Solar Oven Cooking – the Next Phase in the Food Revolution

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Tompkins Weekly 06/24/2013

By Joey Diana Gates

In our area we are blessed with an amazing local food system. Work in many sectors has been done to lower our food miles, the usage of pesticides and herbicides through widespread organic farming and to increase the amount of food that is composted and returned as nutrients to the soil. Many have also taken great strides to consciously purchase food with less packaging and bring it home in re-useable bags. These things have all greatly reduced the environmental footprint of our food. The next key component that deserves our attention is the energy we use to process that food.

Industrial food production aside, at home we use fossil fuels to cook our food; coal powered electricity, propane and yes, natural gas.  We have another option that works, even here in cloudy upstate New York.  Like many have already learned through PV and solar hot water systems, the sun can provide a terrific zero-emission, and free source of cooking fuel.  Solar cooking is an ancient practice that is easy to learn, somewhat fool-proof and helps preserve many nutrients often lost in conventional cooking methods.  The most prevalent form of solar cooking is dehydrating – think of that bundle of fragrant garden herbs hanging up to dry.  Using more direct sunlight, did you know that you can make cakes, soups, and casseroles in solar ovens too?

Going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans we can see examples of how building structures that align with the path of the sun and trap its heat can result in what Pliny the Younger called a heliocaminus or a ”solar furnace.”  Greenhouses, solar hot water heaters and solar ovens all work on the same principles, capture the sun’s light rays, convert them to heat waves which are then trapped within the structure and absorbed by the interior materials. Like a car on a sunny day, though with much more intention, a solar oven can reach 300°F enough to cook food and boil and pasteurize water. In the late eighteenth century, a European scientist named Horace de Saussure began to explore the ability of glass to capture heat and experimented with “hot boxes.”  Research continued through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries including by Samuel Pierpont Langley who went on to become director of the Smithsonian Institute. To read more on this, check out the book “A Golden Thread,” by Ken Butti and John Perlin.

Lasagna in Progress

Lasagna in Progress

New Solar Oven

New Solar Oven










Shaped like parallelograms, solar ovens are inexpensive to make using common materials found around the house such as a couple of cardboard boxes, black paint and plastic sheeting or plexiglass. When I first became interested in solar cooking, we built a solar oven out of a wood crate and old window glass.  It was a bit clumsy to use but it functioned well until I broke the glass.  I began doing some research on the internet and found the non-profit, Solar Oven Society and bought one from them.  It was love at first sight as it weighed less than 10 pounds, was made of recycled materials, and came with the oven thermometer, cookbooks, the cooking pots and a water pasteurization kit. Also included were reflectors that help increase the focus of the sun’s rays when you want more concentrated heat, or in my case, if you wish to fuse rice!  While learning to solar cook, I underestimated the power of the oven and put rice in on a hot July day, with the reflectors on.  When I came back an hour later to find it had completely cooked the rice to a solid mass. Cooking with the solar oven is like crock pot cooking, food won’t burn, it will just get over done if left too long. It took a bit of practice and tuning in to the patterns of the sun to perfect cooking with the sun, and it is a continuous process of learning and discovery.

Fast forward to the present, I now run a business called the Sol Kitchen, offering solar oven cooked food at various farmers’ markets and festivals, cooking classes and of course, selling the ovens.  As mentioned earlier, food is more nutritious when cooked in solar ovens as less water is used because it does not escape in the cooking process, which can result in vitamin and mineral loss. I do everything from steam vegetables and slow-cook caramelized onions, to reheat food at Market.  Prior to the solar ovens, I used to carry around large propane tanks which were expensive, heavy and required a special permit. Now I can get by with the free fuel from the sun and use small tanks as back up. And, I am able to take my local foods sensibilities to a whole new level! For more information or to inquire about classes, email Joey Diana Gates at

Joey Diana Gates is the co-owner/manager of Solar Systems Unlimited in Mecklenburg.

Solar Oven Corn on the Cob

Husk the corn and rinse off the ears, leaving a bit of water on them.  Break each ear in half, place in solar oven pots and cover.  Point the oven at the sun for approximately 3 hours.

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