Low-tech for your resilience toolbox

German 19th century fireless cooker

The fireless cooker helped stretch energy in kitchens a century ago. Could it return to help us save energy in the future?

In a world where iPhones, iPods and  iPads are everywhere and where dinner often means popping frozen mac and cheese into the microwave, pre-industrial ways of living may seem hopelessly quaint.

But if you’re concerned about peak oil, old tech can offer ways to increase personal and family resilience, if you’re open to considering it.

Can’t you use less energy to do that?

Lately, I’ve been trying to convince our two teenage daughters to put a cover on a pot before boiling their water. I explain how it makes the water boil faster. I try to leave out the part of how it saves Mr Cheapskate (that being me) on the energy bill. But still, little success.

Yet, even if you’re already a member of the Covered Pot Club, you’ve probably noticed that cooking in pots on a stove-top seems to waste a lot of energy no matter what you do.

John Michael Greer, author of The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World, describes the many ways that boiling water, in this case to cook rice, wastes heat:

The energy at the heat source is highly concentrated; it flows, with some losses, into the metal saucepan; some of it flows through the pan to the water and rice, where it does the job of cooking, but a great deal of the heat gets into the sides and lid of the pan; some of it comes directly through the substance of the pan, some of it comes indirectly through the water and rice, but one way or another a great deal of the energy in your cooking fuel is being used to warm the surrounding air.

More’s the pity because you don’t even need to keep heating rice for 30 or 40 minutes to cook it — you really just need to boil the water initially, and then let it simmer.

In the spirit of appropriate technology, Greer offers a low-tech solution from the past: why not use a fireless cooker, or what our American great-grandmothers called a haybox?

Originally, it was just a wooden box lined with hay for insulation. Later, homemakers could buy convenient cast-iron fireless cookers with custom-fitted pots and soapstone disks that could be heated in the oven and then popped into the cooker to provide a heat source.

Where can I buy one?

You won’t find a hand-carved mahogany haybox at Williams Sonoma. Indeed, there don’t seem to be any manufacturers selling new fireless cookers today. Perhaps the good folks at Lehman’s in Ohio, suppliers of hand-powered gadgets to the Amish and to low-tech lovers everywhere, might consider having one made? Meantime, Mother Earth News shows how to make your own haybox cooker from wood.

Of course, if a world made by hand seems just too remote from today’s kitchen culture of the LG Internet Refrigerator with four Hi Fi speakers, you may not be drawn to the ultra-low tech option right away. In that case, woodstoves and solar cookers also heat food without gas or electricity but with a little more, well, civilization.

However low-tech you decide to go, thinking about ways now to live comfortably with less energy in the future can give your family resilience and give you peace of mind. Tinkering with some appropriate tech can also be a great lesson for the kids.

Now if only somebody would resurrect a 19th-century way to get kids to put the dishes in the dishwasher.

— Erik Curren

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  1. Diane Blust says

    Erik –

    Great article – I’ve never heard of this little invention, probably because I’ve just started Greer’s book. I’m exploring solar ovens/cookers and solar dehydrators. Will keep you posted on my progress! Happy New Year.


    • says


      Thanks much and good to hear from you! Greer’s was one of my favorite books on peak oil. And I’ve not yet had much chance to check into alt cooking methods myself, but I’m interested in dehydrators in particular, since I’m a big beef jerky and fruit leather fan. I’ll be interested to hear what you discover. Meantime, happy new year to you and yours too.


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