I'm sitting in the Laundromat a few blocks from my house, waiting for my laundry to finish washing so I can put it in the dryer. While I'm waiting my dinner-pork chops slow-roasted in sauerkraut with a hint of maple syrup-is roasting unattended back at my apartment. Rather than committing a home economics safety blunder, however, I cooking my food in the cheapest, safest and most environmentally friendly way possible. It's a beautiful day, about 70 degrees with lots of sunshine and not a cloud in the sky. It's the perfect weather for solar cooking. My dinner has been simmering in the sunshine since about noon and by the time I'm ready to sit down and eat it, the chops will be so tender that they're ready to fall off the bone.
Last fall, pursuing a life-long interest in solar cooking, I bought a panel cooker on EBay. Including shipping I paid about $25. The seller confidently proclaimed that his panel cookers were durable and effective in the hazy sunshine of California. I wasn't convinced but for the price, it was worth a try. A week or so later my solar cooker arrived and I unwrapped it from the plastic in which it came. It certainly was not the most awe-inspiring site. It is basically a small yellow plastic case that opens like a suitcase. On one of its surfaces is a sheet of reflectorized plastic and on the other a heat absorbent black pad. It also came with a number of plastic bags, small and large, and a wire prop designed to hold the case open at various angles. I read the instructions cover to cover. The designer claimed that through use of the greenhouse effect his solar cooker could cook 16 ounces of just about anything in the right atmospheric conditions.
I was eager to give it a try. The next morning I filled a coffee mug with water and placed an egg inside. I placed the mug inside a small zip lock back, sealed it and placed the small bag inside another larger bag. I then placed the larger bag on the heat absorbent pad and angled the reflector so that the reflected light was directly on the bag. Sure enough, after showering and dressing for the day, I removed the egg from the apparatus about an hour later. I was treated to a perfectly soft-boiled egg. That's all it took-I was hooked on my new toy.
Of course, the lack of sunlight and cold temperatures of winter made using my solar cooker much more difficult so I decided to wait until spring to really give it a whirl. This week, however, has been gorgeous, warm and sunny. Yesterday I cooked two large chicken breasts, seasoned with garlic, basil and paprika, in the solar cooker. This was a major test since the breasts were thick cuts of meat and would need some serious time to cook in any oven. I set the solar cooker out in the sun at 10 AM. At noon I came home between shifts at work and rotated the cooker to follow the sun. I could smell the seasoning percolating in the juices from the chicken-what a wonderful smell. That night after my last tutoring student, I came home and found the baking dish still warm, though it had been sitting in darkness for an hour or more. I unwrapped the food and discovered, to my delight, the two most perfectly cooked chicken breasts that I have ever eaten. I usually prefer the dark meat of a chicken because I find chicken breast too dry. Not these birds. They were flavorful and juicy from the slow cooking of the solar cooker. As the solar cooker's designer claimed, the solar cooker does not use flame so it cooks evenly without burning the food.
The basic principles behind solar cooker are actually quite simple. Light can pass through any clear substance while heat cannot. Thus sunlight can pass through the earth's atmosphere and through the clear plastic covering the food in a solar cooker. If the sunlight strikes a reflectorized surface like the polar ice caps or a mirror it will simply alter its path and shine elsewhere. If the light strikes a darkly colored substance, however, like a leaf, a road surface or a piece of chicken, it will be converted to heat. Once converted to heat, it cannot pass back out of the atmosphere or out of the clear plastic of a solar cooker. Thus in the solar cooker sunlight shines down through the clear plastic covering my food; it strikes the food and is converted into heat, which cannot escape the clear plastic covering the food. The trapped heat thus cooks the food. This is the same principle that heats the planet and can make getting into a car that has been sitting in the sun an absolute torture. While simply using plastic to cover food is enough to employ these principles for cooking, the solar cooker uses a reflector to double the amount of sunlight striking my delicious pork chops and thus speed up the process of their slow cooking.
There are many different varieties of solar cookers. My solar cooker is the simplest and cheapest-a panel cooker. Some solar ovens use many reflectors to increase the amount of sunlight harnessed-these are called boxed cookers and are even faster and more efficient. Parabolic cookers use large concave mirrors to focus light at a focal point. If the mirror is large enough the amount of energy at this focal point can be quite intense and can have the same cooking power as a range on a stove. Of course using a parabolic cooker requires constant movement of the mirror to keep the sunlight on the cooking vessel. In many developing nations or regions of the planet far removed from electric and gas lines, parabolic cookers are a vital alternative for cooking. Old satellite dishes are often fitted with reflectors to make parabolic solar cookers.
Solar energy fascinates me. Most people do not realize that almost all of the energy on this planet is solar in origin. The wind, waves and hydrologic cycle are driven by the sun's rays. Plants have been using solar energy to make food and provide the chemical energy for the entire food chain for millions of years. Fossil fuels are simply the chemical energy from plants and animals that died eons ago. Solar energy is free, clean and unlimited. There are vast stretches of the planet where no one lives, like the Mojave, Sinai or Gobi deserts that are drenched in sunlight that, if harnessed, could power much of civilization. Everyone talks about solar but so few of us take any steps to actually use this energy. So I bought a solar cooker. It isn't much, but it cooks a few of my meals and diminishes my dependence on non-renewable energy sources that pollute the planet.