It really can’t get any easier. You put your food in a container, put the container in an oven, and point the oven towards the sun. That’s basically all you need to know to start solar cooking.
As I noted in a recent “Local Flavors” column about solar cooking for the Tribune newspaper, “… this cooking method captures the power of the sun. It’s a passive process, accomplished simply by a combination of reflecting, concentrating and absorbing.”
That article will give you a good overview of solar cooking, and includes information about classes in the San Luis Obispo area. What I didn’t talk about too much in that piece are the impacts of solar cooking on developing countries, especially women in those countries.
With solar cooking, there are no fuel costs, no open flames, and no carbon emissions. Beyond the obvious benefits of free energy and better air quality, this cooking method also means that women (who, let’s face it, are usually the ones tasked with meal duties) don’t have to leave the safety of their homes to search for increasingly scarce firewood, don’t spend hours inhaling smoke and particulates, and don’t need to worry about children getting burned by a cooking fire.
That’s not to say solar cookers don’t get hot. You will definitely need oven mitts, and sunglasses are highly recommended too. Even rudimentary cookers will get hot enough to sterilize water (making them a great thing to have on hand for emergencies), and my “Sun Oven®” routinely gets over 400 degrees F.
You can really cook almost anything by this method, and very few recipes need to be changed at all. About the only things that aren’t an option to cook are grilled meats and deep frying, though there are oven setups that will get hot enough to fry food.
I especially like my solar oven for long and slow cooked recipes that would otherwise take a lot of energy. Soup stocks, briskets, and anything dehydrated are perfect examples, and a favorite trick is to throw some dry-rubbed baby back ribs in a cooker for even a couple hours and then finish them on the grill.
I first started solar cooking with an introductory CooKIT – just a piece of cardboard coated with reflective material that folded into a parabolic shape. (You could make one of these on your own; plans for these and more involved solar cookers abound on the internet.) It worked wonderfully, but I wasn’t entirely keen on the need for a plastic bag to contain the heat and steam, and I wanted more consistent and hotter temperatures, so I graduated to the Sun Oven®.
As with any new toy, I went a little crazy when I first got the new oven, and embarked on a solar cooking spree! Here’s a list of what I cooked in the first three weeks — hopefully, you’ll get inspired to cook with the sun as well!
— Katy Budge
Potatoes, carrots, and leeks with garlic
Potatoes for potato salad
Whole wheat bread
Eggs (the only epic fail, but I would try them again)
Chicken stock and corn chowder stock
Chicken/corn soup made with above stock
Stuffed bell peppers
Melted butter (well, duh!)
Beans (lovely Rancho Gordo™ brand heirlooms, I’m looking at you!)
Mac & cheese
Quinoa & triticale (both ancient grains)
and that Banana Bread!