Solar Cooking

Solar ovens, photographed on September 4. Left to right: All American Sun Oven, SOS Sport Solar Oven, GoSun Grill.

September is National Preparedness Month, so we’re focusing on several different alternatives to cooking with electricity or gas, in case both were ever out for a period of time. In a true disaster situation, a source of water, along with some way to boil it, as well as a way to cook food, would quickly become critical.

Solar Cooking

Bacon cooking in a solar oven.

Having always been environmentally-conscious (and having daydreamed, at one time, of living off the grid), I’ve experimented with pretty much every type of alternative cooking idea and equipment on the net.

Each of the alternative cooking options has its strengths, and having on hand at least one alternative, and maybe even a combination of them, just in case you ever need to rely on them, makes a lot of sense.

And experience has taught me that it makes even more sense to make the effort to work with whatever alternative cooking option(s) you choose as at least an occasional part of everyday life – being at least somewhat familiar with using them ahead of time will make it far easier, and much less stressful, to use them if there ever were truly a time of need.

Besides – cooking with the sun, or an ice chest and some old t-shirts or a stove that only uses a few twigs at a time can be a lot of fun!

Solar Cooking

A butternut squash roasted whole in a solar oven on Monday, September 2. Solar cooking can really bring out the flavors in food, especially the sweetness in carrots and other root vegetables, sweet potatoes and winter squash.

Solar ovens

By far my favorite alternative cooking equipment is the solar oven. Solar ovens, most of which consist of an insulated box with a black cooking chamber, a clear glass or plastic door and some type of metal reflectors, are available online, and have also started to appear in sporting goods and other stores.

Solar ovens use concentrated sunlight to cook food, and can reach temperatures of 250 to 350 or more, depending on the design and construction, as well as quality of light on a given day. Even the most high-tech versions, with the possible exception of the parabolic cookers being designed now, will always take longer than using a traditional oven, at least in my experience.

Solar ovens can be used year-round, so long as there is enough sun to cast a shadow, according to one manufacturer. However, due to weaker sunlight during the winter, cooking will take longer that time of year.

I’ve been a serious solar cooking enthusiast long enough to have accumulated several different types of solar ovens, and have learned what types of food work best in each. 

I’ve used solar ovens to bake bread, cook root vegetables and winter squash, bake chicken and, on a recent Sunday morning, to cook a frozen roast and potatoes. By mid-afternoon, the meal was cooked to perfection. One of my favorite things to cook in the solar oven is bacon. Other than wiping down the interior door and thermometer and cleaning the pan, there’s really no clean-up.

I have even used my solar ovens for both cooking and reheating during the holidays.

The concept for the most basic type of solar oven has been around since at least the 1960s, when Joseph Radabaugh took his plans for a homemade solar oven around to festivals and county fairs. In his out-of-print book, “Heaven’s Flame,” which you can probably still find online, he recounted how he demonstrated “focusing” the oven by propping one side of it up on a pair of tennis shoes. He made a herculean effort to single-handedly launch the solar cooking industry, and he certainly gave it a solid foundation.

Thanks to the efforts of Radabaugh and others, solar cooking has become a lot more mainstream over the last decade or two, fueled at least partly by the trendiness of emergency preparedness and interest in living off-the-grid.

Many companies in the industry are community-based organizations (CBOs) or non-governmental organizations (NGOs); providing solar cooking products free to those in need who live in the third world. Several websites mention that solar cooking can improve the lives of women in third world countries in a number of ways:

n Help keep them safer – women and girls out gathering wood or other materials for cooking fires are vulnerable

n Improve their health, as well as that of their families, by reducing or eliminating the need for indoor cooking fires

n Free up time spent searching for cooking fuel, to pursue education or otherwise better their lives

Next week: Hay box cooking

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