Solar ovens have been around in some form or another for centuries, but many modern families have never heard of them. Let’s take a look at why using a solar oven could save you hundreds of dollars on energy costs, and eliminate the need to spend hours each week on family meals.
What Is a Solar Oven?
A solar oven is an oven that harnesses and concentrates the ultraviolet rays of the sun to cook food. It works like a Crock-Pot by cooking foods for several hours with low heat.
Most solar ovens can be used two ways. You can leave the oven outdoors and forget about it for several hours. As the sun crosses the sky, the angle of the rays change; this keeps the stationary oven at a lower temperature. Another method is to change the position of the solar oven every 30 minutes, keeping it directly focused on the sun. While this requires more time and attention, it also allows the oven to reach higher temperatures more quickly, shortening the cook time.
Solar cookers are widely used in developing countries because they require no fuel, and little water, to operate. Solar Cookers International estimates that 3.1 million people worldwide rely on solar cooking for their daily meals, and 11 million people have been directly impacted by solar cooking. Solar cookers are especially beneficial to women and children in developing countries.
Advantages of Solar-Powered Cooking
Today’s solar ovens are highly efficient, allowing you to cook or bake almost anything you would in a regular oven. Foods that work best in a solar oven include soups, stews, casseroles, meats, and breads.
There are many advantages to using a solar oven over a regular oven. Solar ovens harness the sun’s energy to cook food. This means you don’t have to use gas or electricity for meals, which saves money over time and is better for the environment.
Another benefit is that because solar ovens cook food slowly, meals are more nutritious, and often more flavorful, than food cooked in a traditional oven. Solar ovens are also highly effective at trapping moisture, which means that casseroles and meats are often moister than when they are cooked in an indoor oven. Some models also work as a food dehydrator, which adds to their usefulness and money-saving potential.
Solar ovens make cooking easy. You simply prepare the ingredients, put them in the solar oven, and let them cook over the course of the day. You don’t have to stir the ingredients or watch the oven, and the food will not burn. For busy families, this is a huge benefit.
Using a solar oven is even fun. It’s a unique way to cook food, and the process can be a great learning experience for children. Solar ovens are also completely safe, so you never have to worry about burns from open flames or hot oven doors. This is especially important when you have children.
Many solar oven manufacturers distribute solar ovens to families in developing countries. Some of these manufacturers are nonprofit, meaning every purchase of a solar oven goes to help another family in need somewhere else in the world.
Disadvantages of Solar Ovens
One of the disadvantages of solar ovens is that because they use ultraviolet rays to cook food, it can be difficult for them to reach higher temperatures in winter months (generally November through March in the Northern Hemisphere), when the sun is lower on the horizon and has to pass through more clouds. However, performance depends on the model. Some solar ovens, such as Solavore, can be tipped on their side, increasing the angle and allowing the oven to capture more rays from the winter sun.
Cloudy weather is another possible disadvantage. Some models need bright, sunny days in order to reach their optimal temperature of 350 to 400 degrees. Other models, such as Sun Oven, only need sunshine that’s bright enough to cast a shadow in order to reach peak temperature.
Long cooking times are another potential pitfall of solar ovens. Generally, you need to have your meal prepped and in the oven in the morning so the oven can begin preheating and be ready for peak cook time, which is from 10am to 2pm. However, if you’re used to cooking with a Crock-Pot, the concept isn’t much different.
Be aware that you might have to invest in new cookware to use some models of solar ovens. Most solar ovens work best with dark-colored pots, which trap heat and increases efficiency. Some models require dark, enamelware pots, while others work well with cast iron cookware or Dutch ovens, which you might already own.
Types of Solar Cookers
A solar oven is only one type of “solar cooker.” When you’re new to solar cooking, it’s easy to get confused between the various models. There are three primary ways to cook food using solar power.
1. Panel Cookers
Panel cookers use flat or slightly curved reflective panels to heat and cook food in a single pot that sits in a glass bowl or thermal bag to retain heat. The Hot Pot is one model of panel cooker.
Although panel cookers are the most economical solar cooker available, sometimes they are not as efficient at trapping heat as a solar oven. They often need direct sun and little wind to operate at their best; they also work better on warmer days.
2. Solar Ovens
Solar ovens have an insulated box to trap and retain heat. Some models of solar ovens come with only the box, while others come with a set of reflective panels that bounce the sun’s energy into the box and increase heat. A solar oven is similar to the oven in your home, and can get almost as hot. On a sunny day, a solar oven can easily reach 350 degrees, making it ideal for baking breads and desserts, and cooking soups, stews, and casseroles.
3. Parabolic Solar Stove
A parabolic solar stove is the last type of solar cooker. Parabolic solar stoves are less like an oven and more like a stove-top. They use curved, reflective panels (generally ranging five feet long) that are arrayed on a stand to concentrate the sun’s heat directly onto the cooking pot, which means they can reach high temperatures (generally 450 degrees) very quickly. Parabolic stoves are best used for stir-frying, or for grilling and searing meats.
Parabolic stoves are a bit more complex to use. The reflective panels have to be the right size to work effectively. If they’re too big, the heat will be too intense and your food will burn quickly. If they’re too small, the cooker won’t generate enough heat. Parabolic stoves are more vulnerable to wind, and some models can topple easily. And because of the high heat, they must be watched carefully.
Costs of a Conventional Oven Versus a Solar Oven
Cooking in your existing oven might be costing you more than you think. How much can you save cooking with a solar oven? The amount will vary depending on how much you pay for the electricity or gas to run your traditional oven.
There’s a helpful fuel cost calculator at Michael Bluejay that makes estimating these costs easy. I entered what I pay for propane and how often I use my stove-top and burners each week, estimating three hours of oven use three times per week, and one medium stove-top flame for 30 minutes, five days per week. Based on this average use, it costs me $243 annually to cook with my gas stove.
High efficiency solar ovens cost between $200 and $300. So, even if I only cooked two meals per week with a solar oven, it wouldn’t take long for it to pay for itself. If the cost of a premade solar oven is over your budget, you can build your own. There are plenty of free plans online, but you might have to do some experimenting to find an efficient design for building and maintaining an even temperature.
When to Use Solar Ovens
Solar ovens can be incredibly useful in a wide variety of situations.
1. Disaster Preparedness
Solar ovens are a vital tool for any disaster preparedness kit, because they allow you to cook and bake without any fuel or other special tools. During power outages, this means your family can still have a hot, home-cooked meal.
They also enable you to pasteurize water. Solar ovens will kill all waterborne pathogens, making water completely safe to drink. Keep in mind that solar ovens do not filter water, so any chemicals in the water will still be present after pasteurization.
Solar ovens are great to take on camping trips, as they eliminate the need for a campfire to cook food. This is especially useful in drought-stricken areas where burning is prohibited, or when local wood is wet from recent rains. They’re also easy and fun to use in the wilderness. You can fix your meal in the morning, head out for a day of adventure, and come back to a hot dinner that’s completely cooked and ready for you.
3. Frugal Living
Using a solar oven is completely free. For families looking to save money on energy costs, a solar oven can pay for itself relatively quickly. Also, solar ovens won’t heat up your house during hot summer months like a conventional oven does. During summer, this can save money on energy costs.
4. Boating and RVing
Solar ovens are a great choice for boaters and RVers. Often, the ovens that come with these toys aren’t as efficient as a conventional oven. They also require electricity, which can quickly drain your reserve battery power if you’re not plugged in. With a solar oven, you can put the sun to work for you and save your battery power for other tasks.
Solar ovens are more than a novelty cooking tool. If you cook frequently with your conventional oven, supplementing some meals with a solar oven could save you a significant amount of money over time. It will also reduce your dependence on fossil fuels, which is always a plus.