This was originally published almost ten years ago and has been re-published in Desert Exposure and other magazines over the years. I decided it deserves a repeat on this site.
I’ve used a solar oven now for two decades, and there was one year of my life when a solar oven was the only real way I had to cook my food. I could use my fireplace, but even in the winter, the fireplace wasn’t nearly as easy. It needed constant tending, and it coated my shiny steel cookware solid black with soot.
I’m in a small city now, but when I moved to the country in 1994 and began using my solar oven every day, I realized I loved to go outside to turn the oven. I worked at my computer all day and watched nature through my windows, and if it weren’t for that oven, the habits of a lifetime could have kept that window between nature and me. But solar cooking saved me. It “forced” me outside, and so I went.
First, I noticed the clouds. Were they moving this way and might slow down my cooking? Or would they pass me by? And look at that raven flying with the hawks!
I noticed the heat, I noticed the wind – powerful where I was on the western bajada of the Chiricahua Mountains. Time to set a chair beside the oven so a dust devil doesn’t try to tip it over. The vultures are rising this morning. And phoebes are making their nests again in the eaves. The day – the sunshine – feels wonderful. So different than standing before a stove!
The solar oven forced me to take regular small breaks in my workday – something I’d known for years I needed to do, had been counseled about, but just couldn’t do. My German work ethic was too strong to allow such “decadent” behavior. What hundreds of dollars of therapy couldn’t accomplish, my solar oven did: it attracted me with its practicality, then drew me outside so the day could whisper its seductions: Isn’t the sunshine lovely on the skin? Wouldn’t it be nice to sit for a spell in the sun and close your eyes? Just a moment…. And I did. Then I returned to my work, peaceful, satisfied, knowing that life is good, Nature cares for us, and I’m even learning how to care for myself a little better.
Speaking of decadence, have you ever eaten a sweet potato cooked to a carmelized mush in the sun? It needs nothing to enhance it. I discovered this one day, when I didn’t want to go back inside quite yet to get the salt, butter, plate and fork. It was a lovely winter afternoon, one of those warm ones so common in the southwest. I sat in the sun in a chair and gingerly peeled one end of the orange tuber held in my potholder, while looking across the mesquites to the oaks where I could see a single hawk sitting sentry. I took a bite of a very sweet potato, dazed and delighted.
Some people theorize that solar energy affects the cellular structure of food in a way that electric and gas heat simply cannot – and I believe they’re right. Decades of solar meals confirm this for me: the food simply tastes better. One day, perhaps we’ll have scientific research to explain exactly why, but I’m satisfied that it’s true.
Solar ovens are also forgiving. One day, I was so focused on some project that I entirely forgot the casserole dish filled with simple rice and water that I’d put in the oven – four hours earlier. If I’d put it on the stove, I’d have burned it up long ago. I ran outdoors and found: my oven was no longer directed at the sun, but it was still over two-hundred degrees (they go to 350 or even 400), the rice was cooked, and moist as if it were being perfectly cared for in a steam tray.
Solar ovens are designed to hold in all the heat they gain, and by necessity they also hold in moisture. So, rice stays moist, meat stays juicy, and pizza crust doesn’t dry out but bakes to a chewy, soft perfection.
Solar cooking can save a lot of money. In the summer time, most people not only pay for gas or electricity to cook with, but then they pay again to reduce the heat created in the kitchen – or attempt to, in which case the “payment” may also include suffering a hotter house than need be.
In the wintertime, the financial gains are admittedly fewer because our cooking inside also heats our homes, and going outside to turn the oven loses a little home heat, but if we use an exhaust fan to exhaust cooking odors outside, and run it too long, it might also exhaust that cooking heat with the odors and cost more than the fuel used to replace the heat from walking outside.
After I left my hermitage in 2006, I moved to Silver City and held my first New Mexico solar oven workshop the next February. On my fliers I printed “Call for alternate date in case of bad weather,” but a half–dozen intrepid folks showed up on a near-freezing day, to sit huddled outside, watching my ovens face nothing but clouds – so thick we could only guess approximately where the sun might be behind them. Nevertheless, I aimed them as best I could, and we talked about solar design and cooking while watching the thermometer rise ever so slowly. The temperature never got high enough for cooking (170 degrees), only to about 105, but that was impressive, since we had no direct sun.
If I’d started a dish indoors, say, in a cast iron pot that would hold significant heat in its mass (as I often do on winter days), the oven could have held that heat and the food would have certainly cooked – but I hadn’t started any dish inside, not believing anyone would come out on a day like that! Though I failed my participants by not starting something inside first, the solar ovens gave us an impressive show.
Solar ovens can also be used for canning – and it’s generally summertime when we want to can food and summertime when we don’t want to heat the kitchen, so I hope to do more of this.
They can also sterilize water – not purify it, as it has no means of removing toxins – but bacteria and other living organisms can be killed, so that water can be made much safer to drink.
For this reason, a lot of people consider a solar oven to be an essential survival item. It has occasionally been a fleeting goal of mine to prepare for survival situations, but today I’m less concerned about personal self-sufficiency than I am about community sufficiency. All the media talk about terrorist acts I generally ignore, except to acknowledge that we as a culture are terrifically dependent on a vulnerable infrastructure that delivers us all our most basic needs – food, clean water and energy for warmth. In the event this infrastructure was broken in any manner, nearly every one of us would be hard-pressed to take care of these needs. It’s commonly known that our supermarkets only contain 3 days of food at any given time to feed their buyers. Considering our government’s failure to help New Orleans in its time of disaster, I can’t put much faith in their help should even a small part of the nation lose connection to the grid.
So what can we, in our communities, do to plan for our “hometown security?” Every garden is a good first step. Every greenhouse. Every rain barrel. Every sun room. And every solar oven gives me hope that our little town will be that much more friendly, more cooperative, more community minded if anything should ever force us to face our vulnerability to simple cold and hunger. Every solar oven provides not only a way to cook food, but an example that can be duplicated easily with salvage materials!
A few years ago, I took my solar oven to Mexico and cooked all our meals on it, easily, on the Seri beach for five days. The Seri chief came to visit and walked a circle around the oven, looking for the heat source, then expressed astonishment that we could cook without wood. The women in his tribe walked miles every day in search of enough wood to cook their meals. In my broken Spanish, I promised to return and bring him one. Years have gone by, so I’m way overdue for my return with this gift.
When I traveled to Peru last April, I had the opportunity to describe solar ovens to a family who cooked us a beautiful meal on an adobe wood stove. Their eyes lit up with my description, heavy with sign language, and they clearly wanted one. As in many places on the planet, the forests of Peru have been clear-cut, not only by multinational corporations, but by people simply gathering cooking fuel. They pollute the air, their homes and their lungs by working in tiny, un-vented adobe kitchens. (We, too, pollute the air with our cooking, but we do it far away, with gas wells and electric plants on other parts of the grid, so we can pretend it’s not our problem.) I promised the Peruvian family, too, to return with an oven as a gift. If I can’t make it soon, I will send one with a friend.
As soon as I had my first solar oven, I wanted to build something to help heat my family’s water. So, in 1988, I held my first solar water heater workshop, and we built one that eventually became a pre-heater for the standard water heater in our home. This saved us heating dollars while giving us dependable hot water for a family with teenagers – at any time of day.
That success led me to design a solar home, and I built my hermitage in the country. My little strawbale abode was designed with the same elements as an oven, only slightly different: it had huge south-facing windows (no reflectors); plenty of thermal mass in the floor, in the stuccoed window seats, and in the brick fireplace hearth; and wonderful insulation in the R-60 straw walls. It always amazed people to visit in the winter and learn that I had no external heat source. My inspiration began with a simple solar oven.
They cook! They save money! The food never burns, and it often tastes better. They inspire us to sit quietly for precious moments in the sun – speaking of which, I think I’ll go outside now, put something in oven, and catch a few rays on this lovely, sunny, wintertime day.