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Hey/Hay - It's Simple!
We often get asked what average people can do in their daily lives to lessen their ecological impact. One very simple thing that will save a significant amount of energy is using a haybox, also known as a hotbox, when cooking foods that require simmering for a long time.
The haybox is an insulated box that (1) is made out of a material that can withstand temperatures up to about 300 degrees Fahrenheit, (2) is large enough to hold a cookpot, and (3) seals nicely. The basic idea is that you get a pot of food, beans for instance, up to a nice rolling boil on the stove. Then, and here's the magical energy- saving part, instead of continuing to run the stove for the next hour or two to fully cook the beans, you turn the stove off and move the pot into the haybox. Close the tight-fitting lid on the box, and the beans will continue to cook, much as though you had left them on the stove with the burner set to simmer.
Consider this: when you bring food in a pot to a boil on the stovetop, you raise the temperature of everything in the pot to 212 degrees Fahrenheit. The food doesn't get hotter than 212 F until the water has boiled off - and soon after that point the food will start to burn. All excess energy above the amount required to maintain the contents of the pot at 212 F is spent turning the liquid water into water vapor - what a waste when cooking beans or rice! When you put a boiling pot into the haybox, it will spend some of its heat warming the box up, so the temperature of the pot will fall a little. What's important, though, is that a pot with 3 quarts of boiling chili in a properly sized haybox will still be plenty hot enough to continue cooking the chili, even after an hour.
Think of the haybox as a low-tech slow-cooker, and you'll get the general idea of how to use it. Food takes slightly longer to cook in a haybox than on the stovetop, but not so much longer that it's inconvenient. And you never have to worry about burning food in the haybox. You can get your pot of rice up to a boil and then stick it in the haybox and forget about it until it's time to eat. (Speaking of rice, it's important to know that rice takes less water to cook in the haybox than on the stovetop, because there's less water lost to evaporation. If your rice usually calls for 2 cups water to one cup rice, you'll probably want to try a water-to-rice ratio of 1.75:1, or possibly 1.5:1.)
The haybox in the Bluestem Co-op kitchen gets used nearly every day because it's so convenient. All of us in the co-op use the haybox for cooking beans. Ted and Tamar use it additionally as a place to incubate yogurt. Sometimes in the afternoon, I'll even secret a hot pan of cooked cornbread in the haybox to keep it warm until supper. It's just a wonderful, energy-saving tool, and I think a one should be built into the cabinetry of every kitchen. You wouldn't build a kitchen without a sink. Why build one without a haybox?
Here's a simple way to get into the great energy savings of a haybox: take an old ice chest and line the bottom with cotton towels to protect the plastic from direct contact with your hot pots. Put your pot of boiling food into the ice chest and swaddle it in some more towels, concentrating particularly the on top of the pot. Close the ice chest. If it has a latch, make sure it latches securely. If there's no latch, put something heavy on the lid to keep it sealed. Now you're cookin' with hay(box)! As you come to rely more and more on this device, you'll probably want to ditch the ice chest and make something a little nicer that seals well and fits in with the decor of your kitchen a little better.
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