In my head, I supposed I was picturing a camp stove powered by a solar panel– per many of the gadgets I already carry in my backpack for weekends away. But what I saw were three large, saucer-looking ‘stoves’ sitting in the center of the room that looked more like something you’d use to communicate with extraterrestrial life than to boil water for dinner.
Needless to say, it’s not what I imagined, which was for the better, because I found out about a really cool way to live a little more off grid – whether you are right at home or trekking across the country in an RV.
No batteries. No charging. Just the sun.
The idea behind a solar oven is quite simple: collect and funnel the sun’s rays into a focal point, which can then be used to heat water, sauté veggies or even bake a cake. Many of them resemble a box or rectangular shape, with reflective wings jutting out to capture sunlight.
But the key to great solar cooking (or, so I was told), was understanding all the working parts that go into it – kind of like a math equation.
In addition to collecting light, proper absorption is needed to keep your cooking surface hot. Each cooker does this in its own way – be it a glass door, clear bag (note: one that won’t melt) or glass bowls – and most people pair that with thin, dark cookware. Yes, your cast iron is great, but for this, you want to have as little critical mass as possible to heat up. I was told black stainless steel or an anodized pot is best.
Then, you need to think about installation and durability, because investing in a new gadget to have it break or – more likely in this case – melt, is never a desired outcome. I haven’t gotten to use mine yet, but some of the models look like they involve a cumbersome set-up process.
Additionally, some cookers – like box cookers, looked like glorified cardboard. Something that might work for some people, but would definitely not stand the test of time on my watch.
So, in buying a solar cooker there are four types to look at….
- Parabolic Cooker
This is the one that looks particularly like a flying saucer. Think: an upside down umbrella with aluminum foil covering the inside of it (you can actually make a solar cooker that way). They can reach a temp of 500 degrees in about the same time your oven would take to pre-heat, pretty much putting to ease any concerns about your food not cooking.
The downfall? A larger surface area of light bouncing off the gradual slope of the disc shape means a smaller focal point – requiring you to chase the sun across the sky as you reset the cooker hourly or more.
- Box Cooker
It’s pretty much what sounds like – a black box with a glass door and four silver ‘wings’ sticking out from each side to collect the light. Reliably reaching 350 degrees means you won’t burn your facial hair off if you get too close, but that your cornbread will taste juuuust right.
While I think box cookers take up the largest space and look the heaviest, a clear benefit is being able to use any colored cookware. The interior walls of the box are painted black, so you can set up the cooker in your yard, bring out any old pan from the kitchen and let the sun work its magic.
- Panel Cooker
This is the simplest and most inexpensive version. It is comprised of several cardboard panels folded to make a rectangular shape in which you can set your pot. At 225 degrees, it is best compared to a slow-cooker and works optimally between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Something I learned about these? That they are increasingly being used in third world countries to help people without access to electricity get clean drinking water and warm food!
- Hybrid Cooker
This cooker blends ideas from the box cookers (creating a box-shaped focal point that heats from all angles) and panel cookers (being built from a foldable material that can be moved with the sun). It is lighter than the box cookers and more durable than the panel cookers, making it a win in my book. Plus it’s made right here in San Diego.
The hybrid style cookers can reach up to 330 degrees and seems like it gets the job done in just about any setting.
Being easily intrigued by new tech as I am, I picked one of these up right away and am currently getting my cookware in order to start making some of my dinner favorites. It’s not a portable item that will be added to my bicycle touring pack list, but if you drive through San Diego and see a yellow box sitting in a yard, you’ll know dinner is cooking and it didn’t take me one ounce of electricity to do it.
The photo of the parabolic cooker was found on iStock.com. All other photos were taken by the author, Averi Melcher.