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Food & Drink Blog

Solar cooking has trials, tribulations

by Austen Diamond
- Posted // 2011-07-13 - Cooking with a solar oven requires one key ingredient that I lacked this weekend: sunshine. Experts will share tips on working through this, and other, pesky problems at a solar cooking workshop this weekend.

Cooking acorn squash on Sunday and sweet potato fries on Monday in a Sun Oven—on loan from Wasatch Community Gardens—sounded easy enough. I had plans to make borscht from ingredients straight off the farm, but that seemed like too much work at the time. I consider myself an above-average cook, and I love baking, but summertime baking in a balmy, second-floor studio is awful. That, on top of the environmental benefits, got me intrigued by the idea of solar cooking.

So, the Sun Oven is a simple contraption with a steel bottom, a double-pained plastic top and, what appeared to be Weapon X: black plastic sides. It comes with a mountable reflector, but after a couple minutes of noodling with that to no avail, I gave up. It didn’t matter. It began to rain both days only a few hours after set up. Luckily, I own a small toaster oven, which finished off the cooking both days.

Lessons learned: Check the weather forecast. Begin cooking at 11 a.m. (although it is prohibitive to someone that works a desk job). Take notes from a master solar cooker.

I think it’s really hard to cook something in a Sun Oven, but the facilitator of this weekend’s Community Garden workshop thinks differently: “It’s really hard to burn something. These ovens have a gasket to keep the moisture in. Anything that you could put in a slow cooker, you could put cook in a solar oven,” Jonathon Krausert says. He will present the workshop on Saturday with his wife, Julie Nelson.

Krausert has nearly a decade of experience in cooking with the contraptions, and he says he uses his oven at least twice a week, for things like squash, lasagna, casseroles, banana bread, etc. Although it won’t brown, he adds that you can even bake bread, especially if you start around 11 a.m. The oven supposedly heats to 400 degrees (in my experience, it only warmed up to 250, even before it became cloudy) during these peak solar hours. For more dense dishes, cooks can set up the oven by angling it 15-20 degrees clockwise from a direct line with the sun. As the sun continues west, it will preheat, heat and thoroughly cook a dish. Heat can be regulated by the time of day or changing the angle away from direct sunlight. The peak months for using a solar oven are mid-April to the end of September.

The Sun Oven brand costs over $200, but in his workshop, Krausert will demonstrate how to build a DIY version in 20 minutes from cardboard, aluminum foil and black paint, although it won’t be as efficient. Krausert will also demonstrate his solar dehydrator, as well as share books, recipes and websites at the workshop.

“It’s kind of an exciting challenge. Once you start playing around with it and working with the sun and around the weather,” he says. “You just have to practice with it.”

I guess that’s encouraging enough for me to try again, maybe next time with borscht.

Visit these notes from last year for more information and recipes.

Solar Cooking Workshop
Wasatch Community Gardens
Saturday, July 16
11 a.m.-1 p.m.
$10
Registration required

Picture courtesy of Wasatch Community Gardens

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