of cooking foods which require a long cooking time. Beans, whole grains, or tougher cuts of meat are good choices of foods to cook this way. It works very much like a crockpot but doesn't require electricity.


The fireless cooker has a long history and has taken many different forms. In Eastern Europe, it's been used for centuries in the form of a chest similar to a cedar chest. The chest was filled with fresh hay and a clean cloth was spread over the hay. The pot used the most was pushed down into the hay to form an indentation, or nest, to hold the pot. An elderly Jewish friend told me that in her childhood in Poland, her family wouldn't cook on the sabbath so they prepared food before the sabbath and used a "hay box" to keep the food warm.

During both World Wars, the fireless cooker was used to supplement rationed or unavailable fuel sources. In England during World War II, it was know as the "Victory Oven". In America the fireless cooker was widely used by pioneers in the treeless prairie states. Willa Cather mentions fireless cookers in her novel, "My Antonia" about Eastern European immigrants to Nebraska.

Many older American cookbooks have chapters on fireless cooking. "The Settlement Cookbook", which was published by the aid workers of the Settlement Houses who worked with new immigrants, had a chapter on "fireless cookers". I own a Butterick Cook Book , published in 1911, which has a chapter on fireless cookers. Currently aid workers in Asia and Africa are encouraging use of the "Wonder Box" (a fireless cooker) to save fuel in deforested areas.


I first began experimenting with fireless cookers 20+ years ago while living in the mountains on the Washington-British Columbia border. I lived miles from my nearest neighbors. I didn't have electricity or running water. I had a wood heating stove and a wood burning cook range. I cut all of my own wood for heating and cooking. I was raising a large family and was the only adult in the house. I had very little money and grew most of our own food. I cooked a lot of beans and whole grains while spending a good part of the day working outdoors. I couldn't be inside feeding wood into the cooking range, but I needed to cook foods that would take hours to cook. The fireless cooker was a tremendous help. After breakfast, I would bring our lunch to a simmer, put it in the fireless cooker to finish cooking and go out to work in the garden all morning. When we came in at lunch, tired and hungry, a hot meal was ready.

During the summer, when I didn't want to heat up the whole house with the wood range, I used a small propane stove to simmer our food and let it finish cooking in the fireless cooker. The cooker also helped me stretch my propane supply.
When traveling I would start a meal before leaving home and load the "cooker" into the car. On road trips, this saved money by providing our own hot meal when we stopped for the night. Besides saving money and being convenient, it gave me control over what I fed my children and gave them the comfort of foods they were familiar with. When camping I've used the fireless cooker to cook a meal while we were away from the camp. It was nice to return from a hike and find lunch ready. I'm retired now and travel for my own pleasure. I still use the fireless cooker to have dinner ready when I pull into a campground for the night.


Almost any container and insulation can be used to make a fireless cooker. The only absolute is that there must be 3-4 inches of insulation above, below and all around the pot of food. My first fireless cookers were cardboard boxes with several inches of newspaper under the pot and old towels around and over the pot. I always intended to build a chest and paint it with Tole paintings, but somehow I still haven't found the time. 

Today, I use a Coleman cooler. Not as picturesque, but it works very well. I have some newspaper on the bottom of the cooler to keep a hot pot from melting the plastic and still use old towels around and over the pot. Sometimes I use one of the foil survival blankets I bought at Wal-Mart for $2. It does a good job of holding in the heat. 

I've known of people to use a foot locker and old pillows for cooking a meal with several dishes. I've also seen styrofoam peanuts recycled by putting them in old pillowcases from a thrift shop and used as the insulation in a cardboard box fireless cooker. Of course, if you're a traditionalist you can always use fresh hay and have an authentic hay box! It's up to you, your imagination and what's available.


It's absolutely necessary that the pots you use have tight fitting lids. You're counting on the residual heat to do the cooking but you won't have much heat if the steam can escape. Heavy pots like a Dutch oven work the best because a heavy pot retains more heat. 

Old pressure cookers are my first choice because they're cheap to buy in thrift stores, have a tight fitting lid and they're heavy. Pots with a small handle on each side, rather than one long handle are easiest to situate in the insulation, but more difficult to find. 

The fireless cooker needs to be moved close to the stove so that the pot can be placed in the cooker quickly since retaining heat is so important. This is a consideration if you're thinking of using a trunk or some other container which is difficult to move. 

Small amounts of food in tiny saucepans don't do well in a fireless cooker because there's not enough mass to retain heat. Larger pots, 2/3 full do the best. There does need to be room at the top of the pot to hold the steam, so you don't want to over-fill the pot either.

UPDATE--- January 20, 2001

For several months, I've been experimenting with using just a heavy towel and one of the $2 foil-type survival blankets. This has worked really well, making the process even simpler. I've cooked rice, black-eyed peas, lentils, beans, potatoes, and soups this way. I brought the food to a boil for the correct amount of time, then just wrapped the pot in the towel with the survival blanket around the whole thing. To keep the survival blanket in place I've used a clothespin or two. It doesn't get much easier!

I hope this will make it more likely for other people to try this method of cooking. Most of us already have some towels around and using towels and the survival blanket doesn't take up much space. With the recent power shortages in California, I hope others will give this a try.


  1. We have considered purchasing a Tayama Stainless Steel Thermal Cooker. I saw it on gdonna's blog.

    1. Oh, those are so nice, Lana. They’ve come a long way with these types of cookers.

  2. Interesting. Not something I have heard much about.

    1. They are making them now for people in Africa who do not have access to ways of cooking food.

    2. The situation on Africa is dire. People are starving to death and that includes children.

    3. Yes, it is very sad, Lana. 😢

  3. Oh how cool! I've heard about fireless cookers, but didn't realize they could be as simple as using towels and survival blankets. Thanks for the info! That might come in handy with all the power outages and such. We have dutch ovens from our camping days, so I may give it a try. :)

    1. I found a pressure cooker without long handles that I’m going to use for this sometime. I’ve always wanted to see if it works or not.

  4. We did this type of cooking a great deal with the Rangers and Pathfinders in the Girl Guide movement. I might have to look into this a bit more.

    God bless.

    1. Oh, that is neat, Jackie. Bailey’s Girl Scout troop made s’mores I. The sun with a pizza box. It was hot enough to melt the marshmallows.

  5. I have never heard of this. very interesting.

  6. This is good information to have and fascinating. I imagine all the people who have done this thru the centuries to feed themselves and their families. A side note: we are refugees from So Cal and I was just talking to our former neighbor there about the high cost of heating their home this winter. She installed solar, but will still have to pay for gas separately.


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