Tips from Solar Oven Chef

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Smithsonian associate editor Bruce Hathaway guest blogs for us, chiming in about his love for solar cooking:

The first days of May here in the Washington, D.C., area are usually ideal for solar cooking. The recent spate of rain-filled days has kept us from truly enjoying the out doors, but it won't for long. My wife, Karen, and I are coming out of hibernation (we keep the thermostat set at 60 during the winter) and into the front yard, where we have several solar ovens.

My favorite recipe to make in a solar oven is Aunt Joan’s spaghetti sauce, although we also use the cookers for all kinds of chili and other bean dishes. Aunt Joan had a beauty parlor, and uncle Harry owned a cigar store; both lived long, pleasure-filled lives. They drove Lincoln Continentals and had no interest in recycling or any other (to their minds) "eco-hippie nonsense." When solar-cooking her sauce, I often hear Aunt Joan’s voice in my mind: "Bruce! You think too much!"

Once you start thinking about cooking, though, solar cookers make a lot of sense. They simply focus sunlight and capture its heat in a small, oven-like space; some can reach nearly 400 degrees. Using them produces zero carbon dioxide. And many of the organizations that sell solar cookers also promote solar cooking in developing countries.

"There was a time when cooking on wood fires didn’t bother our planet much because there were a lot less people," Darwin Curtis told me in an email. He co-founded Solar Household Energy Inc. (SHE), (Ed. -- link fixed) a non-profit organization that developed and sells the HotPot solar cooker. "Now," says Curtis, "by an extremely conservative estimate, there are four hundred million cooking fires burning around the world."

The fires produce a lot of greenhouse gases, and "soot is a big problem for the—mostly—women doing the cooking. A lot of it goes into their lungs." Cooking on wood fires also results in deforestation.

The HotPot is my favorite solar cooker for several reasons. It's affordable—about $125—and is just a big round glass pot with a metal interior pot, surrounded by an easily foldable array of aluminum mirrors. And it looks really cool. Our neighbors have told their kids that Karen and I are actually nice people and that all the solar devices in the yard are just our attempts to reconnect with E.T.

The Solar Oven Society Sport is another cooker we use. (A good site for comparison shopping is the Solar Cookers International Marketplace Web site.) My problem with the Sport is that you have to fiddle with clips on a big exterior lid and remove the pot lids to stir your stew. (The HotPot has an easy-to-handle single lid.) But the Sport probably holds heat better than the HotPot on a windy day.

You can bake and roast in solar cookers, but simmering is what they do best. I have to admit that solar-cooked sushi rice is—so far—an inedible, mushy disaster. Solar-cooking rice or pasta is difficult because after you put them in the water, it takes too long for the water to return to near boiling. However, you can bring the water to near boiling in the cooker, then take it inside to the stove to simmer your pasta or rice and still substantially reduce the electricity or natural gas used.

Aunt Joan would be asking how I plan to brown the beef and pork for her spaghetti sauce. Can't be done very well in most solar cookers: they don't get hot enough. But I just found a solar wiener roaster that I think will do the job. It costs $300, and that's a lot of money. But food done right does taste so much better.

-- Bruce Hathaway

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