Cooking Techniques · The Vintage Kitchen

The Wonderful Fireless Cooker

For many home managers from 1909 to 1929, the fireless cooker seemed truly a wonderful appliance. While everyone complained about the cost of coal (which everyone seemed to do, constantly) the cook who owned a fireless cooker had an advantage. She could prepare dinner early in the day, set it up, turn off the stove, and go about her day. It also saved on fuel costs, a double-win.

Patent drawing for a fireless cooker showing a wooden box with two round metal cannisters for holding hot food.
Patent for a 1907 fireless cooker.

Although invented near the end of the 1860s, the fireless cooker really took off after 1900. A bright new century dawned with new ideas. Many gadgets filled the home during this time and the kitchen received a good number of them. Manufactured fireless cookers were popular. They walked in step with the time-saving future. Cookbooks of the time sometimes instructed the cook to “drop the mixture into the fireless cooker” so that they could continue with their day. Some even contained an entire chapter of fireless cooker recipes.

How Fireless Cookers Work

The concept behind fireless cooking was simple. You prepared a recipe that needed a long time to cook, such as a bean soup, hot cereals, or meats that benefit from long slow cooking. The work that goes into the preparation is important. Food needs to be heated to a high enough temperature that it continues to cook for the next several hours without additional heat. Therefore, most of the time the recipe is boiling when it transfers to the fireless cooker.

The cooker itself (sometimes called a hay box) consisted of a metal or wooden box with a lid and one or two holes. Each hole contained a metal pot with a lid and two stones, like pizza stones but thicker. These stones went into the oven to heat while you mixed and heated your recipe.

Illustration of a company's fireless cooker showing box, individual metal cooking pots, and heating stones.
Illustration of a Thermatic fireless cooker setup by the Diller Manufacturing Company, who made them. 1911.

When your recipe boiled and your stones were hot, you removed one stone from the oven and placed it into the bottom of the hole. Then you filled the metal pot with your boiling hot mixture, carefully moved it to the cooker, and put the lid on it. Another hot stone went on top of the lid. Finally, you closed the lid of the cooker and the heat came from top and bottom stones to keep your meal toasty and cooking until it was time to eat.

Some cookers operated a bit differently. However, the goal was to keep the heat inside a tightly insulated box long enough to cook the food and keep it safe. When it was time to eat you opened the box lid and took the lid off the canister. Like magic, dinner was ready. The trick was learning to cook an entire meal in a fireless cooker so that you only needed to whip up dessert.

Reading Further… and Recipes

While fireless cookers are no longer made, material abounds on the Internet and maybe even at your local library on how to make your own. Homemade Fireless Cookers and Their Use, by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture in 1919 explains how to construct a cooker. Then it provides several recipes for its use. Since this is a historical document, the first page states that modern scientific standards are not in use here. In 1913, The Fireless Cook Book provided instructions for creating your own cooker as well as 250 recipes to delight your household.

In 1917 a patent emerged for an electric fireless cooker. Then in the 1970s that idea emerged again. This time we called it the Crock Pot. Later I’ll write about some fireless cooker recipes I stumbled across recently. If making your own fireless cooker for your kitchen doesn’t thrill you, you can always adapt these recipes for use in your home crock cooker.

Making Your Own – Safety First!

If you do construct your own fireless cooker, be sure to adhere to current safety standards. Many of these were filled with asbestos. While I’m sure they retained heat, I hate to think what else they did. And remember: These cookbooks do not adhere to current food safety standards. You may need to do some research to ensure the food will be safe.

Thinking about making one yourself? If you do, let me know how it goes. I’d love to hear.