Children of the Sun
When people talk about using solar power in everyday life, they usually mean making electricity so they can watch TV or run a fan. However, one common daily activity that we all take part in is actually poorly suited for solar electricity.
I’m of course talking about cooking. Preparing food by cooking it is one of the most important parts of civilization. It’s why we can say we are not savages, but using solar electricity to generate the sort of heat we need for cooking food is pretty inefficient. Even the best commercial solar panels throw away 75% of the energy that hits them from the sun.
A common answer to this problem is to use natural gas for cooking and heating purposes, but that ties you to another sort of utility – gas. So how can we still use solar for cooking, without converting it to electricity first? That’s where solar cookers come into play. These simple yet amazing devices can use the power of the sun to cook your food. Yes, they might require some lifestyle changes, but if you’re willing to be open minded, a solar cooker can cut the final cord to third-party energy providers.
Those of you who are new to solar ovens might want to skip our list of best solar cookers and scroll further down to read up on the buying decisions you need to make. Then again, you may also want to know what you’re dealing with first, so here we go:
Best Portable Choice: Sunflair Mini Portable Solar Oven
One of the best uses for solar cookers is when you are away from civilization. From going camping to exploring remote and exotic places, it helps if you can have a hot meal anywhere. This Sunflair cooker is reportedly very popular, at least if you listen to the people who made it. But then they would say that, wouldn’t they?
The Sunflair is incredibly portable. Since this is effectively a panel cooker, it doesn’t need a closed box shape, so it can collapse down into a flat bag. It also comes with a collapsible silicone pot that acts as an effective heat trap. They’ve also included a thermometer, because it’s essential to know if your food has reached the proper temperature or not.
Because it’s so simple, it takes basically no time to set up. They’ve also put quite a bit of thought into this cooker as a camping tool. It’s made from material that dries quickly and it floats, so you won’t lose it if it gets swept into the water. You should also know that the company donates a portion of their profits to gifting solar cookers to people who need them the most across the globe.
The main downside is that this cooker is pretty small, so manage your expectations.
For the Serious Cook: All-American Sun Oven
OK, I’ll be the first to admit that when I first saw photos of the All-American Sun Oven I thought it wasn’t finished. Fully assembled, it looks like a kit of parts. That’s just thanks to the fact that the reflector panels don’t fold down as neatly as they could. Although we’re off to a rough start, the truth is that this crude-looking solar cooker actually performs well.
It has a maximum heat of 400 degrees Celsius, which is one of the hottest heat specs I’ve seen. They’ve also put a lot of thought into the materials in use and how to maximize heat. The reflectors are polished to a near mirror finish and made from aluminum. It won’t rust and helps keep the whole package light enough to carry. It’s a rugged, wind-resistant oven with a generous capacity. The price is significant, but you get what you pay for. This solar oven is set to last you many years.
The main downside is that this is a big clunky and rather dated oven that looks like something from 30 years ago. Still, if you can get past the minor clunkiness and have the foresight to put it on a wheeled table for convenience, this is a great choice, especially if your main focus is cooking performance to the exclusion of all else.
Best Solar Oven for Beginners: LeJoy Garden
This evacuated tube cooker claims that it can cook foods in 15 minutes. On the face of it I was skeptical about this until I looked at the setup. The food goes into a stainless steel holder, which then slides into the glass tube. Given the limited space for food and how concentrated the solar energy is, it’s possible that on a really sunny day, as LeJoy says, this cooker will reach a temperature of 330 degrees Celsius, which will cook just about anything. Once your food is cooked, you can close up the cooker to keep it all warm. It’s a clean setup too; simple to close up and pack away. The cooker has enough capacity to feed about two people.
It uses a very cool concept and is one of the cheapest cookers you can buy, but it is a little fragile. The latest stock has been strengthened to prevent breakages during shipping, which should sort out issues with earlier items. I actually think this would be a good starter cooker. The price is right and it’s easy to use, so if you are looking for a first cooker this could be the one.
SolSource Sport Solar Cooker
The design of the SolSource just screams “beach holiday” thanks to the bold color choice of the frame. It’s a neat, portable parabolic cooker that folds up easily and has a sturdy tripod so you can set it down just about anywhere. It uses those newfangled self-healing polymers, which apparently help keep the mirrors shiny. This cooker only goes to 140 degrees Celsius, which means long cooking times or limiting food types. The good news is that you can do open pot cooking because it is a parabolic cooker.
This cooker folds up into a carry bag and, apparently, it typically takes 3-5 minutes to take apart and pack up. This depends on how many opposable thumbs you have, I suppose. This is the sort of thing you want for frying up some eggs and bacon on a camping trip. The price of the SolSource Sport is pretty hefty, but if portability is important to you this neat little cooker could be worth the asking price.
This is another evacuated glass tube cooker, but with a much stronger focus on portability. It’s a tiny and light cooker weighing in at a miniscule 900 grams. Not bad for something that has a glass component. The tube is enclosed in a foam shell that can be zipped up quickly. GoSun says the foam padding in the shell has been designed to take a knock, making it very travel safe and preventing the glass tube from being shattered.
This little sucker can reach 288 degrees Celsius, which means it’s going to be pretty fast at cooking stuff in the small confines of the tube. Then again, it also means that this is really only suitable as a personal cooker. You won’t be feeding a party, that’s for sure. If you live the outdoors and are braving it with a backpack, then this smart and fast solar cooker could make your travels much more comfortable. The price is pretty good for what you get, and it can literally save your life if you need to sterilize drinking water.
The No-hassle Option: Solavore Sport Solar Oven
The first thing that I like about the Solavore Sport is how it looks. This would go perfectly on the balcony or in the backyard of a nice modern suburban home. It doesn’t use external reflectors, which helps preserve the clean looks. There’s enough space inside this box cooker for two sizable pots, which are, incidentally, included in the asking price. In fact, this is a complete solar cooking kit. It comes with a water pasteurization tool, a recipe book, and a thermometer too. You literally just need to put your food in the pots and get going. Given all the stuff that’s included, this is one of the best budget-friendly cookers I’ve seen. It looks more expensive than it is, and it’s easy to operate. A great overall choice.
Silver Balloon Solar Cookers
Wow, just look at this crazy thing! Who would have thought that you could make an inflatable solar cooker? When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. This whole contraption only weighs 6 ounces, or about 170 grams. That means you can stuff it in a backpack or other carry bag. It inflates into a small cooker that can reach 170-ish Celsius. It’s not very expensive, so campers can each have their own, which is probably needed thanks to the relatively small capacity. A great survival tool, it has some neat modern features such as a solar funnel and surface that won’t blind you. It gets hot enough to purify water. You also get a steel pan, so no need to buy cookware. It’s a neat gadget for sure, but for anything other than this specific camping use, you are better off looking at something else.
Where do Solar Cookers Come From?
While someone might have used the power of the sun to cook something in history long ago, the earliest confirmed use of a solar cooker is back in 1767. A Swiss chap named Horace de Saussure created the first solar cooker as a sort of curiosity. While his cooker worked just fine and there’s plenty of documentation on how they cooked and ate stuff using it, nothing much happened on the solar cooker front until about the 1970s in the USA. In recent years, thanks to new materials and manufacturing methods, solar cookers are affordable and effective. But how do they actually work?
How Do Solar Cookers Work?
There are a few principles that solar cookers can take advantage of to turn rather mild sunlight into the sort of heat that we need to boil an egg, make a stew, or cook a roast. Cookers can work by collecting and concentrating solar power on one spot. When you use a magnifying glass to set something on fire, you are doing the same thing. The difference is that solar cookers use a reflective material and specific shape to herd all those light rays together on the spot where you put the food.
Then you also need to absorb and trap that light as heat. This is done by having cookware made from materials that hold on to heat for a long time. It’s also why solar cookware is black, instead of the silver color of most traditional cooking utensils. Cooking can also be done using a greenhouse effect, where light rays enter a glass lid or door and then can’t escape, so they heat up the interior. Just leaving a lid on your solar pot can help. These are not mutually exclusive ways of cooking with sunlight; solar cookers use all of these principles to reach temperatures high enough to cook food.
Types of Solar Cooker
Although all solar cookers use the power of the sun to make you a hot meal, there are a few different designs that all do the same thing. More or less. There are three main types of solar cooker: box, parabolic, and panel.
As their name suggests, box cooker are, well, boxes. However, these are very special boxes made from materials that can withstand the heat. This is probably the most common type of solar cooker in the world. The box itself is insulated around all sides except for the top. The top of the box is usually a clear glass panel with a reflector on top of it. The reflector is propped up at the correct angle for reflecting sunlight through the glass top.
Thanks to their shape and size, these cookers are great for cooking with multiple pots inside. The glass top basically turns it into a small greenhouse. Light comes in but can’t get out. Because the box is insulated, the heat has nowhere to go, so the inside gets hotter and hotter.
How hot? These cookers can hit anywhere from 90 degrees C to 200 degrees C – much like the range of an electric stove or oven. It takes a while to get there, though, which is why it takes up to three hours to cook food this way. On the upside, depending on the size of the box you can put several pots in at once, so it is a good solution for large amounts of cooking.
You can even make bread in these box cookers and they are pretty cheap to make. You can’t fry anything in oil with these and they don’t work that well when the sun is low in the sky. Overall, however, this is the people’s cooker.
In case you don’t know what parabolic is, just think of the satellite dishes we see everywhere. The role of a satellite dish is to reflect and focus a signal onto a receiver. The shape of the dish is what directs the incoming radiation to that single spot. Parabolic cookers do the same thing, except instead of radio waves it’s sunlight that we are collecting. Also, instead of a radio receiver, the light is being directed onto the bottom of a cooking surface at the focal point of all the collected beams.
Since your cooking doesn’t have to happen inside a sealed box, you can fry and grill things with this type of cooker. This is also a much faster solar cooker that can reach temperatures of 350 degrees C! So your food can be cooked much faster – about as long as electricity would take.
Parabolic cookers are awesome, but they cost a lot compared to box cookers. They also need adjustment to follow the sun.
Panel cookers are sort of part parabolic and part box cooker. Instead of a parabolic dish, they consist of several reflective panels that form an open box. Instead of dark cookware, panel cookers use clear pots and cooking bags to act as heat traps. Each cooking container becomes its own little box cooker.
Panel cookers don’t become particularly hot. They usually top out at around 150 degrees C, but you can still cook most things on one, including meat and casseroles.
Bonus Cooker Type: Evacuated Tube Cookers
This is a new solar cooker type that is still gaining popularity. It’s called an evacuated tube cooker. If you’ve read my article on the types of solar water heaters then you already know about evacuated tubes.
The evacuated tube is a strong glass tube with the air sucked out. This creates an incredibly efficient heat trap, getting hotter and hotter until the tube effectively becomes a cooking element. These tubes can reach temperatures just shy of 300 degrees C. That’s more than hot enough to cook anything from meat to bread.
One of the main advantages of this cooker type is that it still performs well even if the sky is overcast. The downside is that you need to be observant of the glass to avoid having it burst or shatter. Just follow the warnings in the manual closely and you’ll be fine.
How is Solar Cooking Different?
In some ways, cooking with a solar cooker is pretty much like using a stove. For example, frying things with a parabolic solar cooker is the same sort of experience as elsewhere. In other respects, it’s completely different. To get an in-depth idea of what solar ovens are like, give my solar cooking tips article a read. There are a lot of details there you can use before deciding to go down this path.
The first thing you have to understand is that solar cookers work on a different timescale than electric or gas cookers. You can basically forget about the idea of overcooking your food. Stews, casseroles, and other similar dishes spend hours and hours in the cooker, which is why many people will put the uncooked food in at the start of the day and then dish it up for dinner eight hours later.
Solar cooking is also surprisingly waterless. You can cook eggs and potatoes just as they are in a sealed solar cooking pot. Baking bread and other baked goods can happen in the open, but most solar cooking happens inside a container that also acts as a heat trap.
This means you have to let go of the idea that you need to constantly check on the cooking. Every time you open the lid you set your cooking back significantly. We have learned to constantly check our food because high-energy cooking methods always run the risk of burning the food or overcooking it. While it’s certainly not impossible for this to happen when cooking with solar, it’s very unlikely. This means the most important solar cooking skill to learn is the ability to chill out. There’s a lot more to be said for the art of making food with a solar cooker, but I’ll leave you to check out the dedicated article I mentioned above.
The Pros and Cons of Solar Cooking
Now you know all the basics of solar cooking – how it works, what types there are, and a bit about how it needs a different attitude toward cooking itself. What we haven’t talked about are the overall pros and cons. If you are seriously considering making solar cooking a part of your new energy habits, then you need to keep some things in mind. Let’s start on the positive side.
The most obvious advantage of this cooking method is that it’s the most green cooking solution of them all. Sunlight is free and if you use it to cook your food you aren’t making a net difference to anything. Apart from the cost of the cooker (which tends to be low), you never have to pay for any sort of fuel. No wood, gas, charcoal, or electricity – just clean and natural nuclear fusion energy.
Another big positive is how great the food itself is. As I said above, you basically can’t burn food with a solar cooker. Since most dishes are cooked in a sealed container, they are always juicy. Flavors have nowhere to go but into the food.
Solar cookers are also a great off-grid solution because it makes you truly independent. If you are using gas or another fuel source you still have to buy into someone’s infrastructure. If it goes down for some reason, you’re in trouble. Not so if you cook with solar cooking.
Another often overlooked advantage of these cookers is that they are flameless, which mean you can cook in places that do not allow open flames!
Now for the downsides.
The most obvious one is that you can’t cook at night. For most of us with day jobs this is a problem, because the only time we get to cook is after-hours. Ironically, this is mitigated somewhat by the second downside, which is how long it takes to cook anything. Since you can’t overcook or burn anything in a solar cooker, you can start cooking before you leave for the day. It’s still an overall downside since this isn’t nearly as convenient and you can’t cook indoors. So if its raining or really overcast, you need a backup plan.
There are also some real dangers involved if you don’t use solar cookers properly. Eye damage, accidental fires, and other related issues can happen if these items are used incorrectly. Always closely follow the safety advice included with your cooker.
Rolling Your Own
When you get down to it, solar cookers are pretty simple devices, which means most people could build one themselves instead of spending money on commercial ones. Your mileage may of course vary, but there are plenty of guides on the web to help you make your own solar cooker. I’ve even seen one that was improvised from those reflective car sunscreens. The ingenuity of the crowd never ceases to amaze. Personally, I’d rather just buy one of the fine cookers we’ll be looking at below, but if you’re really low on cash or are of the DIY bent, it’s an option.
For the rest of us, these solar cookers are just a credit card swipe away from making us something delicious.
The Hot Topic
If you’ve never seen or heard of solar cookers before reading this article, then I’m pretty sure you’ve been blown away by how effective they are. If you’ve worked with them years ago, it’s amazing how far the technology has come. They seem so simple, yet can do a sophisticated job.
While it’s not possible to go completely solar with your cooking, these cookers can put a serious dent in your energy bill. If most of your cooking could be in a solar cooker, they pay for themselves before you know it.