A Zero Emission Alternative
by Lorraine Anderson
Local solar is the key to a clean, safe, and reliable energy future, as the August 2022 issue of Desert Report makes abundantly clear. In my vision of that future, solar panels on every rooftop go hand in hand with solar cookers in every backyard. Cooking meals outdoors using only sunshine cuts out the middleman and sidesteps public utilities that are gutting local solar programs. Solar cooking is something regular people can do today to reduce their use of fossil fuels, without waiting for new technology or government policy to catch up to our urgent need to decarbonize our lifestyles.
With gas stoves on the way out and the 1.5-degree lifestyle on the way in, and with efficient and affordable solar cookers becoming more and more available, solar cooking is ready to take its place in the sun. It’s easy, safe, and delicious, and it solves the problem of how to avoid turning on your oven when it’s hot outside. Solar cooking outdoors keeps your kitchen (and the planet) cool. It’s very similar to cooking indoors with a slow cooker, only the energy is free and there are no emissions.
Most Americans, including those who live in Seattle, Minneapolis, Boston, and New York City, can cook with sunshine all summer long. You can do it if you live anywhere between the 60th parallels of latitude on Planet Earth; the closer you are to the equator, the more solar cooking days you’ll have. Those who live in the desert regions of the American West have an abundant solar resource for a long cooking season.
How Solar Cooking Works
Solar cooking, a proven technology that has long been employed around the world and uses only the radiant energy of sunshine to cook food. A reflector pointed toward the sun focuses the rays on a dark vessel, which absorbs those rays and turns them into heat. The heat is trapped and held around the vessel by a glass or plastic cover. You’re familiar with this phenomenon from getting into your car when it’s been parked in a sunny spot.
Solar cookers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but the simplest are panel and box cookers. These cookers are safe and easy to use, relatively inexpensive, and readily available. They can be made of cardboard or more durable materials. Panel cookers have reflective surfaces that direct sunshine onto dark-colored lidded cookware enclosed in a clear insulating shell like a plastic oven bag or an inverted glass bowl. This insulating shell lets in the sunlight and then holds in the heat that’s generated when the sunlight reaches the dark pot. Box cookers have hinged reflector tops that direct sunshine onto dark-colored lidded cookware. A transparent window of glass or plastic on the box keeps the heat in.
Cooking with sunshine on three burners: panel cookers rear and front left, and a box cooker on the right. Photo: Philip Lew
The simplest panel cookers heat food to between 200 and 250 degrees F. (Food cooks at 180 degrees F, and water boils at 212 degrees F.) More elaborate panel and box cookers cause food to reach higher temperatures. By way of comparison, food in a Crock-Pot reaches a maximum temperature at or just below the boiling point, sooner if set on high, later if set on low. You can cook just about anything with sunshine that you can cook in a slow cooker, and more – including fruits, vegetables, grains and pasta, legumes, egg-and-cheese dishes, poultry, meat, seafood, nuts and seeds, and bread.
Why It’s Good for People and Planet
Solar cooking happens at the intersection of the food system and the energy system, the two systems that most need to change if we’re to have a livable future. It’s an efficient and environmentally friendly way to prepare seasonal, local, organic, whole (SLOW) foods. A diet of such foods, particularly if it’s rich in plants, can reduce CO2 emissions as well as support the health of our soil, our communities, and ourselves. If you occasionally eat meat as part of a plant-rich diet, cooking it with sunshine is healthier than grilling, which can produce cancer-causing chemicals.
Solar cooking is also good for your pocketbook. Your initial investment in a solar box or panel cooker can be less than $100, or you can make it yourself for the cost of materials. There are no moving parts that might break and require costly repairs. The energy is 100 percent free, so you save on your gas or electricity bill. And because it doesn’t heat up your kitchen on a hot day, you save on air-conditioning costs.
Solar cooking is a natural for fresh produce from the garden or farmers market. Photo: Philip Lew
Getting Started with Solar Cooking
To get started, you’ll need a solar cooker that you purchase or make, along with one or more thin-walled, dark-colored pots with lids. You’ll also need a few square feet in your yard, on your driveway, on a balcony or deck, or on your rooftop where you get full sunshine in the summer for most of the day, particularly in the hours around noon when the sun is highest in the sky.
You can begin with an inexpensive panel cooker and then upgrade once you’ve gotten into the habit of using it. Solar cookers are available for purchase in most areas of the world and online (check out Amazon for starters). More solar cooker models are available every year, and we can expect that trend to continue.
The ideal solar cookware is dark to absorb and hold heat, and thin to heat up quickly. It’s short and wide rather than tall and deep, to ensure the contents cook all the way through. Nontoxic surfaces such as glass, porcelain enamel, ceramic, and stainless steel are preferable to safeguard your health. Well-fitting lids, either dark or clear, keep steam from escaping that might cloud the insulating shell or box window and cut down on the sunshine coming in.
This enamel-coated roaster checks all the boxes for solar cookware. Photo: Philip Lew
For recipes, adapt your own favorites. Solar cooking in a simple box or panel cooker takes about twice as long as conventional cooking, so plan accordingly. Several solar oven cookbooks are available,1 and recipes can be found online as well.2 The Solar Cookers International (SCI) Solar Cooking Wiki3 is the most comprehensive and up-to-date online source of cooker information, plans, and links to models for sale. Solar Cookers: How to Make, Use, and Enjoy, 10th ed. (58 pages, 2004), available free from SCI, shows how to make panel and box cookers and also gives recipes, tips, and a brief history of solar cooking.
Harnessing the energy of the sun to cook plant-forward summer meals outdoors is an idea whose time has come. Cooking with sunshine, just like driving an electric vehicle, could soon become normal. All that’s needed is widespread public education and awareness. So try it out yourself and pass the word along. Bon appetit!
Lorraine Anderson has edited dozens of books encouraging Earth consciousness, including the compilations Sisters of the Earth and Earth & Eros, and has authored a new solar oven cookbook, Slow Cook Solar. She lives in Corvallis, Oregon, and for thirty years has prepared summer meals without turning on the indoor oven.
- Cooking with Sunshine by Lorraine Anderson and Rick Palkovic (2006, Da Capo Press) and Slow Cook Solar: Sun-Baked Summer Meals Good for People and Planet by Lorraine Anderson (2023, Green Heron Press) are two examples.
- A sampler of easy starter recipes can be downloaded from www.slowcooksolar.com.
- www.solarcooking.org or www. solarcooking.fandom.com