11 keys for successful Thermos cooking plus 2 Thermos recipes – how to save energy and keep heat out of the kitchen

Thermos Cooking

Thermos cooking is perfect in the boat galley!  It saves propane, keeps heat out of the boat, and you get to do something else while the food cooks.  Additionally, Thermos cooking makes using some foods that save space and weight aboard a boat – such as dried beans instead of canned – feasible.

UPDATE: For larger quantities, and for cooking main dishes, take a look at a thermal cooker (I love mine!).

The basic technique is simple:  heat the ingredients, put them in a Thermos, generally let it sit for 4 to 8 hours, then eat.  As with everything, the devil is in the details.  Over the years, I’ve learned 11 key points for successful Thermos cooking.

1. Plan Ahead. Thermos cooking takes time, so you can’t decide to cook dinner in a Thermos an hour before you want to eat.

2. Select the Right Thermos.You need one that is

  • Well-insulated. The more heat it retains, the better it will cook.
  • Sized right.  Your food needs to fill the Thermos in order to cook most efficiently.
  • Wide mouth.  This makes it much easier to get food in and out, and also to clean.

I particularly like the Thermos Nissan “vacuum bottles” (that’s the generic name for a Thermos).  They are made of stainless steel and get the highest marks for holding heat in numerous reviews.  The 48-ounce Thermos Nissan wide-mouth bottle (1-1/2 quarts) is good for soups, stews, chili, spaghetti sauce and things like that.  The 16-ounce (2 cup) size is good for a single food for two people.  Another good brand is Zojirushi.

Read more about the best Thermos Bottles and/or my Thermos testing (bigger differences than I imagined!).

Beware of inexpensive plastic “insulated bottles” – while they may keep coffee warm for an hour, they simply don’t hold heat well enough to use for Thermos cooking.  They also stain and pick up odors from the foods in them.

Cook Appropriate Foods. It must be something that is cooked in liquid.  Thermos cooking is best for single foods or dishes where everything needs to cook the same length of time, or to pre-cook part of a dish, such as:

  • rice (particularly non-instant brown rice, which has the most nutrients but otherwise has to simmer 45 minutes),
  • soups, stews and chili (see my recipe for Split Pea Soup in a Thermos)
  • spaghetti sauce,
  • soaking and cooking dried beans for use in a recipe (see recipe),
  • cooking beef or chicken for use in a soup, casserole or Mexican dish,
  • reconstituting dried and freeze-dried foods, and
  • most recipes designed for crock pots, if you adjust quantities to fit your Thermos.

Don’t even try to cook the following in a Thermos:

  • foods that are easily overcooked
  • dishes that require many additions of extra ingredients, which causes heat to escape each time
  • dishes with cheese in them (unless it’s added at the end of the cooking time) – it sticks to the inside of the Thermos and is very hard to get out
  • foods that cannot be brought to a full boil before putting it into the bottle (yogurt is one exception to this — see how to make your own yogurt).

4. Preheat Bottle.Before preparing the food to be cooked, boil water, fill the Thermos, and stopper it.  Let it sit at least 5 minutes to thoroughly heat the inside of the bottle – otherwise, a lot of the heat in the food will be used up in heating the bottle, and not in further cooking the food.  Don’t empty the water until you’re ready to fill the Thermos with food (save the water to use in something else).

5. Fill the Thermos in the Sink.Whenever you’re pouring hot water or a hot mixture into the Thermos, put the Thermos in the sink first.  This way, anything that spills or splashes will be contained in the sink.  Since the sink is lower than the counter, it’s easier to pour things this way and you’re also less likely to spill things since it’s a more convenient height.  It also helps to use a canning funnelwhen you’re pouring hot food into the Thermos.

6. Brown Meat.  Just as with cooking in a crock pot, anything that must be browned – such as meat and onions for chili – should be browned before being mixed with the other ingredients.  Meat and other ingredients will cook in the Thermos, but it won’t brown.

7. Pre-Cook Food. This was the biggest mistake I made – on my first attempt, I just put all the non-liquid ingredients in the bottle and then poured boiling water over the top.  Six hours later, my split pea soup was still a mass of raw ingredients and lukewarm water.  The heat from the boiling water just moderately warmed up the other ingredients and there was not enough heat to complete the cooking.

Pre-cooking doesn’t just mean putting things into a pan and heating them to boiling, then pouring it into the Thermos.  The cooking has to actually begin before you put the food into the bottle.  Cook things right up to where you’d turn the heat down and let them simmer.

8. Cooking Times. Cooking times will vary, depending on how well the Thermos retains heat, the temperature where the Thermos sits, and how large the food pieces are in the Thermos (smaller pieces cook faster).  The table below provides approximate cooking times for single items.

Item Pre-Cook Time (after food comes to a boil) Thermos Time
White Rice (not instant)* 5 minutes 1-1/2 hours
Brown Rice (not instant)* 5 minutes 4 to 5 hours
Beef stew meat – 1” cubes 15 minutes 4 hours
Chicken – 1” pieces 8 minutes 3 hours
Beans, dried – to soak 5 minutes 2 hours
Beans, dried – after soaking (change water) 10 minutes 3 hours
Potato – 1” cubes 5 minutes 2 hours

*Because rice expands beyond the volume of water it soaks up, leave an extra 1” of room at the top

For soups, stews, chili, spaghetti sauce and other things like that, cook them as usual on the stove up to the point where the recipe says to “simmer for x hours.”  Instead, put the food in the pre-heated Thermos and let it sit for approximately twice as long.

9.  Re-Heat if Necessary. Depending on the temperature around the bottle (40 degrees in the boat versus 100), the quality of the bottle, and the total time needed to cook, you may need to reheat the contents so that they will continue cooking.

Until you’ve learned how well your bottle keeps heat in your climate, you should check the contents halfway through the allotted time if the total Thermos time is over 3 hours.  If steam does not rise up when you open the contents, you need to reheat the contents.

To reheat, pour the Thermos contents into a pan and re-stopper the bottle to keep the heat in (unless you’re in a very cold climate, you don’t need to re-preheat the bottle).  Bring the food to a full rolling boil, then put it back in the Thermos and re-stopper it.

10.  Finishing on the Stove. There is nothing wrong with serving food right from the Thermos.  However, for foods that aren’t going to be incorporated into another dish, I prefer to cook them traditionally for 5 to 10 minutes after taking them from the Thermos.  This gives me the chance to add more water or boil some away if needed and add any extra spices that a taste reveals are needed.  But if you’re trying to conserve propane or want something to take along on a hike, it certainly isn’t necessary!

11.  Keep the Bottle Clean. A bottle brush is a big help for cleaning your bottle.  Just use regular dish soap, and baking soda will help remove any food odors or stuck bits.  Do not use steel wool or “Brillo”-type pads on glass liners (can scratch the glass, leading to breakage) or stainless bottles (can cause rust).

More on Thermos Cooking in The Boat Galley Cookbook:

11 keys for successful Thermos cooking plus 2 Thermos recipes – save energy and keep heat out of the kitchen

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  • amanda
    Posted at 07 May 2011 Reply

    Thanks for your thermos cooking tips. I teach home making skills and have been working on a class for ways to not heat the kitchen up so much in the summer. I discovered thermos cooking online and read I could make pasta that way. . . so far no luck. . . I was getting frustrated until I read your article. It sounds like pasta is not a good choice despite what the other sites may have said!! I love your chart! It gave me ideas beyond wheat berries and oats. . . . Thanks!

  • Liam
    Posted at 20 July 2011 Reply


    Great blog and great article on Thermos cooking – here are some recipes I gathered a few years back: http://dropout50394.yuku.com/topic/562/Thermos-Cooking-anyone-else-do-this

    Loving your cooking tips, wishing was away sailing now!

  • JoAnne
    Posted at 21 May 2012 Reply

    Great ideas! I discovered “cooking” my oatmeal in my insulated coffee mug while on our boat delivery in March. Usually I am not patient enough to wait for my thick rolled oats to cook before I eat them, but a busy watch had me slapping the lid on and eating them later. Yum! Your ideas have put the nail in the coffin of the debate over whether a widemouth thermos is worth the investment and boat space. Thank you!

  • Laura Zechin on Facebook
    Posted at 06 June 2012 Reply

    Great idea. I have a pasta cooker that works in a similar manner–love it. The pasta steams until done, then I use the leftover water for dishwater.

  • Georgina Moon on Facebook
    Posted at 07 June 2012 Reply

    And they both taste disgusting! What is the point of dried beans!

  • The Boat Galley on Facebook
    Posted at 07 June 2012 Reply

    Gerogina — I use the dried beans in all sorts of things like chili, bean soup and so on. Anything you’d otherwise use canned kidney beans, great northern beans, pinto beans and so on for. I don’t just eat a bowl of dried beans . . .

  • Georgina Moon on Facebook
    Posted at 07 June 2012 Reply

    You are very creative! But any sort of beans are just not high on my list of favourite foods! I never use canned beans at all. Unless they are Heinz baked beans, of course! A very British institution!!

  • Katja
    Posted at 24 February 2013 Reply

    I love beans! I eat them at least once a day. Also you can make oatmeal overnight in the fridge. You just add the liquid and let it soak. Thanks for sharing this idea of thermos cooking. I had never heard of it before.

  • Zowie Meissner
    Posted at 12 January 2014 Reply

    Love this…I hope this one is in your cookbook.

  • vrkelley
    Posted at 18 January 2014 Reply

    Using a preheated, 16 oz wide-mouth nissan, was unable to get the brown rice to cook. Testing at home (instead of on our boat), I boil 1/4c mid-size brown rice and 1.5C water in the microwave for a total of 8mins (from start to finish). Toss it in the preheated wide-mouth and let it sit overnight.

    The rice is half cooked. Next time, I’ll try soaking the rice first.

  • Trudy
    Posted at 09 May 2014 Reply

    I live in a single wide, on an island on the East Coast of FL. Space, time, and convenience are important for me. This cooking idea is great! I am a Realtor, I can get my brown rice started in the morning, go to work, come back and finish in minutes! When I am bone tired the last thing I want to do is cook for 30 – 40 mins. and this is the ticket!
    I love beans, dried is the best, have you done Garbanzo for Hummus, or salad? I have a Thermos coffee pitcher, it is not a wide mouth, I wonder if soup would be good for it only? I will look for your Yogurt recipe, that is something I use to make. Do you make sprouts on-board? That would be a good thing to do, they are ready in a couple days. Mung, Alfalfa, radish, sunflower, etc.; all are good for Salad, or stir fry’s. Love your blog.
    Thank you Carolyn!

  • Julian
    Posted at 11 December 2014 Reply

    Carolyn. What a great resource! Must admit to being slightly envious of your lifestyle. I live in a small seaside village about 120km from Cape Town and so I am never far from the sea, but this is unfortunately not the kind of place you can live on a boat. It’s not called the “Cape of Storms” for nothing.

    I’m going to make sure I link to this page from an article I’m writing for my site about Thermos cooking. I’ll also be sure to promote your book.

  • Robert Sayles
    Posted at 22 July 2015 Reply

    I had a crew member that had oatmeal every morning cooked in a small wide mouth. Put the oatmeal in & just add boiling water

  • orkidish girl
    Posted at 13 August 2015 Reply

    great tips
    i love slow cooking but not great fan of using crock pot

  • Madonna Weaver
    Posted at 31 March 2016 Reply

    Greetings from Australia. We have just acquired a boat with quite a bit to do over time to it. The Thermos cooking will be perfect as is a small galley onboard. Also we are going on a camping trip soon and want to try cooking this way. A small camping stove with come with us to preheat.

  • cyndy
    Posted at 25 May 2017 Reply

    Hi Carolyn!
    Have you tried Hydro Flask*? I left iced coffee sitting in the cockpit all day between Grenada and the DR. I thought it would have to be thrown out but there was still ICE in the flask even though it had been sitting in direct sun for part of that time. (over 8 hours). I happily drank my ice cold coffee and when I got back went and bought the larger sizes with the wide mouths for cooking. Haven’t gotten to try it yet but I’m pretty confident they will do the job.
    I’d love to see how one stacks up against the one you use. Let me know if you give it a test.
    Hoping to see you this summer if you are still on J1 when I get there.

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