I was introduced to solar cooking back in 2009. We had only just arrived in La Paz, Mexico when I spotted a box-type solar oven on the bow of a catamaran in the marina we were staying at. (Oh, the days when marinas were plentiful, and we were foolish enough to pay to be alongside!) I asked a few questions and shortly after found myself lugging the contraption home so that I could try it out for a couple days. Although I really enjoyed the process and was more than impressed with the bread I baked, I knew that there was no room in my life for solar cooking.
The plywood box was almost 2-foot square, not to mention the reflectors that went on top of it. Try as I might I couldn’t find a space to store such a behemoth. I returned the oven to the boat down the dock (along with a loaf of bread) and left solar cooking to those yachties with two hulls and space to spare.
Fast forward almost a decade and I had the opportunity to use and review two much more compact solar ovens for my Blue Water Sailing column, Heather Francis Onboard. The simple, yet ingenious, foldable designs of the two solar ovens meant that storage was no longer an issue. I was keen to see what I could cook up.
Baking bread was my control experiment to get used to the temperature and unique characteristics of each oven. When I had that mastered I put the solar ovens through their paces. There was vegetable frittata lunches cooked underway and chicken baked on the beach. I made potatoes, rice, bread pudding, squid, even cookies using only the power of the sun. I learned a lot.
Like any cooking technique solar cooking has its strengths and its limitations.
No cooking method is prefect for every recipe, solar cooking included. The key to successful and satisfying cooking it is play up the strengths and work around the weaknesses. After almost 3 years of solar cooking experiments I have complied a list of hints and tricks that I learned along the way. I hope they make your solar cooking adventures a little more delicious.
SOLAR COOKING TIPS
- Keep the solar oven pointed at the sun.
Yes, this seems too obvious, but you will be surprised how quickly the sun moves across the sky. Not to mention all the objects that will cast shadows, especially on a boat. Pick the flattest, sunniest location possible and check your oven often, adjusting the direction and pitch to maximize sun exposure.
- Know your limits
Most solar cookers are sealed units designed to keep heat in. This means that a solar oven might reach 350°F/180°C but the heat is very moist. Great for baking, not great for browning. Choose recipes that suit.
- Test your metal
If using a box-type solar oven use metal pots and pans, preferably light weight and dark coloured, instead of silicon or glass. A light weigh pan requires less energy to heat up and the darker the colour the hotter it will get in the sun. The classic speckled, enamel camp cookware is perfect. When using a solar oven like the Go Sun Sport I find that cooking directly on the steel tray to yield the best results, no need to waste baking paper.
- Cooking times are only guidelines.
Since a solar oven is dependant solar energy to generate heat it is affected by the angle of the sun, clouds and even shadows. All of which can change during your cook time. Consider any cook times listed in a recipe an estimate and use your common sense to determine when a dish is cooked.
- Stop peeking!
To ensure all that hard-earned heat stays inside try to resist frequently opening your solar oven. Difficult, I know, especially when using a solar oven that you can’t see into. However, every time you open your solar oven you lower the temperature inside and then lengthen the cook time. Making the wait that much more unbearable.
- The nose knows.
If cook times are only guidelines and you shouldn’t open the solar oven too frequently how to you know when your bread is ready? I find the best indicator is smell. Cooking food releases the most mouth watering of aromas as it nears doneness. Bread baking becomes fragrant just before it is ready, chicken makes your head turn not when it is raw but when it is roasting hot. Pay attention to your nose and you’re well on your way to a delicious meal.
- Keep it clean
It is important to keep your solar oven clean. Any reflective or clear surfaces that harness the sun light will be affected by finger prints and food smudges. Using a mix 50/50 of vinegar and hot water on a soft cloth is a safe, all-natural way to cut through grease and grime.
- You can cook meat in a solar oven!
Choosing meat that is free of bones and skin and cutting everything into small, evenly-sized portions will ensure quicker cooking times. I find regularly pouring off any fats and juices that are rendered during the cooking process also speeds cooking times. If in doubt of whether your meat is properly cooked test with a digital thermometer.
**Full disclosure: I received the Go Sun Solar Stove and Solar Flair Solar Oven for free so that I could test and review them for Blue Water Sailing Magazine. All opinions here, and in the article, are my own.