Solar Oven Cooking
An Earth Day experiment yields more fun – and appreciation – than expected.
A few months ago when Hollin Meadows Elementary School was preparing for its seventh annual Earth Day event, I was asked by outdoor education instructor Jen Finnegan if I would do a cooking demonstration in one of the two solar ovens owned by the Hollin Meadows science lab.
I jumped. Then cringed. What the heck did I know about solar ovens! I’m a dual-fuel gal, gas cooktop, electric oven, not exactly eco-friendly except that I’m a very efficient cook. But I had accepted, so it was game on.
What looked like an open cardboard box with shiny surfaces on the inside sat on my coffee table for a couple weeks until I started researching just how I was going to make this thing work. I quickly found out there was no “Solar Oven Cooking for Dummies” website,” which would have been immensely helpful.
But there were scads of blogs by enthusiasts – the kind of people who head out for weekend-long cook-offs in the Arizona dessert. Blueberry pie, people! Short ribs! Really? I was thinking I’d be lucky to heat up some water.
But the more I delved, the more I got hooked. First, in addition to ovens you can purchase, many of which come with useful accessories, there were many postings of custom-made ovens. My favorite was a welded curve of sheet metal that looked like it should be in the Museum of Modern Art – but also ones easily made at home with ordinary materials.
Second, solar ovens are becoming more common in developing countries where sources of wood for fuel are disappearing. UNICEF estimates that 35 percent of the world’s fuel wood could be replaced by solar oven box cookers. Moreover, solar oven don’t produce wood smoke, a major contributor to the respiratory infections that kill 5 million children each year. Creative, affordable and life-saving? All good news. I needed to start cooking.
I had some limitations. First, the Sunspot solar oven I’d been given was designed for educational purposes. It was barely 8 inches square, so my blueberry pie plate wasn’t going to fit (ha!).
Second, despite Hollin Meadow science teacher Jason Pittman's assurance that this thing got “really hot” if I achieved the right angle, I was never able to get the internal temperature up higher than 350 degrees – a temperature that quickly dropped the minute the sun went behind a cloud or you put any food into it, cold or room temperature.
My weeks of testing in the backyard were frustrating but fascinating, often finding me heading out to check the read on my $3 Walmart oven thermometer and heading back inside to wait … and wait.
My initial bright idea was to pop popcorn because it would be so cool to hear it exploding. But after reading that the internal temperature of the kernel had to reach 400 degrees (and one totally failed attempt), I packed that in.
Eggs were my big success. I customized an aluminum muffin pan by cutting off four of the six cups, shot in a little cooking spray, two eggs the a dash of salt and pepper, and 40 minutes later I had perfect whites and overcooked yolks that were actually pretty tasty, according to my 8-year old daughter, an egg connoisseur.
I moved on. Soft vegetables, zucchini and yellow squash drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper were packaged in a parchment envelope and left to cook for – well, it seems hours. In the end, they were cooked through and flavorful. I chopped them into a rice pilaf the next night.
At Earth Day, the oven reached 350 degrees in 90 minutes. Eggs and the veggie packet went in, and not long after we were enjoying the fruits of our labor. I had quite a few visitors to my display in the Hollin Meadows courtyard, including Rep. Jim Moran and state Del. Scott Surovell. The kids enjoyed tracking the progress of the eggs as they moved from transparent to opaque, and my son tried to abscond with the cooked vegetables but was made to share.
This summer we’re going to try building our own solar oven out of a few saved cardboard boxes and some easily obtained household items. It will be bigger, I assure you, because I’m now stoked to try many new things. And maybe, if the predictions of a really hot summer come to be, I might just be popping popcorn.
Next week, I promise that posting on insulin resistance.
Mary Porter is a nutrition counselor living in the Fort Hunt area. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org