“If you can see your shadow, you can cook.”
Pass this litmus test and a solar oven can make your dinner, according to one of the solar chefs who demonstrated this past weekend at the Sacramento Solar Cooking Festival, hosted by the nonprofit Solar Cookers International.
He was one of about twenty-five impressive solar chefs demonstrating their skills. In the crowd, I spoke with humanitarians, hippies, PhDs, teachers and libertarians—sometimes all in one chef! I met a physicist who had designed a powerful cooker with his graduate students. Another chef had made the long trip from India, where she has taught 500 people in her village to cook with the power of the sun. That’s 500 lives changed (plus family members!). Chefs traveled from all over—Kenya, Japan, Canada, Bolivia and Hong Kong.
Unfortunately we couldn’t taste the food (silly laws and such), but it certainly smelled delicious. A lot of recipes that work in slow cookers also work well in solar cookers. Dishes tantalizingly on display included:
- Moroccan lamb stew
- Roasted vegetables
- Kidney beans
- Boiled potatoes and baked potatoes
- Grains like quinoa, rice and couscous
- Espresso (!)
- Bakes apples
- Fruit tarts and fruit cobbler
- Vegan rice pudding with coconut milk and strawberries
- Sautéed portabello mushrooms
What was my favorite demo? Boiling water—very exciting for someone who guzzles as much tea as I do.
Solar Cookers Save Lives
When I first heard about the festival, I though to myself, “Cool! Green cooking! Sign me up!” I also knew that SCI distributes solar ovens to women living in the developing world. By harnessing the power of the sun, these women no longer have to spend hours foraging for wood to build unsafe fires, which pose all sorts of health and fire hazards. Their children, who often spend hours helping to search for fuel, have time to attend school. But I hadn’t given any thought to what solar cookers mean for drinking water.
According to Water.org a child dies every minute from a water-related disease. Solar ovens make water contaminated with bacteria and viruses safe to drink. Water heated to 149°F (65°C) kills Hepatitis A. Heat it to 140°F (60°C), and it kills E.coli, Cholera and Typhoid bacteria and the Polio virus. Worms and Cryptosporidium? Dead at 131°F (55°C).
Although water need not boil to kill dangerous pathogens, how do you know when it has been heated to a high enough temperature to render it drinkable? A WAPI (water pasteurization indicator), a small, not even 2-inch cylinder filled with wax, tells you. When the wax melts, the water has reached the point of pasteurization. The water might still be brown, but it will be safe to drink.
I’m Sold on Solar Cooking but Which Oven Is Right for Me?
I had hoped to leave the festival with a solar oven of my own. But with such a dizzying array of styles to choose from, I’ll have to do more research. Most of the ovens I saw had internal temperatures ranging from 200°F and 250°F, but some can reach temperatures of 400°F!
We want to build a cooker like the above cardboard box cooker above on the left. These box cookers (professional and homemade) displayed the highest temperatures. They’re the ones that can hit 400°F.
Above is another homemade box cooker, still working after 26 years. And why wouldn’t it? It has no plugs, no internal moving parts and no pipes or tubes pumping in fracked “natural” gas.
These high-tech above ovens look too complicated (and I imagine pricey) for a beginner like me.
This disco-umbrella-turned-cooker might be more my speed.
I loved this little cooker. The chef baked apples in it. I’d like to build one like this.
All of the above cookers cost very little. The one directly above resembles the windshield cover I keep in my car. In all of the above pictures, the pots and pans (black to absorb heat) sit inside a plastic bag to prevent the heat from escaping. For us plastic-free types, we can use a large glass bowl. I saw several set-ups with glass bowls but failed to get a good picture.
You can make a very simple solar cooker like some of the ones pictured above. The two at the bottom are made from cardboard covered with tinfoil.
If I’ve convinced you that solar cooking is totally awesome and you would like to buy a solar cooker, please order it from SCI if you live in the US. A portion of their sales funds their amazing work.
When I returned home, I found out that our intentional community owns a solar cooker. It’s in storage, so I’ve never seen it. Stay tuned!