Sunny side up
Oak Park resident reminds of the simplicity of solar cooking
Every day for the past 30 years, Oak Park resident Dale Schuck cooks his meals without a stove, microwave or grill. Hot lentils, rice, roasted potatoes, artichoke, breads, organic chocolate cupcakes—how does he do it? By harnessing heat from the sun.
Using a cardboard box with a piece of glass over the top and positioning it toward sunlight can cook, say, a jar of lentils with water inside in a matter of hours. This is the beauty of solar cooking, of which Schuck has been an advocate since he dropped in on a cook-off in Phoenix years ago as an electronic-engineering student. After this, he was inspired to build his first solar oven using plywood, mirrors and glass.
Now, a self-designed solar water heater, four solar ovens made of cardboard and aluminum lining and glass arranged on rolling stands decorate his backyard. Each one has the potential to reach anywhere between 120 to 300 degrees, depending on where he puts it and which direction it faces.
For every day that the sun continues to rise, Schuck is empowered to give PG&E the middle finger. Relying entirely on the sun for heating needs, he hasn’t used gas service for three years.
“I realized I don’t need them,” he said of energy utilities. “Even if you only cook one meal a week, it’s that one meal a week you walk in and go, ‘Wow, I cooked this myself with the sun.’”
While sipping on a cup of steaming, solar-cooked tea, Schuck explained why solar cooking simply is a better way. There is the obvious: Sunlight is a free, unlimited source of energy, and it is a green alternative to using appliances powered by gas or electricity, which result in greenhouse-gas emissions.
“I mean, they’re burning coal halfway across the country doing mountaintop removals,” he explained, “so that you can turn a switch and cook something inside your house, and the efficiency loss is tremendous.”
Also, solar ovens are relatively cheap to buy and easy to make using recycled glass and cardboard or wood.
Solar food is also cooked at lower temperatures than stove temperatures, meaning that they retain more of their nutrients and flavor. And, as the sun moves across the sky, a solar oven will naturally heat and cool based on its position. This means that whatever is inside is slow-cooked and cannot be burned, even if it sits there for 12 hours.
Solar cooking has been a constant in his life, both here in California and also during his travels in Colorado, Mexico, Alaska, Germany—or even along the South China Sea. He has mastered the ability to cook with as few as three or four hours of direct sunlight, and has always cooked during winter solstice, too.
“It’s such a simple technology,” he said. “If you don’t have a solar cooker with you, in most industrialized nations you can look into a garbage can and find enough materials to build a solar cooker, and within an hour you could be solar cooking.”
Not so fast. Before making a plunge for the nearest Dumpster, Schuck recommends that newbies learn a thing or two about basic oven designs, either online at www.solarcookers.org or with a book, in addition to learning the sun’s cycle and knowing where sunlight hits in relation to a solar oven.
Over the years, he has built up to around 50 ovens for family and friends. This past July, he facilitated a solar-oven-building workshop at Sol Collective. He hopes that his efforts spark a ripple effect.
“We’re burning up the planet,” he said. “Everyone seems to be ignoring it. … [The younger generations] are going to have to pay for our ignorance and our greed and having to have our conveniences.”