June 22, 2008

Cooking With the Sun: Solar Ovens

The first time I saw a solar oven was on Ed Begley, Jr.'s television show, "Living With Ed," and it looked like a cool science project -- no wonder Ed is friends with Bill Nye, the Science Guy (who's guested on Ed's show). Something fun for the kids sort of thing -- but now, with oil prices soaring, meaning electricity is costing more and more ... well, maybe solar ovens are something I should ponder more seriously.

Come to find out, solar ovens come in all shapes and sizes, and you can make one from some pretty cheap materials as well as buy one, ready-made. SolarCooking.Org gives all sorts of examples - square ones, round ones, collapsible ones, there's even one with dual settings.

Last year, America's Test Kitchen's Chris Kimball (the guy that's so hard to please) tried out several solar ovens for CBS's The Early Show --- he roasted a chicken, made some chocolate-chip cookies, and cooked up some rice along with some broccoli. The result? Stuff that slow-cooks well tends to be best for solar cooking: the roast chicken turned out well. The broccoli never made the grade. Seems there are variables to contend with: clouds passing over, the amount of sunlight available (10 to 2 are the best times, and some months are much better than others, you get the idea). The cookies? They did okay.

The USDA warns that "solar box cookers" may not get foods hot enough, or fast enough, to be safe from bacteria and suggests that everything be monitored with food thermometers. (Their microbiologists are concerned with how long foods stay in the "Danger Zone" of 40 - 140 degrees while in a Solar Box Cooker.)

Manufacturers are almost zealots in the marketing of their solar oven products. SunOvens sells its model for $279 online, and promotes its product as not only reducing one's energy footprint, but also helping rebuild deforested areas as well as women and children in developing countries.

You can also buy the Sport Solar Oven from the non-profit organization, the Solar Oven Society. It's $150.00 (includes shipping) and only weighs 10 pounds.

Finally, you can make one of these things pretty darn cheap. And easy. There are lots of sites that give instructions for this, but my favorite has to be the Pizza Box Solar Oven made by students at Union Elementary School in Montpelier, Vermont. Their site shows the kids lined up with their Pizza Box Solar Oven, and gives detailed instructions on how they did it. Maybe you can't roast a chicken in one of these things, but their mention of English Muffin Pizzas and S'Mores sounded like lots of fun ...

(Image: the Sport Solar Oven, sold by the non-profit organization, Solar Oven Society.)

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