Food & Drink : Catch the rays

Texas is hot, but is it hot enough to bake a potato?

For good reason, I am rarely allowed near a stove. During previous cooking attempts, I boiled rice at such high heat that starchy effluent spewed from beneath the pan lid and poured down the hole where the blue gas flames come from. (See, I don’t even know the name for that part of the stove. How about the hellhole?)

However, solar cooking has no such pitfalls: no flames, no effluent, no angry electric burners, no charred pots. Just the sun. And in Texas, we have plenty of sun.

A tinfoil-covered box in a wheelbarrow, with pie-tin heat collectors, becomes the ultimate portable solar stove when placed in the hot Texas sun. (Photos by Lisa Sorg)

While the Rolls Royce of solar ovens will set you back $229, I fashioned my own from a flattened cardboard box and aluminum foil. Silver windshield covers, clipped together, will also work. Cover one side of the box with foil and fold the sides so that they fan out to catch the rays (or alien signals from space, if you’re attuned to them.) I put the oven in a wheelbarrow to keep it off the ground and so I could move it to a sunnier spot if necessary.

Monica Salyer of Texas Solar Cookers recently told the Sierra Club that she baked a cake in January in a solar oven, but as a neophyte, I tried a less ambitious dish, more suitable for Big Bend camping than birthday parties: In the first experiment, canned black beans with chopped onions; the second time, baked new potatoes and baby carrots.

Place the beans in a dark-bottomed container that absorbs heat, such as a Dutch oven or saucepan, and insert that container in a baking bag. A large freezer bag will also work, if you put only the pan in the bag and then set the lid on top. I did the same with the carrots, but added about two tablespoons of water to provide steam. After cutting the new potatoes into eighths, I spread them evenly in a brown glass baking dish, drizzled a little olive oil on top of them, and stuck the dish in the bag.

Solar cooking is not for microwave-oven or fast-food addicts. It took more than three hours to cook these new potatoes (left) in the sun, but baby carrots, canned beans, and other food can be prepared in less time. (Photos by Lisa Sorg)

At 11:45 a.m., under partly sunny skies, with temperatures in the mid-80s, and no neighbors calling the police to report suspicious activity, I donned sunglasses to prevent being blinded by the glare, stuck the pans in the “oven,” and waited for El Sol to work his magic.

The first, rudimentary solar cookers were developed in the 1800s, but, according to the Joe Radabaugh book, Heaven’s Flame, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the United Nations began sponsoring programs to introduce these cookers into fuel-scarce cultures. In one study, Radabaugh reports, 500 wooden solar cookers were given to a refugee camp. Three months later, they had been chopped up and used for firewood. However, in a northern Mexican community, social scientists found that the cookers were still being used five years later. Yet, the UN concluded that solar cookers weren’t viable, and stopped funding solar cookers.

Solar cooking resources

Monica Salyer of Texas Solar Cookers: [email protected]

Texas Solar Energy Society:

Solar Oven Society:

Solar Cookers International:

This website has extensive information about worldwide solar-cooking initiatives, solar-oven schematics, and solar-oven recipes. The nonprofit group uses the proceeds from the sale of cookers, recipe books, and other paraphernalia to provide cookers to developing countries and refugee camps.

In the 1960s, Barbara Kerr reinvigorated the concept of cardboard solar cookers with her aptly named book, The Expanding World of Solar Box Cookers. The low-tech cooking technique attracted environmentalists, backwoods types, and other mavericks trying to live off the American power grid, but in developing countries, solar cooking can be a matter of survival. In Sudan, women, the traditional fuel-gatherers, walk up to 12 miles a day in search of wood, and during their forays can be raped or even killed. Moreover, wood is inefficient; about half of the energy in burned wood is released as carbon dioxide, which contributes to greenhouse gases and global warming. Gathering timber also reduces the supply of trees that can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, exacerbating the greenhouse-gas effect.

Back at the oven, one hour and 53 minutes later, I removed the lid from the beans, letting a cumulus cloud of steam escape. (Temperatures in these primitive cookers can reach 275 degrees.) The beans were blazing hot; the onions a perfect al dente. As experienced cooks understand, not all dishes cook at the same rate, especially when there is no controlling the heat. Two hours and 24 minutes from start time, the baby carrots were steamed to a scrumptious crunch. And the potatoes well, after three hours, they were still about an hour from being done.

In an era of microwaves and fast-food drive-thrus, solar cooking might seem painstakingly and unnecessarily slow. But it is effortless, and if you don’t have air-conditioning — another of my recent experiments — and don’t want to heat up the house with a stove, then it’s a workable option. And for kitchen klutzes, it’s safe. You’re merely harnessing sunlight, which, due to global dimming, a byproduct of air pollution, is decreasing. Get it while you can.

By Lisa Sorg

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