Vacuum Bottle (Thermos) Cooking: Cheap, Wholesome Meals

[Dateline 22 September 2008]

We all know that the cost of everything is going up, including food. As a result, lower income households are hurting and middle class households are experiencing financial concern, if not yet hardship. People are looking for ways to save money. In this blog essay I’m going to introduce you to a remarkably simple, almost unheard of method of cooking. And I’m, going to tell you how to utilize this idea to make a very wholesome meal for very little money. I present this idea as a brilliant solution to a serious problem.

I wish I had thought of this idea myself, but I didn’t. I learned about it several years ago on the internet from a man named Kurt Saxon. Mr. Saxon has a reputation as being something of an athiest-anarchist-survivalist. Personally I am not an atheist, nor an anarchist. And though I do have some survivalist tendencies, I’m not so highly focused on the subject that I would term myself a survivalist. Nevertheless, I learned this idea from Kurt Saxon and, like I said, I think it is brilliant.

In fact, this is such a practical idea that I use it often even though my financial situation is not hurting (yet). Now for some specifics....

This cooking method begins with a good quality vacuum bottle (a.k.a., Thermos). And the specific “recipe” I'm going to explain begins with whole grain oats, which are also known as oat groats. I’m going to tell you how to prepare a delectable bowl of oat groats with five minutes of effort on your part and very minimal energy input. This cooking idea can be applied to other foods, which I’ll mention later.

I have cooked whole grains in a Stanley vacuum bottle, the green metal kind that many construction workers use for their coffee. It has an unbreakable stainless steel liner. It is a fine vacuum bottle but it is not the best for cooking because it is not the best at holding heat.

I year or so back I bought myself a 1-liter Nissan vacuum bottle. Like the classic Stanley, the Nissan has an unbreakable stainless steel liner. But it has a much better form of insulation. I don’t know the specifics, but I know my Nissan holds in the heat far, far better than my Stanley.

I noticed a guy at my work one day who had a Nissan vacuum bottle and asked him how he liked it. He verified what I already knew. The Nissan is superior when it comes to holding heat. Here’s a link to the 1-liter bottle: Nissan Stainless Steel Vacuum Bottle

You can cook any whole grain in a Nissan vacuum bottle: oats, rice, wheat, lentils, and others can be cooked with this simple technique I’m going to tell you about. I even think it is possible to cook beans if they are first run through a grinder and cracked, but I have not tried cooking beans this way yet.

Oat groats are what I have cooked in my vacuum bottle the most. Among grains, I believe oats are the nutritional king. Do a little research on this subject and you will find oats (whole oats) are loaded with vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber. They are remarkably good for you. You can’t go wrong incorporating oats into your diet—especially oat groats. I always feel better if I start my day with some form of oats.

Oat groats are nothing more and nothing less than the whole oat kernel, including the bran. The more common rolled oats, on the other hand, are oak kernels that have been stripped of their outer bran covering, steamed, flattened with a roller, and dried. Instant oats are the same as rolled oats except they are rolled flatter and chopped in small pieces.

Cooked oatmeal from rolled or instant oats is a fine food, but cooked groats are nutritionally superior. The less you process a whole grain, the better it is for you. And better yet, a big bag of whole oat groats is comparatively cheap to buy. What’s more, if you store the whole kernels properly, they will keep just fine for years. Oatmeal will not keep as long.

The disadvantage to oat groats, and the reason many people have never eaten them in their whole oatmeal-eating life, is that they take so long to prepare. The usual instructions call for soaking the grain in water overnight, then bring them to boil in a pan of water before simmering for 45 minutes to an hour. Expending that kind of time and effort for a bowl of hot cereal is not something most people are willing to do. Besides that, think about all the energy consumed to cook that bowl of food!

Now this is where the vacuum bottle comes into play. You can prepare yourself (or your whole family) a bowl of oat groats in five minutes, at most. It’s true! Here’s how I do it in five easy steps:

Step 1: Heat water to boiling in a teakettle on the stove.

Step 2: While the water is heating, put oat groats in the vacuum bottle. 1/3 of a cup (level, not heaping) makes a good serving. If you have a big appetite, put 1/2 cup of the groats in the bottle. A funnel helps considerably with this task.

Step 3: Add a pinch or two of sea salt.

Step 4: When the water in the teakettle has come to a rolling boil, add three measuring cups (1/3 or 1/2, whichever you measured your grain with) of hot water to the vacuum bottle.

Step 5: Screw the lid on the vacuum bottle, swish the contents around a couple times, set the bottle aside, and let it be.

That’s it. You have just made a batch of cooked oat groats with minimum of time and fuss.

I make a batch of oat groats like I just explained before I go to bed at night (around 9:00). When I get up in the morning (around 5:30) the groats are cooked to perfection. I simply open the vacuum bottle, tip it upside down and shake the cooked groats into a bowl. Here’s a picture of the Nissan vacuum bottle and a bowl of groats:

Here’s a close-up of the groats:

With an exact 3 to 1 ratio of water to groats, the cereal is just the consistency I like. You might like it with a bit more water.

To the steaming hot dish of cooked grain I typically add some maple syrup and a little milk. Chopped apple and walnuts are real good with groats too. Anything you would add to oatmeal can be added to groats. It’s the same thing—just better.

Beyond Groats

Once you’ve made yourself a bowl of groats using this method, you can expand your vacuum bottle cooking exploits into other wholesome foods. Here’s a picture of wheat berries cooked the same as groats.

Cooked wheat berries can be eaten just like groats, with maple syrup and fruit (a pear is in the picture). or, you can let the cooked berries cool down and make a cold wheat berry salad. Do a Google search of “wheat berry salad” and you’ll get some recipes. I love wheat berry salad.

One winter I used my Nissan vacuum bottle to make different soups to take to work for my lunch. I added boiling water to barley, wild rice, dried kale from my garden, and some spices. If we had leftover chicken in the fridge, I added some of that. I made the soups before bed and they were just right at lunchtime the next day.

On Mr. Saxon’s web site (which I can no longer find) he gave a recipe for making rice pudding in the Thermos.

There are so many possibilities for inexpensive, convenient, wholesome, simple, vacuum-bottle-cooked meals that I think someone should come up with a whole recipe book centered around this idea. Believe me, I’ve considered it, and I might do it yet. But I have a feeling someone else out there is better geared for this idea.

Thermos cooking would be well-suited to campers, backpackers, retirees, frugal college students (are college students still frugal?), and anyone looking to eat well for less. All that is needed is dry ingredients and boiling water. You could have two vacuum bottles, each cooking a different meal.

The only drawback to vacuum bottle cookery is that the bottle can be hard to clean. It helps considerably to rinse the inside out immediately after emptying it of its contents. I see that Nissan makes a wide mouth bottle. That might be a better idea. I also noticed that they have a two quart (family size) bottle.

So, I ask you... is there an easier, more convenient, more economical method of cooking than this?


Anonymous said...

A similar idea is 'hay box cooking'. On the stovetop you heat your water, add your cereal/beans/whatever and seasonings, boil it 5 minutes. Then put the pot in a insulated box. Used to be that folks would use hay bales as the insulated box, I used a square styrofoam cooler with towels inside and snuggle the towels around the pot. Figure, roughly, 1 hour in the box for every 5 minutes you'd cook the item on the stove or in the oven.

I've cooked rice, beans, barley (which I feel is the equal of oats in nutrition), wheat berries, stews, soups, etc. I'll try it this fall for the 'extracting the goodies from veggies and bones' part of stock making, but I'll still need the stovetop for reducing the strained liquid afterwards.

Advantage over using a thermos is ease of cleaning the pot over the thermos and being able to cook for a group this way.

Herrick Kimball said...

Hi fern,

Great idea. I've read about hat box cooking in Mother Earth news years ago. Is there a how-to & recipe book for hay box cooking? Perhaps you are the one to put it together.

Easier cleaning is a plus. The Thermos bottle is compact and convenient for taking to work or other on-the-go applications.

Anonymous said...

What an excellent idea. I love my oatmeal in the morning, and my wife and I have recently been discussing trying whole groats instead of the meal.

The only way to heat food at my work place is with a microwave, and since I absolutely hate using a microwave I've really been thinking about getting one of those vacuum bottles so that I can take hot stews and such for lunch. Now I have one more reason to purchase one.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post! I have some oat groats in the thermos now (w/ 1T brown sugar, 1/4t salt, and 1T cream.)

Cleaning the thermos is the only drawback. I usually fill halfway with hot water, a small squirt of dish soap, re-close and shake. Repeat without soap, then a final rinse with the sink's hose extension. (The neck is narrow enough to not permit a scrub brush.)

I also fill the thermos with coffee right after it brews so the heating element isn't on constantly.

I would be important to provide a household with a warm breakfast in a grid-down situation (ala Houston) with just a few cups of hot water from an alcohol stove (or heated on your generator exhaust, engine manifold, or small kindling fire.)

Braeg Heneffe said...

Sounds like a very good idea, i'll have to try this one out, as with a poster aboue i onlt have a microwave at work so this method of cooking will come in very handy. Great Blog.

Steve said...

I've also gleaned some stuff from Kurt Saxon. His page is here:

A word of warning though - there are some objectionable subjects on his page. Parents should be cautious.

That said, I remember reading something about breeding flies for chicken feed on your site, and it reminded me of the first time I read something like that. It was on Saxon's page...

Steve said...

Heyercapital (above)mentioned alcohol stoves. A pretty cool home made alcohol stove is the "pepsi can stove." I made one after reading about it on a hiker site. It works great. There are several designs that you can find on the net. The one I made is here:

Unknown said...

Fred's discount pharmacy/store has an excellent bottle cleaner with the baby bottles. It is a long, slender bottle brush with a sponge on the tip.

I think any kind of thermos, large or small, plastic or stainless, would work for this cooking method with varying efficiency. I use a regular half gallon plastic thermos for making yogurt.

MMP said...

I am a big fan of unbreakable thermos's myself.

One trick I would add is before adding the groats, pour a half cup of boiling water into the thermos, swish it around for 30 seconds or a minute. Then pour out the water and proceed with your recipe. That will pre-warm the bottle, dramatically increasing the amount of energy in the bottle. It will keep the contents warmer longer.

Herrick Kimball said...

I just discovered this site on the web: Thermos Cooking Links

Anonymous said...

Nissan and Zijorushi make large vacuum containers you can use to cook in, specific to this purpose: contains an insert with a heavy bottom that can be used on the stove to heat, and a vacuum insulated container to hold the insert after you've gotten the food to temperature.

Sabrina said...

Thanks for the ideas! You have a great website. :)

Here's another Kurt Saxon website:

Unknown said...

Hi Herrick,

Thought you might be interested in reading the fireless cook book by Margaret J Mitchell. It was published in 1911, and contains a guide on both manufacture of the haybox and over 250 recipes. A whole chapter is dedicated to breakfast cereals, amongst other hair raising recipes which are probably highly nutritious but a little left field..see mock turtle soup as an example. Generally though it is a fabulous reference for fireless cooking. It seems that many households had ornate hayboxes, which were integrated into their everyday furniture for daily use.

A modern take on it would be perhaps, line a wooden box with foil, the foil wrap used for christmas wrapping paper as it would have good heat reflective qualities? Then foam or polystyrene insulation cut out to accept your cooking receptacle. You'd probably want to separate your insulation from the cooking area to avoid contamination, you could use vinyl backed fabric, as sometimes used for table cloths in diners etc, as it would be easily wiped down. A cushion made from the same material, stuffed with polystyrene bean bag filling balls would suffice as a top cover? The only other tip I'd offer, is not to make the cooking pot to small as the larger the pot is the longer period of time it will retain the heat at optimum cooking temperature.

Anyway, here's the link..


Herrick Kimball said...

Thanks for the link. I intend to spend some time reading that book.

tvnewsbadge said...

back in the old days, I used to make my ramen noodles in a vacume bottle... made for a great lunch

Lou dawgs said...

this worked! thanks for the idea. i need to get a better thermos, so it is warmer, but it worked. love oatmeal. this site is great. i read something similar about cooking oatmeal in a box in a book called cache lake country by john rowland. it's filled with cool tricks on how to survive in the woods and stuff like this.

Sharon Nygaard said...

Since my husband and I have four kids - I cook our oat grouts overnight in the crockpot. I place a 7 cup pyrex bowl in my crockpot with 1 cup grouts and 4 cups water and a little salt (I will also add chopped apples or pears if I have them). I fill the crockpot up with water to the level of the water in the bowl. Put the lid on and cook on low overnight and we wake up to enough oatmeal for all of us. We usually serve with maple syrup and pecans.

Herrick Kimball said...

Hi Sharon—

Sounds real good. Thanks for the feedback.

Anonymous said...

a thermos is a Dewar flask, and industrial sized ones are available on ebay if someone wanted to do this with larger volumes

also, a half century a go thermos made a 1 gallon version called the "Jumbo Jug" which pops up on ebay, too.

The question would be, did it hold its vacuum all this time?

Anonymous said...

also, i'm finding that many large coffee dispensers use the same tech, the term 'airpot' brings up lots of large (4+ liters!) options on for cheap!

Linda said...

Is this think you lost??? I found him a few years ago myself.

Linda said...

I should edit before I push 'publish'! The 'link' again

Michael said...

Great Idea thanks for the post.

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verndude said...

Absolutely love this idea and I love oat groats. If I put 1/2 cup of oats and 1 1/2 cups of water in the thermos about what volume would be the results? 2 cups? My thermos is 24 oz and was trying to figure out what the maximum amount of oats and water I should use.

Light bearer said...

I read a pint which is 473ml will do the 1/2 cup oat to 1 and a half cup boiling water ratio. 24 oz is 709. 7 ml
Great blog. Haven't tried this yet but I want to once I buy myself a thermos. I found out about it in 'Nutritional guide with food combining' by Louise Jenney's.