Let the sun do all the work; solar cooking gets glowing reviews

Honeywell store manager Jolene Gibbons (right) tries food cooked in Sun Ovens in Brigham City.
REYNALDO LEAL/Standard-Examiner
Story by Becky Wright
(Standard-Examiner)
Mon, Apr 29, 2013
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Utahns are known for cooking with Dutch ovens — it’s been our official state cooking pot since 1997 — but now we’re also gaining a reputation for solar cooking.

Sun Ovens International sells sun-heated ovens in almost 130 countries.

“Forty-two percent of the ovens we sell in the world, we sell in the state of Utah,” said Paul Munsen, president of the Illinois-based company. “It’s by far our biggest market for the Sun Oven.”

Utahns are big believers in preparedness, and Munsen estimates that about 70 percent of the people who buy Sun Ovens treat them like food storage — they’re on a shelf in case of an emergency.

The rest are actually using them.

“You can use a Sun Oven in the summer to lower your energy bill, and that way, you know how to use it in an emergency,” said Tim Devey, retail marketing manager for Honeyville, a Brigham City-based company that sells Sun Ovens International products.

Solar cooking can also be done in winter.

“As long as there’s enough sun to cast a shadow, you can use a Sun Oven,” said Munsen. “You can use a Sun Oven in Utah about 65 percent of the days.”

Sun power

There are three basic types of solar cookers, made in dozens of variations.

Parabolic cookers use curved reflectors to concentrate the sun’s heat on a pot; temperatures are high for fast cooking, but close supervision is required.

Box cookers are the most common, and are used in basically the same way as a kitchen oven. Food is placed in an insulated box, covered by a piece of clear glass or plastic. The sun’s rays, focused by reflectors, pass through the clear cover and are trapped inside, heating the black interior of the box.

Panel cookers combine traits of parabolic and box cookers, using flat reflectors to focus sunlight on a black pot. The pot is covered by a clear, heat-resistant plastic bag or bowl, to trap more heat.

Solar cookers can be made at home, using cardboard, aluminum foil and clear plastic. Stacy Palen, a physics professor at Weber State University, made her first box oven one morning after seeing plans on the Internet.

“By noon, I had cookies made in a sun oven out of things I had around the house,” she said, adding that she also had a new skill. “To know I could do that is empowering.”

Since then, she’s taught students to make solar ovens.

“Some had great success; some did not. It definitely had to do with how careful they were in assembly,” she said.

Munsen’s oven

Munsen’s product is a box oven, but a bit more high tech. The box on a Sun Oven brand cooker is made of plastic on the outside, with a black aluminum interior and food-grade fiberglass insulation in between. There’s a tempered glass door, built-in thermometer, and a highly polished collapsible aluminum reflector. It also has adjustable legs, tilting trays and an indicator to make it easier to focus the oven toward the sun.

Of course, all that costs more than building an oven from cardboard, foil and plastic wrap. Munsen’s new All American Sun Oven, about the size of a small suitcase and weighing 22 pounds, retails for $349 — more if you want dehydrating racks and other extras.

A solar oven may be a good investment, Palen said, if you’re prepared to use it.

“It requires a whole other way of planning, beyond what most people do to get dinner ready,” she said. “You have to start dinner early, and have to plan to do most of your cooking on sunny days, then have leftovers on cloudy days, and the biggest meal of the day is going to be a late lunch, if you’re doing all of your cooking in the sun oven, instead of dinner.”

Fast or slow

Munsen visited Honeyville stores in Brigham and Salt Lake cities in March, where he cooked bread, hard-boiled eggs and reconstituted freeze-dried beef stroganoff.

His Sun Ovens can reach temperatures up to 400 degrees F, he says, and cooking times are only about 20 minutes longer than they would be using typical kitchen ovens — if positioned to capture direct sunlight.

“If you refocus it every 30 minutes, it takes about an hour-and-a-half to cook a three-pound chicken,” he said — but don’t let heat escape. “You have to add 15 minutes to the normal cooking time each time you open the door.”

Nothing burns, because of the even heat in the chamber.

“When in doubt, cook it longer,” he said. “The Sun Oven is non-drying, so it’s not an issue.”

For fast cooking, it’s best to use dark, thin enamel pots. For slow cooking, he recommends using a Dutch oven in a solar cooker.

“Once the Dutch oven’s up to temperature, even if the sun’s gone, the retained heat in the Dutch oven — if left in the box of the Sun Oven — continues to cook,” said Munsen.

Solar chefs

Emily Zito, of Brigham City, has owned a Sun Oven for about a year.

“I only used it once,” she said. “I made pork chops. They were really, really good, and they were moist.”

Cindy Child, a class instructor at the Kitchen Kneads store in Ogden (which sells Sun Ovens), started using hers so she’d be familiar with it before an emergency.

“I’ve loved it,” she said. “It heats up easy, it’s easy to handle or work with, and it cooks just like using an oven but without heating up your house.”

She’s used it about a dozen times, cooking a whole chicken, potatoes, pie, lasagna, cookies, muffins and bread.

“The only problem I’ve found is if it’s a cloudy day,” she said.

Marcia Lym, who works at the Honeyville store in Brigham City, has cooked a full chicken meal and baked goods using her Sun Oven. Because foods don’t burn, it’s easy to learn to use, she said, but offers this advice: “The reflector shields glare at you, so you have to remember to wear dark glasses.”

Delois Stinson sells Sun Ovens at her store, Survival Solutions in Layton, and has used hers about 10 times each summer for the past four or five years. She likes to take it camping.

“You can just get your meal cooking, then set up camp,” she said. “By the time you get everything set, and go off to some activities, when you come back, dinner’s ready.”

She’s cooked everything from roast to casseroles and corn on the cob.

You can use a Sun Oven first try, solar cooks say, but it’s better to get some practice.

“It’s one of those things that the more you use it, the more you love it,” said Stinton.

Sun ovens popular around the world

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