Have a Solar-Powered Picnic

With summer upon us, and the collective American consciousness turning toward barbeques and picnics in the park, it might be a good time to take stock of the resources we use to grill our gardenburgers, and consider an alternative.

With a little help from your friend the sun, and a little trial and error, you can continue to cook outside without burning any briquettes in a reusable solar oven you can build yourself. There are a few different varieties of solar cookers, but fundamentally they are all built to concentrate sunlight and convert it to heat — generally between 150-250 degrees F.

Proponents of solar cooking claim to be able to bake bread, boil beans, even roast meats and veggies, the accepted wisdom being that it might take a little longer than in a conventional kitchen (okay, so it could take twice as long, but who's counting?).

But still! Free energy! The kind that doesn’t deplete our natural resources!

The very simplest cooker to build and use is probably the panel cooker: it's basically a series of lightweight panels covered in a reflective coating (often cardboard in aluminum foil), fashioned into a trapezoidal curve around a central panel. A matte black cooking pot is placed inside the curve, within an oven-safe plastic bag or a glass dish of a slightly greater diameter which both helps to elevate the pot and also cuts down on the excess moisture retention problem that can occur with the bag method (not to mention the waste factor).

Box cookers are also relatively simple to build — basically a box lined in reflexive material with a matte black bottom panel and a reflexive lid. The excellent website solarcooking.org has an archive of detailed step-by-step instructions for a variety of panel cookers, including one made from a windshield shade, plus box cookers, high-temperature parabolic cookers, and an ingeniously simple cooker made from an old tire and a pane of glass.

And while the solar stove may never replace the barbeque grill in our fond summertime cookout memories, the fact that you can still make s’mores with it gives it the potential to become a new favorite tradition in its own right.


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