Solar Cooking: Clean, Bright and Accessible

By Sharon Cousins: First in a 3-part series!
Part 2: Out of the Smoke, Into the Sun
Part 3:Cleaner Cooking, Healthier Planet

What is cleaner than clean, brighter than bright, and can cook your food for free, with zero pollution? The power of sunshine, which I cook with more than my stove up to six months each year, just north of Moscow, Idaho (47°N). All summer–and much of spring and fall, depending on the sky–we enjoy solar breads, soups, stews, meats, poultry, casseroles, desserts, delicately crispy solar taquitos, and more.

Assortment of Solar Cookers set up for demonstration.

The gentle cooking of solar panel cookers and box ovens preserves fresh flavors and nutrients in fruits and vegetables. Custards and rice puddings attain a level of delicacy that is difficult to achieve on a conventional stove. Meat and poultry cook up meltingly tender, and the longer, slower cooking really brings out the flavor of grains. Solar yeast breads, cornbread, baked porridges, and other baked goods are super-delicious.

Modern developments keep pushing the effective range of this technology farther north. A science teacher in Norway has cooked with solar power in the dead of winter at 57°N! And as if that weren’t enough good news, clever innovators and hobbyists like me and Solarcookingnut and a host of others keep coming up with more ideas for easy suncooking devices made from inexpensive or recycled materials.

If you have a silver, accordion-fold windshield shade in your car, you have a solar cooker and probably didn’t even know it! Just go to the Windshield Shade Solar Cooker page to learn how to cook with it. Scroll down the page for all the ideas, including my powerful kettle-grill conversion, which will slowly brown sausage or burgers or do nachos or quesadillas in ten minutes or less.

farm lit, farm fresh romanceOr spend a few dollars on a shiny ‘disposable’ oval aluminum turkey roaster, one sheet of poster-board, some white (Elmer’s/PVA) glue, and a roll of heavy-duty foil, and construct a simple solar cooker with the power to bake a loaf of bread or whole chicken or small/medium pot roast or family size meatloaf, a gallon of soup or casserole, a 9″x9″ pan of cake or cornbread, and more! The free printable pdf project sheet makes it easy to make your own Aluminum Roasting Pan Solar Cooker. Other large round or oval bases can also be lined with foil and used with a vertical poster-board reflector. One example is my new little Orange Cutie Cooker.

EZ-3

Children old enough to put on sunglasses and handle hot pans with potholders can learn to cook in simple solar cookers, including one of my inventions, the EZ-3 Solar Cooker. The EZ-3, which can cook up to a quart of food and bake cute little cakes and breads, mini-meatloaf, cornbread, etc. in a small backpacker’s pot, is easy to make and use–fun for kids and useful for singles and couples who want an efficient little cooker. With a couple/few, you can do a whole meal for two or three people, and they fold flat to store conveniently. Someday there will be a book about the EZ-3. Meanwhile, there is enough information on the page to let people make and use one now. Your kids can bake their own treats this summer without heating up the kitchen and can learn science while having fun and contributing to family meals and celebrations.

Dark pots, which need either dark lids or glass lids plus a dark interior, make the most of those free UVs. Choices range from the classic dark speckled enamelware through wrong-color pans darkened with spray paint (my solar bundt pan was a chipped yellow thrift shop purchase) and more modern black or very dark pots. Cast iron takes a little longer to heat initially but works well if you set food out early. Lightweight modern black pots and pans for camping/backpacking that are black inside and out (in some cases you may need to paint just the outside of the lid) are very good. For baking, use dark pans in pairs, turn one upside down for a lid, and secure with binder clips. Black-painted canning jars with blackened lids and rings work well for cooking some foods and are excellent for solar coffee and teas, and for this purpose the flat lids can be re-used. Look for flat black spray paint labeled non-toxic when dry, usually in tiny print on the back, and use a strip of masking tape to leave a viewing strip on jars. Paint exteriors only!

Loaf of bread baked in Easy Lid Oven

In solar box ovens like the Easy Lid Cooker, the cooking vessel is enclosed by the oven itself, which has a clear window made of glass or oven-bag material. Solar panel cookers are often simpler to make than box ovens, but since most models are open to the air, the pot itself usually needs a clear cover–a greenhouse in effect–to help it hold enough heat to dependably reach cooking temperatures. Oven cooking bags, which can be re-used for this application, are one popular way to do this. Slipping the black pot into an oven bag or slipping the bag over the pot and tucking it under the rack makes an amazing difference in heat accumulation. For some pots, lidded glass casseroles or two glass casseroles (one upside down on top of the other) can provide the greenhouse. When cooking in black-painted canning jars, the jar can go on a clear candle-plate or heavy glass saucer with an upside-down clear glass vase or gallon jar over it.

Fortunately, for those who want to try this simple and fascinating technology, there is a wealth of information available online, much of it in the Solar Cooking Archives and Solar Cooking Wiki maintained by Solar Cookers International.

Solar cooking, in addition to making our own lives cleaner and greener, has the power to make the whole planet healthier, send hundreds of thousands of girls to school, save more than three million lives a year, and more. Stay tuned for Sharon’s take on the humanitarian and environmental aspects of solar cooking on the last Mondays of July and August.

Especially interesting or useful pages:
Solar Cooking tips and tricks
Recipes
Solar Cooking FAQ
Build a Solar Cooker
Solar cooker plans
Solar Cooking Pots
Solar cooker designs
Index to Solarcookingnut’s amazing solar cooking and recycling videos on You Tube
An album of some of my delicious suncooked foods
The HotPot solar cooking system–gorgeous, durable, and efficient–is my favorite commercial cooker of ones I’ve used so far.
Me on TV at my second annual Solar Cooking Holiday event

Added in September 2012:
See how I created a solar cooker from a basket and made fudge it it in this detailed photo series with captions.
The page for the Copenhagen Light (a brilliant design that turns square panels into a rounded cooker), also includes a link to a “$5.” version made of poster-board that may not even cost you that much to make. The Copenhagen Light will power a small-to-medium fry pan with a glass lid to temperatures approaching 400 degrees Fahrenheit (210C) under best conditions and will get you into the 300s even in mediocre conditions. It is also super-adjustable, to give the longest possible cooking day.

Sharon Cousins lives, loves, works, writes, reads, gardens, enjoys playing music and singing, and cooks with sunshine, high on a ridge ten miles north of Moscow, Idaho. Sharon’s fascination with solar cooking began late in ’06, while doing research for a novel series she is working on. You can read more about her solar cooking activities on her Solar Cooking Wiki page. You can learn more about Sharon’s writing and approach to writing on her unique writers’ website, Write ‘em Cowgirls! and in her free writers’ e-newsletter, the Write ‘em Cowgirls Express. Sharon is currently a member of the executive board of Solar Cookers International and also serves as a regional representative for the International Women’s Writing Guild.

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