Part 1: Why Go Solar?
The closer I get to living in alignment with my values of a healthy, environmentally-sustainable and socially-just lifestyle, the more I realize my life revolves around producing, obtaining, and preparing food.
I strive to know where my food comes from and how it was grown, and to eat meals that are delicious and even indulgent, yet have the maximum benefit for my physical and mental health and my energy levels. To do this in a way that is affordable means cooking much of our food “from scratch.” It can be a lot of work but also extremely satisfying, and since food is one of the few things we need to survive, it seems worthwhile to do it right. This goes for not just the food itself, but also for our cooking processes.
Spending the summer living off-the-grid in a mobile tiny house (pictured above), we cooked primarily with a 2-burner propane camp stove, and now we’re living in an off-the-grid house with a propane stove. Propane is one of our few housing-related expenses since we don’t pay for electricity (100% solar) or water (100% rainwater catchment), and we’re eager to cut back on our propane consumption.
We cooked with natural gas for years at our last house, but now that we actually buy each canister of propane—rather than just paying a monthly utilities bill that comes directly out of our bank account and lumps together gas and electric use, making it easy to ignore—we know exactly how much propane we’re using. And now that we live in Colorado’s fracking country, the impacts of industrial natural gas (as opposed to NG from small-scale biogas digesters) are impossible to ignore.
A solar oven seemed like a simple, economically and environmentally-friendly alternative to cooking with propane or natural gas.
Solar ovens and solar cookers use passive solar technology, usually some sort of black box with metal reflectors, to concentrate the sun’s heat onto whatever you’re cooking.
If it’s sunny outside, over the course of the day—or sometimes just a few hours—you can cook a variety of foods this way: stews, grains, meats, roasted vegetables, granola, hard-“boiled” eggs, and even cakes and other baked goods! Of course this means you have to plan ahead; solar-cooking is slow food, not fast food.
We already plan many of our meals in advance because we eat a lot of grains and beans which we like to soak or sprout to make them easier to digest and the nutrients more accessible. So for us, the biggest barrier to solar cooking was not lack of convenience, but simply that building our own solar cooker seemed a bit daunting (to me, at least).
Part 2: Choosing a Solar Cooker
Ever since my partner Jeremiah weatherproofed the underside of our mobile tiny home back in February, we’ve been carrying around remnants of sheet metal to build a solar cooker. I began perusing designs trying to find something that would be easy to construct and easily transportable. I’ve seen models that were as simple as cardboard boxes covered in aluminum foil (or even aluminum chewing gum wrappers!) or as creative as an old tire between two pieces of glass, as well as far more sophisticated designs.
But we were looking for something durable yet still lightweight and easily transportable. Something we could quickly throw in our trailer if a storm came along and we needed to pack up camp, something that wasn’t too bulky or too fragile and could handle being jostled around with the rest of our gear while we towed our tiny home over mountains and back roads.
Synchronistically, right around that time I received an email from a representative at Solavore, a Minneapolis-based company that manufactures Solavore Sport Ovens, asking if I’d be interested in testing out and reviewing one of their solar ovens. I was initially a bit hesitant because marketing and product promotion of consumer goods run contrary to my belief in living a low-impact lifestyle, and I have very high standards for the companies I do support (for more info on this, see the new report “25 Enterprises that Build Resilience”).
But after doing a bit of research on Solavore and learning that it’s a small, women-owned business; conscious of how its product is produced, packaged, and shipped; striving to become a Certified B-Corps; and selling a product that has an important role to play in building a low-carbon future, I decided to give it a try.
Another great thing about Solavore is that the company works with local entrepreneurs to increase access to solar cookers in Kenya, Cambodia, and India, areas where cooking over open fires is a major health and environmental concern and is linked to serious respiratory problems as well as deforestation and even low status of women (girls often have to miss school to collect firewood).
Part 3: Cooking with the Solavore Sport Oven
I picked up my Solavore Sport test oven from the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, a non-profit organization and Solavore distributor, at the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair. I’ve spent the last couple of months experimenting with it, and had some wonderful results.
The unit is made of thick recycled plastic (reinforced with glass fibers to prevent heat degradation and crushing) and is lightweight (9 lbs), durable, and easy to transport and assemble, which has made it very convenient for us to use. I’m by no means an expert on solar ovens, but it seems extremely well-designed (read more here).
The clear plastic lid is made of two layers (one is thicker plastic, one is a thinner polyester film) with a space in between to help retain heat. From what I’ve read on the Solavore website, it sounds like there can sometimes be issues with moisture getting trapped between the two layers (Solavore recommends storing the unit on its side to help drain out any moisture), or with the polyester film getting punctured. I haven’t experienced either of these issues, but it’s nice to know that if you do have a problem with the lid you can order a new lid or lid repair kit, rather than having to replace the whole oven. The oven also comes with a thermometer and a WAPI stick for water pasteurization.
At the end of the day, I can pick up the whole oven, with food still hot inside of it, and carry it into the house. It comes with two 9-inch black graniteware pots so we can cook two dishes at once (which is somewhat rare for solar ovens), or multiple ingredients for the same dish that require different cooking times (for example, a pot of rice and a pot of roasted veggies).
I’ve experimented with a number of recipes, and had the best results with roasted veggies (beets, eggplant, tomatoes, etc.), which come out absolutely juicy and delicious after just a couple of hours. As a rule of thumb, cooking time is twice as long as conventional methods, with an additional half hour for the solar oven to preheat.
One of my favorite things about using the solar oven is that is doesn’t require oil to cook veggies (which is both healthier and more economical). Because the oven cooks slowly at lower temperatures (typically ranging from 210º – 260º F, maxing out at 300º F), it’s hard to burn or overcook things, and the veggies retain more nutrients. This is a big perk for me because I tend to multi-task and get distracted when I’m cooking veggies on the stove and often end up overcooking them.
Lentils and rice (after being soaked overnight) have also come out beautifully in the solar cooker. One of my current life goals is to get better at cooking “exotic” cuisine – Indian, Ethiopian, etc. I used to work at an Afghani restaurant that served the most exquisitely delicious food I’ve ever eaten, and learned that one of their secrets (in addition to high-quality ingredients and some serious culinary talent) was cooking dishes for long periods of time over low heat, to allow the flavors to really sink in. I’m hoping the solar oven will work well for this task, sort of like a slow cooker.
One thing that’s important to note about cooking in the solar oven is that you need to use less water than usual (about 25% less), because water takes longer to heat up. I’m still experimenting with liquid ratios for rice, beans, lentils, etc. A few times I haven’t added enough liquid and the final product comes out a bit dry and under-cooked, so I’ve end up adding water and finishing it on the stove (which takes less time than if I were to cook the dish on the stove from the beginning).
I’m also trying to figure out how to cook larger dried beans like black beans, Great Northern white beans, and pinto beans. After soaking some Great Northern white beans for two days, I tried cooking them in the solar cooker. After a full day in the sun they were still pretty uncooked, so I ended up putting them in the slow cooker. But I tried the same thing with black beans, and it worked beautifully. Either way, it’s important to soak the beans before cooking them.
Another challenge is that if you’re cooking something that takes all day, you need to be able to adjust the oven so that it stays in the sun. On a cloudy day, you can add metal reflectors that easily snap on to the oven to concentrate the limited sunlight, and usually things cook just fine that way. According to the website, the Solavore Sport Oven also works well for winter cooking—which I’m excited to try—and can maintain a cooking temperature of 250 degrees even when the air temperature is below zero. The oven can be turned on its side for winter cooking to better capture the lower angle of winter sun rays. Amazing – talk about appropriate technology!
The Solavore Sport Oven with reflectors retails for $269, and you can order it from the Solavore website. For a low-budget homesteader this feels like a big investment, especially when you could build a solar cooker yourself. But it’s actually cheaper than other commercial models, and personally, the time I would have spent researching and deciding on a design, gathering materials, and building the oven could be worth the financial investment, especially since I know the Solavore Sport Oven is so well-designed, efficient, durable, and convenient to use.
If you’re already thinking about purchasing a solar oven, I highly recommend this model. You can purchase the oven without reflectors for $229, but if you’re going to make the investment in the oven, I’d recommend purchasing the reflectors for those days that aren’t as sunny. I’ve already gotten a lot of use out of mine. You can also save a bit of money (about $25 per oven) if you and a friend go in together on a two-pack of ovens.
That’s all for now – time for a dinner of solar-roasted zucchini and some solar baked peach-banana bread for dessert!
Part 4: Recipes & Tips for Solar Cooking
You’d be surprised by the variety of what you can cook in a solar oven! It’s definitely an art, and there are a few nuances that make it different from cooking on a conventional stove. Here are a few tips and recipes to help you get started.
To begin, Solavore has a wonderful website full of tips and gourmet recipes. Check it out: http://www.solavore.com/
Here are a few of my favorite recipes:
Roasted Beet Hummus (This version calls for canned chickpeas – I’m working on a version that uses raw/sprouted or solar-cooked chickpeas)
I’ve had success cooking hard-boiled eggs in the Solavore Sport Oven without any water – I just set the pot lid upside down inside the cooking pot and let the eggs cook for about an hour and a half (I’m at a higher elevation so it could be less – I’ve read 45 minutes works for some people).
You can also bake in the oven – I’ve made delicious banana bread in the Solavore but ended up throwing it in the conventional oven for a few minutes at the end because I got a late start and ran out of sun. Solavore has a carrot cake recipe they strongly recommend, which I’ve yet to try (I’ll probably try a reduced-sugar version!).
Overall, I’m stoked to be cooking with the Solavore Sport Oven and looking forward to fine-tuning my craft! I love cooking for dinner parties and potlucks in the solar oven because people are so curious and often surprised by what’s possible. Next up: granola (with no processed sugar), lentil soup (a staple), garden veggie frittata (with eggs fresh from the chicken coop) and scalloped potatoes (a decadent Thanksgiving treat for my family).