It's exciting to see how much attention solar cooking is getting these days. After all, what better way to harness the power of the sun than to use it for heat? And what better way to use heat than to cook delicious, nutricious food with zero use of fossil fuels? From TreeHugger's picks of top solar cookers through the award-winning $7 solar cooker to DIY instructions for a solar cooker using an umbrella and some tin foil, there's no doubt that solar cooking offers huge benefits for villagers in developing countries, outdoors enthusiasts and off-grid fanatics alike.
But unfortunately, much of the advice about solar cookers seems to assume they are a drop-in replacement for any type of cooking. Just as you wouldn't make a poached egg in a deep-fat frier
The Dos and Don't of Using a Solar Cooker
- Take your time: Solar cookers take time to warm up, and they don't reach very high temperatures. (I've gotten mine to 340 degrees on a clear, warm day.) They are ideal for crock-pot type recipes that can cook for a long time. Because of the low temps and lack of air circulation, food is unlikely to dry out or burn. You can easily leave your food in the cooker in the morning, and it'll be ready for your evening meal.
- Focus: To keep temperatures at an optimal level, it helps to move the solar cooker every hour or so, refocusing it to face the sun. Most models also allow you to tilt them up and down so you can capture the maximum amount of energy.
- Cloudy days are a killer: You might be tempted to try cooking on a semi-cloudy day. Afterall, the sun keeps poking it's head out from time to time. But chances are you'll be wasting your time
- Consider a preheat: Bulky foods can take time to get up to speed. We've had great success starting off stews or rice on the stove, and then placing them in the solar cooker once the water is boiling. Think of it like a haybox cooker.
- Browning is unlikely: Again, because of the relatively low temperatures, most food doesn't seem to brown or caramelize in a slow cooker. That's no problem with steamed fish, rice, baked sweet potatoes and the like
- Forget about pizza: I get pretty tired of seeing solar-cooked pizza recipes. I'm all for renewable energy, but I am also a pizza-fascist. Given that a commercial pizza oven can reach temperatures over 1000 degrees Celsius, and even at home I like to bake pizza at 550 in a convection oven, the idea of baking a pizza in a solar cooker seems ridiculous. I'd rather just eat salad.
Those are just some initial thoughts on how to get the best out of your solar cooker (and how to avoid some disappointing mistakes). If it ever stops raining here in NC, I plan on trying out some more recipes in the near future
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