A friend of mine recently gave me one for my birthday, and I can’t imagine, now, how I ever did without it!
If you haven’t yet encountered one, a hay box (or ‘hot box’) is essentially an insulated ‘box’ (often, but not always filled with hay) in which you can cook anything from meaty stews or vegetable curries to simple rice and soups.
You heat up your pot of food on the stove, kick-starting the cooking process, and then whack it into the hay box to carry on cooking.
And there are some pretty compelling reasons to get your own one (or more) installed in your kitcken asap:
Whether you’re using electricity, gas, or even woodstove, you only need to cook the food for a fraction of the time you’d normally use. All you need to do is to get the cooking process started by heating the food all the way through. Then, you take the pot off the stove and tuck it snugly into the hot box until it’s done.
For example, say you’re cooking a simple pot of rice. You would normally cook it for at least 20 minutes, at first on a high heat, and then at a simmer. But with a hay box, you only have to get the thing boiling, give it a few minutes to heat through, and then turn off the stove and whack the pot into the hay box. That’s a good 15 minutes or so of energy you’ll be saving (about 75% of the total cooking time) and for longer-cooking stews and bredies, the saving will be even larger!
2. It costs much less
Less energy used, means more money saved. If you can work the hay box into every cooked meal you prepare (believe me, it’s possible) you’ll be using as much as 75% less gas/electricity – and you’ll soon start noticing the difference in the energy bills.
3. You use less water
When a pot is kept, insulated, at a fairly constant temperature, less evaporation will occur. So, you need less water for cooking. That might seem like a small thing at first, but water is a very precious resource, and every cup saved adds up in the end.
4. It frees up stove space
Instead of juggling multiple pots, you can put one away snugly for the duration (more, if you have more than one hay box at hand). That’s less to worry about, and more room to flex some kitchen muscle!
5. It’s forgiving
Cooking with a hot box isn’t as time-dependent as cooking on a stove. If you leave your food in there for twice as long as it would have needed on the stove, it won’t overcook, dry out or burn, but it’ll still be hot when you take it out.
6. Slow food tastes better
For real… once you’ve gone down the slow cooking road, you’ll become addicted to eating meat that literally falls off the bone, succulent vegetables that retain their texture and taste, and the subtle flavours that flourish in a slow-cooking environment.
That said, using a hay box doesn’t mean it will take you more time to cook something – cooking times are approximately the same – just that you can if you want to just by leaving it in for longer.
7. Ready-made meals (cook now, eat later)
One of my favourite ways of using my hay box is to get something in there in the morning, leaving it there all day – knowing that in the evening, I don’t have to cook dinner. It’s like take-out, only it doesn’t take 40 minutes to arrive, and it always arrives piping hot (provided you’ve insulated it properly).
8. It’s portable
Take it with you when you go camping – boil up water the night before on the campfire and stash it in the hay box overnight. In the morning there’s no need to stoke up a new fire for much-needed post-sleeping-on-a-blowup-mattress caffeine fix – the water’s right there! Aaaah…
9. It’ll keep your beer cool
An unexpected bonus of a hay box is that it’s also a cooler box! It’s designed to maintain the temperature of whatever’s put in it, so if it’s ice-cold to begin with, that’s how it’ll stay (for a good few hours at least). Nice.
10. Modern hay boxes look cool
Most people, if they even know what it is, imagine a hay box as an unsightly messy thing that would never be allowed to sully the pristine beauty of their spotless kitchen (and home-made ones certainly can be)… But nowadays more malleable tiny polystyrene balls have taken the place of stodgy, tufty hay as the insulator, and some very pretty hay boxes have been created, in a range of different colours and sizes – perfectly suitable for even the fussiest of kitchens (besides, you can always keep the thing in a cupboard!).
So, there are no excuses anymore – none whatsoever!
My hay box happens to come from the HotBox co. They make them from denim fabric and offer a variety of colours – ‘shades of blues, charcoal black and warm, earthy colours’, and their prices range from R195.00 for a small one to R250 for a large one (they’ll post them anywhere in the country for R35.00 per hotbox – discounts when ordering 4 or more).
There are also a few places that stock them. Or you can support the Salathiso collective, a group of HIV-positive women from the Kayamandi community on the outskirts of Stellenbosch, by buying their R150 hot box (proceeds are shared amongst the women).
It’s also really easy to make your own (and costs almost nothing). All you need is a sturdy box and insulating material (like hay). There are instructions on making and using one here, here, here and here – or download this.