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Monday, January 11, 2016

A Wonderful, Slow-Cooking Oven

I stumbled across the Wonderbag recently. It is basically an old-fashioned slow cooker, requiring just a small amount of fuel/energy. You must initially heat food to a boil, and then you move the pot into the insulated bag for several hours to let the food gently cook as it very slowly cools down. I've seen food come out hot--not warm--after sitting in the bag for eight hours. This is good for your energy bill and also makes for a low-effort, one-pot meal that can cook while you are at home or even while you are transporting it elsewhere. It also is great for emergency cooking or camping.

If you need something kept cold instead of hot, the insulating material is reported to keep ice cream cold for about four hours. Other items may stay frozen even longer. Again, this is great if you need to take something cold to an event and you're transporting it in a hot car.

The Wonderbag company donates one bag to a family in need in Africa for every bag sold in the U.S. While I loved this generous idea, the $54 price was beyond my budget, so I wanted to make one for myself that was more economical.

Then my sister randomly mentioned that her LDS ward was making "wonder oven boxes" and asked if I'd like to go in on a group order of bean bag pellets! It was serendipity. Apparently, the wonder box was created by a group called Compassion in South Africa in 1978. It is a totally different design from the Wonderbag, although the concept is the same.

The wonder box is a great place to start for those who are not confident sewers because it's very basic. I used a pattern provided by my sister's ward, but there are several copycat patterns on Pinterest if you search for wonder oven, wonder oven box, or wonder box.

I used a free pattern, purchased a $5 flat sheet at Wal-Mart for fabric, and spent $5 on the bulk order of bean bag pellets. Out of that I made a wonder box, then, wanting to try the bag style, I made three bags that fit a three-qt. pot with a handle. I still have lots of bean bag pellets left over and could make several more with scrap fabric. Can't beat the price! Take that, slow cooker!

I will include recipes in a future post, but you can also find these on Pinterest. I was concerned that I had to use actual Wonderbag recipes, but this is a forgiving slow cooker. You can use different types of recipes, like:

  • Standard crock pot recipes
  • Anything with some liquid in it that you can bring to a boil before moving your pot to the wonder box 
  • Dishes that you don't want to stew in liquid all day, by putting ingredients in an oven bag or slow cooker liner bag (I've even read of using an empty, plastic cereal bag from boxed cereal). Put the closed bag (with the ends hanging out of the pot) in some water in your pot, cook it at a hard boil for 15 minutes, and move it to the wonder box. This technique is good if you have something like a whole chicken and vegetables that you don't want to turn into stew.
I've found that unlike a slow cooker, the wonder oven will not burn or overcook food, which is a major plus. Vegetables don't get so mushy because they are cooked too long, while the meat gets very tender and juicy. It's such a convenient way to cook.

Wonder Oven Box Tutorial
I found a tutorial online, contributed by Kathryn Pratt, that uses the same instructions I was given at my sister's super Saturday Relief Society event. I was worried as I was cutting and sewing that I was doing something wrong, but I found that this really is a forgiving pattern if you make mistakes. It requires fewer pellets than I originally thought, because if you put in too many, there is no room for the pan. The point is to put in just enough that you have room for the pan in the center and then the pellets can create a nice layer of insulation around it. You may need to adjust the final amount of pellets by experimenting with a pan you plan on using before you sew the hole shut. The lid should be firmer than the bag.

And I do not have a good way to move bean bag pellets that are lightweight and full of static electricity! The best way I found was with some kind of a scoop and a funnel made out of newspaper, but plan on doing this step outside because you will end up covered in styrofoam pellets! I have heard that you can use any kind of insulating material from packing peanuts to even old rags but I have not tried any different kinds of insulation. If you've had success with other materials, please leave a comment!

Here are pictures of the wonder box from the blog Our LDS Family. You can see that it is essentially just a square bean bag that has a spot in the center that can be smushed around to create a hollow for your pot. It is covered with a square piece filled with bean bags pellets.

It is pretty shapeless, so if you want it to have more structure or hug your pot more closely, you need to first put it in a box or laundry basket, make a hollow for your pan, and then snuggle the pan down into the hollow and cover it with the bean bag lid. It helped that my husband was pushing the insulation around and out of place when I was trying to put the pot in since the hollow tended to fill back in just as I was setting the pot in. The entire pot needs to be nestled within the bag to be able to cook the food properly.

I think that Kathryn Pratt's wonder box is actually pretty cute. Mine turned out kind of homely and without such a firm shape.

When I tried it out I tried it first on the counter and then in a laundry basket and felt like that was the better way to go since it nestled the pot better. I put a kitchen towel around my pot first to protect the fabric from stains, although it can be washed by hand. I just felt better thinking that I could preserve its appearance longer by not putting it directly against the fabric. Also, I was worried that the pot would be so hot that it would burn the fabric, but that has not seemed to be the case any time the metal has come in contact with the fabric, so I don't think that should be a concern for you.

The wonder box can fit many size pots, including my largest Magnalite dutch oven, which I believe is seven quarts, but it's key to use a pan without a handle because the handle will stick out of the bag and create a gap where air can get in.

Due to the fact that most of my pans have handles, and because I wanted to try something cuter (vanity) as well as something that did not require setting a laundry basket on my counter for the entire day, I decided to try using my plentiful bean bag pellets to create a new one. I took pictures of the second one I made with purchased fabric with a cute kitchen print. I'm going to write about it in my next post to keep these two patterns separate. Happy wonder-ful slow cooking!

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