Cooking with the sun
Todd Harris helps Chicoans harness the sun for no-electricity, no-fuel summer cooking
“If it changes a culture’s cooking style, it’s not going to work,” said Todd Harris. Harris, a Chico resident, is a huge advocate for solar cookers, or sun ovens—low-tech devices, often homemade, that reflect the sun’s light into a small cooking area to bake food without electricity or fuel. He could have been talking about Chico, and our cooking habits—like heating up the kitchen to make a summer pie, even as the air conditioner blasts—but he was talking about rural Kenya, where he spent four years in the 1990s.
“When you’re cooking the traditional style in Kenya, it’s three stones with a pot between the stones. You’re indoors, and it’s very stinky. You’ve got all this inhalation of smoke,” he said.
Harris started off in Kenya installing rainwater-catchment systems during his time in the Peace Corps, and stayed on there working for a nonprofit refugee organization. But he quickly found out he really wanted to spend his time building small vessels that harness the energy of the sun to cook food.
Solar cooking means “less gathering of wood, which frees up time, which also allows the girls to study,” Harris said, noting that women are the primary wood gatherers in Kenya. “It’s also dangerous in some regions to be gathering wood. … And you use less water. [For] places that are really drought-stricken, that could be huge.” Add to that a reduction in the clearing of forests for firewood.
Harris worked for several years helping Kenyans build the inexpensive ovens and then integrate them into day-to-day living, so that solar cooking became a part of their cooking culture.
The same technology, he said, has many uses outside of Africa—Chico, with its abundant sun and many energy-aware inhabitants, has great potential to be a solar-cooker mecca. Harris is helping that along, with his goal of “bringing awareness to the power of the sun as an alternative energy source” through local workshops. The garage and back yard at his central Chico home are littered with solar cookers he has designed and built, each from different materials and in assorted sizes and shapes.
Harris—a green contractor focused on sustainable building who owns his own business, Good Green Homes—has built a full range of cookers, from the simple (foil cellophane that once acted as the liner on a cereal box, glued to some folded cardboard) to the complex, such as a “skewer cooker,” in which a metallic parabolic shield (shaped like a satellite dish) directs the reflected sunlight into a line rather than to a single point, so one could cook a kebab. He’s made solar cookers out of repurposed doors, windows, portions of skylights and old medicine cabinets.
The cooker he uses most is his simple “box cooker,” a box with a glass top seated on the box at an angle, and which he made out of a recycled door and window. “It will hold heat longer,” he offered. “It gets hotter, it’s less prone to wind, and if it’s partially cloudy” it will still heat up well.
“It’s easy to get to 325 [degrees Fahrenheit] with full sun,” Harris said of his box cooker. He uses it essentially like a crock pot—for vegetable stews and soups, just prepare the food several hours before dinner, and cook it in the solar oven during peak hours between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. But he also uses it as a low-temperature oven to bake cakes (“They take about an hour and a half”) and brownies. (It should be noted that, while Harris advocates the use of solar cookers, he sees them as complementary to a standard home oven, not as a replacement.)
Harris has hosted workshops in Chico to help others build a very simple cooker, including a successful workshop he held last year during a day-long environmental event that ended up at Cedar Grove in Bidwell Park. Harris had brought with him a few stencils of a basic parabolic solar cooker, along with loads of cardboard, a substantial amount of glue, and extremely thin pieces of Mylar. The design, from Sacramento-based Solar Cookers International (SCI), is the type used in refugee camps. Over the course of an hour or so, 24 solar cookers were made and taken home by participants.
A simple parabolic cooker is “totally capable of cooking just about anything that doesn’t require really high heat. It typically requires that the cooking time is longer and the food is chopped up finer,” but it’s such a “highly adapted means of cooking,” said Harris, that refugee camps and rural, wood-scarce areas across Africa have adapted them as their primary cooking device.
The basic SCI design still requires a few added items to be efficient, said Harris. A 10-inch graniteware enameled pot—the classic black-painted, metal pot speckled with white—is a must, as the dark color absorbs additional heat. The pot should be placed on a two-inch pedestal, easily made with cardboard cut and shaped into a triangle. And the pot should be covered with an oven bag, typically used to cook turkeys, to help retain heat.
Harris hosted an informational table (with free samples of just-made solar-oven-baked brownies) at this year’s Endangered Species Faire in early May at Cedar Grove. He will be hosting a solar-cooker workshop sponsored by the Gateway Science Museum in the near future (a date has not been set for it).
Typically, said Harris, “it takes an hour to create the pattern, and an hour to create the cooker. One of the things I do is provide the pattern,” and help get that cooker together. He also has favorite recipes, books and lots of other resources to share to inspire new users of solar cookers.
Solar cooking is loaded with positives: It reduces reliance upon fossil fuels, it doesn’t heat up the house, building the oven can be inexpensive and easy, and users enjoy spending more time outdoors when cooking.
But Harris is confident that solar cooking is catching on likely for yet another reason: “It’s fun!”