Solar cookers are an invention that has been around for centuries, but has only come into vogue recently as an alternative to both electricity and gas. With a solar cooker you can use your daylight time to prepare and cook food. Obviously, this means that you will have to make some changes, and of course you can’t completely get away from electricity or gas – we still need to cook after dark and in winter, when there may not be enough light.
So it’s best to think of solar cooking as augmentation for what you already do as a cook. Solar cookers are not very expensive and I’ve reviewed a few here for you to choose from. Because they don’t cost that much, it won’t take long for the cooker to pay for itself in saved gas and power. From that point on, every meal you cook using the power of the sun will put money in your pocket.
I should say that using solar cooking isn’t just about saving some money or the planet. It’s also a form of cooking that provides unique flavors and textures. So if you really love cooking and are a foodie, there are actual benefits to using solar cookers. Forget all those other pretentious food people and their sous vide fad – this is the most incredible way to cook food long term.
In this article I’m going to look at the general rules for cooking with solar energy and how this differs from what you already know. I’ve also scoured the web to look for tips and tricks that will help enhance the overall experience.
Types of Solar Cookers
In order to have some context for the information in this article, you have to be aware of the three different type of solar cooker out there. All solar cookers collect solar rays and then concentrate them into a small cooking area. You get three designs that achieve this in different ways. Solar box cookers have pots inside the box and stay closed during the cooking process. Parabolic cookers look like a satellite dish and beam sun rays onto your pot. Here you can open the pot and do things like stir the food. You can also fry food, which you can’t do with a box cooker or with the third type of cooker, known as a panel cooker. Panel cookers are a little of both of the other designs. They also allow for more than one pot, like a box cooker, whereas a parabolic cooker can usually only heat one pot at a time.
If you want to know more about solar cookers in terms of how they work, go have a look at my solar cooker article. Now we can get down to the actual cooking part of solar cooking.
General Rules for Solar Cooking
Cooking with solar requires a very different approach to what most of us are used to. First of all, cooking times are much longer than they are for gas or electric. It can be a little weird to start cooking your lunch and dinner around breakfast time, but it will make perfect sense once you have actually done it.
Solar cooking also doesn’t need you to be there all the time. That’s a real source of anxiety at first, because usually you have to attend to your cooking every minute, otherwise you’ll burn up the food or (worse) burn down the house. Solar cookers take a long time to reach the right temperature. So the types of meals that we make using these cookers are prepared in such a way that you don’t have to keep much of an eye on them. In fact, if you are using a box cooker you can’t do anything about them because the food can’t be accessed while cooking. That’s because the cooker reaches its temperature partly by trapping and isolating air inside the insulated box.
Most of your food is going to be cooked in a sealed container for the duration of the process. The exception to this are baked goods like bread and cookies. If you are frying something, then obviously this also happens as it would on an electric burner. Once the oil has reached its correct heat level then you fry your food and take it out. Other than that, you’ll mostly be doing other things, like going to work or watching TV.
Timing Isn’t Everything
To give you an idea of the sort of time span we’re talking about here, let’s look at specific examples. Cooking chicken in a typical electric oven may take up to two hours. In a solar cooker you’re looking at twice that amount of time. Yet chicken from a solar cooker is usually incredibly soft and juicy. Stews are a very popular type of dish for solar cooking. The main reason for this is that it basically doesn’t matter how long you leave a stew in a solar cooker. If you’re having stew for dinner you can basically leave it in all day and dish up when you come back home.
The most important tip I’ve seen when it comes to solar cooking is that you should put the idea of overcooking completely out of your mind. What matters is getting your food into the cooker as early as possible in the day, so that you can benefit from as much sunlight as possible.
You can look up cooking times for different types of dishes online, but here are some common examples. It takes between one and two hours to cook an egg, make rice, or cook chicken. Potatoes take up to four hours, as do normal cuts of meat. If you want to do a whole roast you may be in for eight hours of cooking, with soups and stews also taking five hours and up. As you can see, planning is everything.
Your cookware is an essential component of solar cooking. You shouldn’t just try to use your existing pots in your solar cooker. For the cooker to work properly you need cookware that is dark in color, which will retain and accumulate heat. Obviously, pots that are designed for solar cookers are best, but you can still get perfectly fine results with something like a black granite pot. Just make sure any cookware you do get has properly tight-fitting lids. The idea is to keep as much heat in as possible.
There are some neat tricks when it comes to using cookware. For example, in solar cookers it tends to be better to split the food among two or three small pots than to cook it all together. If you are using a box cooker you can also put dishes that need more heat further toward the back, where it will be hotter. You can use one big pot to contain several smaller uncovered pots, so the larger covered pot basically acts like an oven.
Panel cookers work best with clear cookware that can act as a heat trap. They effectively turn each pot into its own little cooker.
Causing a Stir
In normal cooking one of the most common phrases you’ll read in a recipe is “stir frequently”. With solar cooking you can keep your spoon to yourself, thanks very much. In 99.9% of cases you don’t need to stir food you make in a solar cooker. On gas or electric systems there’s a risk of burning or uneven cooking, but the ultra-slow heat of a solar cooker makes this a non-issue.
If at all possible you should never lift the lid from the pot until you are ready to actually eat the food. If there’s a good reason to look in the pot before the food is actually done, then do it as quickly as possible or the lost heat could set you back hours.
Take it Easy
Just as when you learned to cook with other types of cookers, it’s best to start off with simple foods when you enter the world of solar cooking. Try to bake a basic bread or cook some chicken. Potatoes are another easy starter dish. Spend a few days with your new cooker and try various things. Don’t worry too much if you have a few flops – this is a learning experience. After getting a handle on the basics you will soon be making more elaborate fare with confidence.
It’s common to boil things like eggs and potatoes on an electric stove, but solar cooking is surprisingly light on its water requirements. With the exception of stews and other saucy dishes, you usually don’t need to use water to cook things. This is an especially useful aspect of solar cooking when you go out into the wild, where water for drinking and cooking might be scarce.
When a recipe explicitly calls for milk, water, or another liquid, you’ll need a bit less if using a solar cooker. Since it’s all sealed so well, water tends to escape as steam to a lesser extent. In some cases this can mean watery food, so a bit of trial and error will help you figure out what the right amounts are.
Use a Thermometer
Many solar cookers come with a built-in thermometer. If yours doesn’t, you can consider buying one separately. This essential piece of equipment will let you know if your cooker is reaching and maintaining the right temperature. If it isn’t, you can adjust its orientation towards the sun to get either more heat or less, depending on what you need.
Keep an Eye on Your Elevation
If you like hiking in the mountains or live some place where the air is thin, then you should be aware that the thinner the air is the lower the temperature at which water will boil. In general this will lengthen the amount of time it takes to cook things, regardless of whether you add water or not. Be sure to allow for the additional cooking time if you are up high.
Too Much To Say, Too Little Time
This is just a smattering of the community knowledge on solar cooking that’s out there. While these tips are pretty general and apply to solar cooking as a whole, I do recommend looking up tips for the specific type of cooker that you have, since each style of cooker comes with its own special considerations.