Friday, July 11, 2008

Is Solar Cooking for You?

I love my solar cooker! I use it as often as is practical, and I find that the investment in a purchased Sun Oven was well worth the money. I get a lot of satisfaction out of saving energy and showing off the Sun Oven to friends, family and the blogging community :).

But is solar cooking worth it to YOU? Is it worth purchasing one and learning how to use it? Or is it worth the time to figure out how to build one? Whether solar cooking is right for you depends on several factors:

1. Geographical location
2. Location for your solar cooker
3. Your goals
4. What you want to cook
5. Your schedule and adaptability

Your geographical location
If you live in Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Nevado, Utah or Oklahoma, look no further. You are in prime solar cooking-ville. In fact, any place south of the 40 degree latitude has around 150 prime cooking days. The authors of Cooking with Sunshine report that you can use a solar cooker if you live between the 60th parallels of latitude on Planet Earth :).

The best places for cooking are, obviously, ones with many sunny days. Surprise! Oklahoma City is the 11th sunniest major city in the United States!

Personally, I have found that in June and July it is possible to cook 2 - 3 different things (bread, lunch and dinner) on sunny days in OKC, which I have found to be 4 - 5 times per week on average. I'm sure this will decrease as the days grow shorter, and in the winter I will probably have to cook dinner at lunchtime. I'll report on that later...

Location for your Solar Cooker
As a guideline, your solar cooker/ Sun Oven will usually need at least 4 hours in an unshaded location between 10 am and 4 pm in the spring, autumn, and winter; and as few as 2 - 3 hours between 9 am and 6 pm in the summer (depending on your cooker and what you are cooking). I find it easy to cook in my Sun Oven because it is located right outside my back door and I can pop out to check on food or adjust the cooker in just a few seconds.

Your Goals
Why do you want a solar cooker? Here are a few common reasons:
1. You want to decrease your environmental impact by using less energy (natural gas, electricity, wood, etc.)
2. You want a back up option in the case that your usual energy source is not available. For instance, many peak oil theorists predict rolling blackouts or grid crashes as energy becomes more scarce or rationed.
3. You want a way to cook during camping, park cookouts, or at a remote, non-grid location, such as a cabin.
4. You want to avoid heating up the house in summer. (As a bonus, your food is already cooked by the evening, when your house is getting the hottest!)
5. You want to hedge your bets against rising energy prices by reducing your energy usage now.
6. You want a cool way to demonstrate Earth-friendly technologies to your doubting family or friends. You want an easy way to get people talking about reducing energy use or preparing for the peak oil future.

What you want to cook
Keep in mind, you can solar cook both "oven" food and "cooktop" food (although maybe not sauteeing). The fastest foods to cook are fish, chicken, egg and cheese dishes, rice, some grains (like quinoa and couscous), fruit, beans from a can, pizzas, non-root veggies, sweet potatoes, and warming up leftovers. You can cook these in 1 - 2 hours, so it is easy in even marginal areas. I have found that I can cook foods like enchiladas, quesadilla stacks, and lasagna in 2 hours as well.

Foods that take a little longer (3-4 hours) include bread, root veggies (potatoes, carrots), lentils, and meats. I have to note that with my Global Sun Oven, I have found that I can cook banana bread in under 2 hours in prime conditions. If you cut up potatoes you may be able to cook them in a shorter time.

Foods that take the longest (5 - 8 hours) include large roasts, soups, and dried beans. I haven't even tried these yet, so I can't comment.

Your Schedule and Adaptability
Solar cooking is a little different - you have to cook during daylight hours and allow enough time to get the food cooked. According to some sources, you can put dinner in the solar cooker (facing due South) in the morning and come back home to a cooked meal. However, I have not tried that. I have always monitored the cooker and adjusted it as the sun moved. Maybe I should try it - it sounds pretty darn easy.

Bottom Line
Basically, if you live in a prime solar cooking area and have any of the goals listed above, you might at least try making your own solar cooker. Although I do love my Global Sun Oven, there are cheaper ways to solar cook.

If you want to cook mostly fast-cooking dishes, you should consider getting or making a solar cooker, even if you live in a somewhat marginal area.

If you only cook dried beans and you live in Alaska, don't even bother :).


Melissa said...

thanks for this post; I've been going back and forth on whether it'd be worth it. I don't use the oven all that often here. I do a lot of stove top stuff. I'll keep thinking but these were good points to mention!

Hausfrau said...

Hi Melissa - I am in the same boat, I almost never use our actual oven except for pizza, lasagna and bread. But I have found that the Sun "Oven" can really be used for a lot of cooktop type foods like canned beans, cooking fish, etc. I should have mentioned that!!

Lewru said...

Great post, Frau! You are selling me more and more...maybe once we recover from the piano move I can get together some spare cash for a the home option was no gouda. I plan to try it again, though!

Verde said...

I'm glad to read about your solar oven. I've been considering getting one and live in prime area (Northern Utah). I sort of wish I had one now that the afternoons are so hot.

Verde said...

Oh, and I'm glad you like the oil widget too. I like to watch the price through out the day and it's nice just to refress the blog to do that.

Chile said...

We've owned ours for years, but a year in cloudy Oregon with only a second floor apartment balcony for outside space had us seriously considering getting rid of it. Now that we're back in Arizona, I'm so glad we didn't! In fact, I keep hinting we need another one. An additional great use for them is heating water for dishwashing duties (which is why I want the second one). For that, though, I guess it would make more sense to build one (solar has plans).

Tracy said...

Hi Hausfrau,

I am curious about your bread making experience. It looks like you said it takes about 4 hours to bake bread, does that mean it takes that long to brown it? Does it brown in your solar oven?

I have been cooking for about 6 weeks using a solar funnel I made and have had 2 successful loaves of bread in about an hour and a half(I have only tried twice), but the loaves are pale.

I'd be grateful for a little more explanation to see if I can do something for the traditional browning or not.

The bread tastes just fine and the texture is great, it just lacks the color.

As far as cooking meat, my experience so far is that you can cook a whole chicken in about 2 hours. Even better is that you can leave it on all day (say noon to 6 pm) and not worry about it drying out. It remains very moist but does fall off the bone.

Another way to take advantage ( I live in Oregon so sunny days can't be counted on) is to batch cook. I have a 3 gallon pot and make soup, stew and chili to freeze for future meals that I only need to reheat.

Loving this solar cooking deal.

Hausfrau said...

Hi Tracy,
What I have been cooking is banana, zuchinni and apricot bread(s), which do brown up quite nicely in about 2 hours (4 if intermittent sun/low temps). I don't do anything special to brown them, although I do use 1/2 wheat flour usually. I haven't baked traditional yeast breads, so that might be the difference.

TheCrone said...


I can't wait until summer really arrives here (Perth, western Australia) so that I can really get to see what my solar oven can do.

So far all I have cooked are rice, dhal, sundried tomatoes and a couple of loaves of bread (in winter mind you!)

Utah Sun Ovens said...

Thanks for the information on solar cooking. I live in Utah and have recently used a Sun Oven, even in the cold of winter. I cooked some brownies the other day, even though it was 40 degrees for the high that day. I posted the video of me cooking it on a blog, The brownies were great and my wife and I are looking forward to doing a little more cooking in it to test it out some more. Enjoy.