With the big upsurge in home cooking lately, and with lots of us having more time than usual, slow food is enjoying a resurgence. One of its most exciting (and environmentally sound) forms is solar cooking. As well as tasting incredible, solar cooking is great for your health.
Solar ovens take a huge variety of forms, from simple DIY boxes which primary school children can build, to high tech devices you can buy with parabolic reflectors or evacuated tubes. There are even camping models. Check out some pictures of all the different types.
Most designs involve the use of mirrors or foil, and some type of insulated box.
All solar cookers use the sun’s heat directly, rather than light (you can use PV solar panels to run an electric cooker, but that’s not a solar oven).
The general principle is the same one which makes the interior of your car unbearable on a hot day with the windows closed, except in this case the result is delicious!
Slowly does it
Solar ovens heat food more gently than other forms of cooking. They trap heat and moisture, providing many of the benefits of an old-fashioned slow cooker, but with no need for electricity or fossil fuels.
The ambient temperature doesn’t matter. All you need is a sunny location.
Insulation keeps the cooker cooking when the sun goes behind a cloud. Of course you can’t cook with a solar oven if there’s no sun at all, but in Australia this is rarely a problem.
The great thing about cooking at lower temperatures, for longer, is that more nutrients are preserved. Hard things are tenderised and soft things become sauces.
Slow temperature changes give complex carbohydrates time to break down into simple sugars, emanating subtle natural flavours. Herbs and spices have time to bind completely to other ingredients. Because there’s no (or little) air movement in a solar cooker, food stays moist and vitamins aren’t destroyed.
The health benefits of solar cookers are even greater in places where people have traditionally had to cook using scarce firewood or toxic fuels or cow dung. With no smoke pollution, solar technology can pasteurise cooking water too. (You can help buy solar cookers for people in situations like this, transforming lives.)
But what can you cook?
Curries are a great fit for solar cooking (many popular designs come from India, and there are models with separate compartments for different dishes) but you can cook a huge variety of foods; bread, porridge, casseroles, roasts, rice, cakes and desserts, soups, lasagne, pizza, the sun’s the limit.
Some high-tech parabolic models will even let you cook with a wok (byo welding goggles).
Generally though, the beauty of solar cooking is that it’s slow. You need to think about what you and your family are going to eat quite a while before you’re hungry, which leads to healthier choices and less stress at the end of the day. The sun will happily do most of the work for you.
By the time it goes down, dinner’s ready!