The dish on solar cooking

Local group touts the benefits of the sun’s power

Cooking up food in a solar-powered oven.

Cooking up food in a solar-powered oven.

Photo By kevin porter

Even if you burn everything you attempt to cook, you need to read this. First of all, don’t worry about burning your food while solar cooking (the oven’s temperature doesn’t get hot enough). More importantly, solar cooking is good for the environment, your wallet and helps some developing countries throughout the world.

“The idea of cooking with the sun has been around for a while,” said Kevin Porter, director of education resources at Solar Cookers International in Sacramento, a nonprofit organization founded in 1987 that promotes solar cooking through publications, online resources and international outreach programs. Simply put, solar cookers convert sunlight to heat. Kind of like burning dry leaves with a magnifying glass (OK, maybe that was just me).

Anyway, solar cooking requires some other components besides the sun. Dark surfaces get hotter than light ones, so you’ll need a black pot—preferably a metal one that is shallow and thin with a dark, tight-fitting lid to hold in heat and moisture. In the case of solar cooking, letting off steam isn’t a good thing. To hold in the heat, sometimes a transparent heat trap is needed, such as a clear plastic bag. Reflective panels placed around the pot increase the heating potential.

Because solar cooking relies on the sun’s power, certain variables affect this method’s effectiveness. While solar cooking can be done almost anywhere, it’s most practical in warm, dry and sunny climates. Therefore, solar cooking isn’t recommended for residents of Antarctica. Those who live in Sacramento, though, are in luck! But because Sacramento isn’t warm and sunny year-round, it isn’t possible to solar cook year-round, especially in the cold winter months.

Now for the meat of the story (or tofu, for you vegetarians): What kinds of consumable concoctions can be made in a solar cooker? Foods that cook especially well in the more simple solar cookers that SCI promotes are eggs, stews and grains—namely, things that cook for a long time at low temperatures, according to Porter.

Porter referred to the style of cooking done in solar cookers as “absentee cooking.” That’s not to be mistaken for the kind of cooking where you put something on the stove, wander away and don’t come back until the smoke detector goes off. That’s called absent-minded cooking. Absentee cooking is where you put food in a solar cooker and leave it for a few hours—without burning it! Some see this as one of the benefits of solar cooking, while others see this as one of the drawbacks; not because they enjoy eating burnt food, but because there is a time commitment involved.

However, let’s not forget about the financial benefit. According to SMUD, it costs 15 cents an hour to cook on a 6-inch electric burner. Therefore, every 100 hours equals 15 dollars, and with the current economy, that’s a lot of dough. Solar cooking sounds like a more appetizing option every second!

All kidding aside, while solar cooking is an option in developed countries like the United States, it’s literally a lifesaver in some developing countries such as Kenya, Zimbabwe and Chad, where people must often walk long distances to gather firewood for cooking—an arduous and sometimes dangerous task. Solar cookers also make water safe to drink through water pasteurization by killing disease-causing organisms. In partnership with local and international organizations, SCI makes solar cookers available to these communities.

“Ultimately, when you look at the world and the people who live in it, the humanitarian aspect is the most beneficial thing of solar cookers,” Porter said.

People living in developed countries, he said, should realize they are part of the bigger picture: “That’s a powerful thing here when people decide to become solar cooks. They’re making a statement, because it’s not a necessity,” he said.

And therein lies the recipe to a cleaner, brighter tomorrow: a pinch of effort and a whole lot of compassion mixed together and allowed to simmer—in a solar cooker, of course!