How long can you go without craving a hot, homemade meal, eating only cold rations and snacks? If you’ve ever been without power for more than just a couple of days, eating cold ravioli or tuna out of the can gets really old, really fast. Most survival minded people realize, better than most, that it doesn’t take much to disrupt the flow of electricity we depend upon for cooking. A natural disaster or freak weather event can turn the most modern home into a survivalist camp within a few hours. Electricity can also be interrupted by man-made crises, such as civil unrest, terrorism, or an EMP, making that hot meal a rare treat.
A popular slogan among survivalists and preppers is, “Always have a back-up to your back-up.” When it comes to cooking, what is your back-up to your back-up? Do you have more than one way of cooking a hot meal when the power is down?
One simple addition to your emergency preparedness is a solar oven. It’s a great way to get started cooking off the grid.
As long as the sun is shining and the sky is relatively clear, a solar oven can serve up a delicious pot of rice and beans and brownies for dessert without requiring any fuel. In fact, its dependence on the sun as its only source of fuel, is the reason every home should have a solar cooker. Solar cooking is an unbeatable back-up for making sure there’s a hot meal on the table three times a day.
There is something new under the sun
Solar cooking and using the sun to preserve food has been around for hundreds of years, but only in modern times has the use of solar cookers become widespread both in the survival community and among communities around the world with unreliable electrical power. Its advantages are obvious.
- There is no need to store additional fuel.
- Sunshine is free, unlike propane, butane, gas, and other fuels.
- It’s possible to store several months’ worth of food, but storing all the fuel you might need isn’t as easy.
- Once paid for, there are no other expenses involved and maintenance is simple.
- There are no dangerous fumes or safety issues to worry about.
- A solar cooker can be used for every type of cooking, except frying.
- Food never burns in a solar cooker.
- During hot, summer months, the use of a solar cooker helps keep the kitchen, and the cook!, cool.
- Over time and with frequent use, the use of a solar oven will save money on the electric bill.
A solar cooker for every home
A solar cooker is a must-have as a back-up method for cooking food. It is the single most self-reliant way to cook food and heat water, and has the additional advantage of being a DIY project if there’s a handyman (or woman) in the family.
Commercially produced solar cookers, such as the All-American Sun Oven, are perfect for the prepper who is too busy for even one more DIY project. Depending on the brand you choose, these stoves have consistent quality construction, are designed to reach temperatures for the quickest possible cooking results, and have features for enhanced usability, such as interior thermometers, large reflecting panels, and a weather resistant design.
However, some of these ovens carry a price tag of $300 or more and can be large and bulky. In a Get-Out-Of-Dodge scenario, there might not be room for my Sun Oven in the back of our Tahoe, and if I ever had to cook for more than my family of four, it might be too small. That’s one of the limitations of a store-bought solar cooker. You’re stuck with a standard size that may be too small, and your budget may not allow for a second cooker.
On the other hand, a DIY solar cooker can be customized to your specific needs. One friend used a large ice chest on wheels for her solar oven. She could wheel it to any location in the backyard and she chose a size that could accommodate as many as four baking dishes. Another ingenious DIY plan that can be found on the internet uses a 5 gallon bucket and a reflective sunshade. Total cost? Not much more than five bucks, if that. The advantage of many DIY solar cookers is that they can be dismantled for convenient transport, and all of them require materials that are already in most garages. Plans for homemade solar cookers can be found on dozens of websites and demonstration videos abound on YouTube.
The DIY solar cooker comes with a few disadvantages. If the design doesn’t maximize the amount of sunlight available, you may end up with nothing more than a hot silver box sitting out in your yard. I recommend testing and tweaking any DIY design until it consistently reaches 350 degrees or more. Reliable temperatures will help you plan mealtimes and insure that foods reach temperatures that will deter any bacterial growth. Another issue with the DIY cooker is its durability. If a slight breeze knocks over your cooker and pot of beans, you’ll know you need to fine-tune the design for added stability.
Getting started with solar cooking
Regardless of which solar cooker you settle on, some foods are easiest for getting started. Be sure to keep a log of foods you cook, time of day you begin cooking, and the length of cooking time required. This log will be a huge help to you as you branch out and begin cooking a wider variety of foods.
- Hard boiled eggs. Place eggs on a dark colored towel or inside a dark pot inside your cooker. After 20 minutes, check one egg for doneness. Solar cooked hard boiled eggs will be softer than those cooked in a pot of boiling water.
- Rice is either cooked or it’s not. It’s probably the easiest food to experiment with when you’re new to solar cooking. Combine rice and water in a covered pot. Check for doneness after 25 minutes. A package of Rice-a-Roni works just as well for your experimentation.
- Yes, brownies! Mix up a batch of your favorite store-bought or homemade recipe, pour it into a dark, greased pan and place it in your solar cooker. Use the baking times recommended by your recipe, test for doneness, and leave in for additional minutes if required. I’ve found that solar-baked brownies are usually finished in the same amount of time as oven-baked.
- I’m almost embarrassed to suggest heating water in your solar cooker, but having a way to pasteurize water could be very important. Check the temperature of water after 30 minutes. At 149 degrees Fahrenheit (65 degrees Celsius) all germs, viruses, and parasites are killed. This information, along with your solar cooker, could be one more way to insure safe drinking water in an emergency and provide sterilized water for medical and first aid purposes.
Like any new skill, the only way to learn how to cook with a solar oven is to just do it. For most dishes, allow at least an extra 30 minutes to your cooking time.
Ten Top Tips for Solar Cooking
- Solar cooking isn’t an exact science. It requires a bit of trial and at least a few errors to determine the correct cooking time for any food.
- Always use dark pots and pans with any solar cooker. If you must use a light colored or shiny baking dish, cover it with a dark colored hand towel.
- Thin metal baking dishes work best in a solar cooker. They will heat up more quickly and lessen the amount of cooking time needed.
- A thermometer is a must-have for a solar cooker.
- Allow your solar cooker to pre-heat for 15-20 minutes. Pre-heating will shorten the cooking time a bit. Just be aware that the interior of your cooker will be hot, so be sure to use pot-holders.
- Always use a baking dish with a lid for all your solar cooking. The lid retains important heat and moisture. There’s no need for a lid if you’re baking. Pies, brownies, cookies, cakes, and bread won’t require a lid.
- If you’re cooking meat, make sure the interior of the oven reaches at least 180 degrees. Again, a thermometer is a must to insure food safety and predictable cooking times.
- Use the ‘slow-cooker’ method when you’ll be gone all day. Place the solar oven so that it faces directly south. Pop in your baking dish, close the lid, and by dinner time, you’ll have a hot, delicious meal waiting for you.
- Moisture will likely collect inside the cooker during the cooking process. Wipe the inside dry before storing it.
- Turn your solar cooker into a food dehydrator by propping open the oven door by a half inch or so. This allows moisture to escape while the interior of the cooker retains heat.
If you’re new to solar cooking, prepare to be amazed. There’s nothing quite like placing a baking dish in a box out in the sun and coming back later to a fully cooked and delicious meal. A prolonged power outage doesn’t mean the end to hot, nutritious meals when you have a solar cooker as a back-up.
Coming next: Getting Started With Cooking Off the Grid — Multi-fuel stoves
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