Only the sun
Local green builder gets community cooking with solar power
During a recent demonstration at Gateway Science Museum, Todd Harris proved how relatively simple it is to create a hot meal without relying on PG&E or the fuel of a barbecue to provide the heat. The solar-cooking advocate was outside taking advantage of the season’s abundance of glaring daylight, showing attendees how to cook food by harnessing the energy of the sun.
Harris, whose day job is designing and building green homes, has led several similar sessions over the years to share his commitment to sustainable practices. His interest in cooking with the sun stems from his work in the 1990s with the Peace Corps in Kenya, where he helped villagers set up solar kitchens. In Africa, the low-tech cooking method moved cooking outdoors—a much healthier alternative to the frequent smoke inhalation caused by poorly ventilated indoor ovens. It also freed up locals from the chore of gathering wood, an increasingly scarce resource.
But all these decades later, here in the United States, Harris said many people haven’t embraced the sun’s potential as a heat source for cooking. That’s because Americans are so used to doing things the quick and easy way.
“People don’t use solar cooking because we’re so convenience-oriented,” he said. “There are basically three ways we feed ourselves—first is the drive-through. The second is cooking, which usually means using some kind of already prepared foods and putting them together. The third is cooking from scratch, using things from your garden, which solar cooking encourages. My favorite thing to make is ‘kitchen sink stew.’ I never make something the same way twice. It depends on what ingredients I have.”
During the two-hour, hands-on event on Aug. 1, Harris showed about a half-dozen participants how easy it is to cook with only the sun as fuel. First, they had to fashion their own ovens. Working in a back room at the museum, Harris set them up at tables scattered with patterns, cardboard cutters, yardsticks and pens, as well as the silver electrical tape used for reflecting the sun’s rays onto the food. Following his instructions, they cut, perforated and folded their cardboard stoves as volunteer docents cruised the proceedings, fetching supplies, cleaning up, or answering questions to get them on their way to cooking.
The youngest participant, 10-year-old Chicoan Allie Rice, worked eagerly with her mother, Lori, to get the ovens dialed in and get to the experimental part of the session.
“We love to cook together and we thought it would be a fun activity for the two of us. If there’s anything to do with being creative, arts or the kitchen, that’s her,” Lori said of her daughter. “She can do anything she puts her mind to. We love to bake, but it’s too hot to bake in the kitchen now. We might try making some rice and beans tomorrow in [the solar oven]”
“Or brownies,” added Allie, a student at Blue Oak Charter School. “I really like science.”
While the students finished constructing their ovens, outside in the museum garden, Harris harnessed the sun to cook thinly sliced zucchini in a bath of onions, garlic, salt and curry in his homemade oven.
“Solar cooking is a great way to make rice, meats on skewers, and anything you would bake,” he said. “One mistake people make is putting too much water in. You should use two-thirds the water you would on a regular stove, since cooking on a regular stove allows for more evaporation.
“One danger when working around solar cookers is blinding yourself, so it’s important to look away when it gets bright,” he continued. “Also, people don’t realize how hot it’s actually getting in the sun. You have to use hot pads while handling the pot.”
Additional tips included rotating the pot in the direction of the sun about every 15 minutes and planning ahead to make sure the weather is appropriate. Students went home with everything they needed to set up their own backyard solar cooking kitchen: the stove, a pot with a lid, a turkey bag to put over the pot while cooking, and several clips to hold the bag secure. Students also made a stand, so air can circulate under the pot while cooking.
Harris said those interested in fashioning their own solar oven at home can look up everything they need to know on the subject at www.solarcookers.org, the website of Sacramento-based Solar Cookers International. Recipes and other ideas are at www.solarcooking.wikia.com.
He noted that there are other types of outdoor stoves, including a parabolic oven capable of frying food. For the type the students made, he suggested planning ahead and allowing a little extra time for experimenting.
“It’s trial and error. Between [the hours of] 10 and 2, you’ll get your best sun, depending on the time of year,” he said.