Note: This article was written by Carl Peters of the Central Valley Solar Cookers Club for World of Wellness, used by permission. For a video demonstration with TasteFresno, check this out.
Solar cooking has been utilized for years in various parts of the world on a small scale. First known person to build a box to solar cook food was Horase de Saussure, a Swiss naturalist, around 1767. In 1892, a restaurant in China served solar-cooked food. With the energy crisis of the 1970’s, solar cooking in the US increased and is finding renewed interest as more people turn to solar technology as an alternative energy source.
Benefits of Solar Cooking
- Saves money – After initial cost of the cooker (which can be minimal depending on the type you choose) solar cooking is cost-free. The sun offers free fuel with no need to purchase charcoal or propane, pay for electricity, or collect wood. The house is cooler in the summer when you cook outside and this reduces air-conditioning costs.
- Saves time – Cooking with the sun may take longer however there is no constant watching as with most cooker styles. Place food in the solar oven in the morning, and like a crock-pot, the food will be ready when you return in the evening. Cleanup takes less time as well because food doesn’t get baked or scorched onto the pots.
- Clean cooking – Unlike an outdoor grill, solar cooking does not contaminate the air with smoke or volatile lighter fluids. Thus it reduces air pollution, and with no smoke or fire, it is a great alternative for camping.
- Healthier – Fewer vitamins and other nutrients are lost when food is cooked slower with low-heat. It is almost impossible to burn food with solar cooking.
- Portable – Some types of cookers are lightweight and compact. They can easily be taken anywhere, making it the perfect choice for a picnic in the park, at the beach, or in a campground.
- Easy and convenient – you can build a unit yourself in a few hours and learning to solar cook is easy. A simple dish to start experimenting with is rice. Having a solar cooker offers a convenient solution to cooking during a power outage or other emergency situation. Water can be sterilized for drinking and sanitizing medical equipment.
The device to capture the heat from the sun to cook food ranges from a simple, homemade reflector to various commercially-available ovens. The basic principle is that reflectors gather light rays and bend to a desired focus. Food can be baked, boiled, steamed, or fried.
A good unit to start experimenting with is a panel cooker. It can be made from a piece of cardboard measuring 36x48 covered with aluminum foil on one side and folded. Don’t worry about the cardboard catching on fire. Paper burns at 451 F (233 C) and your cooker won’t get that hot. Temperatures in a solar oven reach between 250 degrees and 400 degrees. A thermometer can be placed inside the oven to monitor the temperature.
Directions can be found in most solar cooking books or on the internet. A commercial version of this type of cooker is available if you prefer.
An enclosed box oven can also be built or purchased. When building, the exterior base can be made from plywood using screws, not nails, and adding panels of reflective material. Use tempered glass for the oven cover instead of regular glass of safety. A shelf from an old refrigerator or other item makes a great, inexpensive cover. The oven should be angled at 60 degrees for high sun and 30 degrees for low sun. Most designs allow either angle by flipping the unit.
Tips for Success
- Season – Obviously summertime is ideal and food will cook faster. However, you can also solar cook using a box cooker in the lower temperature of winter as long as you have 20 minutes per hour of sun.
- Time of Day – During the summer, there are ten hours of cooking time. In the winter, the available time to cook is limited between 10 a.m. and 2 a.m.
- Weather Conditions – Atmosphere conditions can affect cooking time. When there are clouds, smog, dust, or wind cooking will take longer.
- Cooker – The size of the cooker affects the speed. The food cooks faster in a large solar oven. The depth is also a factor, as a deeper oven creates more shadows and thus slower cooking. Think short and wide instead of tall and deep.
Cooking in the sun is a fun, practical way to live more in tune with nature’s cycles. Are you ready to give it a try?