Let the Sun Do the Cooking: 4 Recipes + Tips

Feeling the heat? When summer temperatures rise, why not capitalize on those sweltering days by harnessing the sun’s heat for cooking? This free, all-natural energy source doesn’t cost a penny, and cooking outdoors will leave your kitchen nice and cool. Here are three recipes that feature summer produce; utilizing the sun’s rays for slow cooking intensifies and preserves the fresh-picked flavors.

Before you begin, check the extended weather forecast. Cooking with the sun works best during a stretch of hot, dry weather. Find a spot outdoors where the cooking trays can sit directly in bright sunlight without attracting or being disturbed by animals, and be sure to bring the trays inside at night and during inclement weather.

Real Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Store-bought sun-dried tomatoes can be expensive, and if they sit on the shelf for too long, they tend to get stale. Make your own with organic tomatoes and enjoy rich, concentrated flavors – with no chemicals or preservatives. Sun-dried tomatoes you make yourself will last for up to a year in an airtight jar on the shelf and 18 months in the freezer, making them doubly good if you have a bumper crop of tomatoes in your garden that all ripen at the same time.

Prepare the Tomatoes

While any variety of tomato can be successfully dried, Roma and ‘paste’ types will produce the best results. “Roma, Oregon Spring and Principe Borghese tomatoes are all good varieties for sun drying,” says Leanne Gensch, seed specialist for Totally Tomatoes in Randolph, Wis. “These varieties are meaty and have less juice and fewer seeds than other tomatoes.”

1) Wash and dry the tomatoes, cut them in half lengthwise and remove most of the seeds.

2) Cut a small slit in the middle of the tomato skin to promote more even drying. It’s easiest if you cut the tomatoes into similarly sized pieces so that they dry at about the same rate, and you can also give them a sprinkle of sea salt for added flavor if you like.

Dry the Tomatoes

To dry the tomatoes, you’ll need a rack that allows plenty of air circulation. You can either purchase a special drying rack, or you can fashion your own by putting a metal cooling rack on a cookie sheet. Arrange the tomatoes cut side up on the drying rack and cover  it with a single layer of nylon netting, tulle (both can be purchased at the fabric store) or cheesecloth, using a few toothpicks or skewers, if necessary, to keep the netting from touching the tomatoes. This will keep bugs out and help provide proper ventilation. Set the rack in a hot, sunny place. Depending on the water content of the tomatoes and your weather conditions, the drying process will take from four days to two weeks. When the tomatoes are done, their color will have darkened and they will feel completely dry, but still pliable.

Sun-dried tomatoes add an intense burst of tomato flavor; try them tossed in salads or pastas, mixed into bread dough, added to soups or used as a pizza topping.

Homemade Fruit Leather

Why buy sugary, processed fruit snacks when you can make healthy treats at home? More vitamins and nutrients are preserved using the gentle sun-cooking process to make fruit leather, and the fruits’ natural flavors are intensified by baking in the sun. “We made fruit leather from fresh apricots, and it’s so much better than the commercially made products,” says Betty Crosslen of Arvada, Colo. “I like the fact that I can make it with organic fruit and natural sweeteners, and it’s a fun cooking project that kids enjoy.”

Choose Your Fruit & Prepare the Mixture

Making fruit leather isn’t an exact science because fruits vary in sweetness and juiciness. Apples, cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums and strawberries, or any combination, are all good choices for beginners. Wash and dry the fruit. You can leave the skin on, which will add slightly more texture, or peel it off. Remove any seeds, cores and stems. If you want a smoother texture, you can first cook the fruit for a few minutes in a saucepan over medium heat with a little apple juice or water before moving on to the next step.

Put the prepared fruit in a blender or food processor, and puree until smooth. Fruits that tend to turn brown when they are cut – like apples and peaches – will benefit from a little lemon juice added to the mixture. You may wish to also add a little honey or maple syrup to sweeten it, especially if you’ve added lemon juice. (Since the flavors will intensify as the fruit puree dries, use less sweetener than you think you need.) The final thickness and consistency of the puree should be about like applesauce.

Dry the Fruit Leather

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and tape it to the edges. Spread the fruit puree on the prepared cookie sheet and spread it to a thickness of about 1/8 inch, leaving at least an inch around the edges. Cover the mixture with a piece of nylon netting, tulle or cheesecloth, and tape it to the sides of the pan to keep it from touching the fruit mixture.

Dry the fruit leather mixture in a sunny place until it is no longer sticky to the touch, but still pliable. This could take anywhere from four days to two weeks, depending on temperatures and humidity; hot, dry weather will speed up the process. When it’s ready, remove the fruit leather from the parchment while it’s still warm so it doesn’t stick. Slice it into strips, and wrap the strips in plastic wrap. If you want to create a fruit roll-up, set a fruit leather strip on a piece of plastic wrap, fold one edge over and roll it while it is still warm from the sun. You can eat the fruit leather right away, or store it in an airtight bag or container in a cool place for up to three weeks or in the freezer for up to a year.

Sun-Cooked Strawberry Preserves

This recipe does require a little cooking time on the stove, but the majority of the processing occurs from the natural power of the sun, which gently concentrates the strawberry flavors and cooks away the excess liquid.

Prepare the Preserves

Choose whole ripe strawberries, wash them and remove the hulls. In a large, nonreactive bowl, add 1 cup of sugar per quart of berries. Add the berries and stir gently. Let the mixture stand overnight, stirring occasionally. The next morning, pour the mixture into a large, heavy-bottomed pot and heat over a medium-high flame until it boils. Lower the heat and simmer for 8 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature. 

Let the Sun Cook the Jam

Pour the mixture into shallow baking pans, to a depth of about ¾ inch. Cover with a piece of netting, plastic screen or cheesecloth and put in the hot sun. The jam will be done in about three to four days, when the syrup has thickened and is slightly tacky to the touch. Bring it inside and pour it into a large, heavy pot, being careful not to break up the fruits. Heat the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Pour into hot, sterilized jars and seal. Store the jars in a cool, dark place for up to one year, or in the freezer for up to 18 months.

Tips for Successful Sun Cooking

Sun cooking works best during hot, sunny weather. If you have a run of rainy weather while you’re preparing any of these recipes, finish the cooking process in the oven to avoid spoilage.

Set the oven temperature to 150°F, set the uncovered baking tray on the oven rack (be sure to remove the mesh or cheesecloth), and leave the door slightly ajar.

Check on the trays frequently; depending on how much cooking or drying time is needed, the process could take from one to eight hours to finish. If you see mold, smell an ‘off’ odor or suspect that spoiling may have occurred, the food should be discarded.

What Not to Cook in the Sun? Sun Tea!

Although making sun tea – combining tea and water in a glass jar and leaving it outdoors – is a popular way to make iced tea, the practice can be potentially dangerous. Using the sun’s rays to make tea can facilitate the growth of bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Instead, follow the recommendation of the National Tea Association and use the same process to ‘brew’ iced tea in your refrigerator overnight. It’s far more economical than commercially prepared iced tea, and you can make it the night before with no cooking or boiling needed.

Refrigerator Tea

1 gallon cold water in a sun tea jar or large lidded glass jar
9 standard-sized tea bags (regular or decaffeinated)
Honey to taste, if desired

If the tea bags have tags, remove them first. If they have strings, you can tie all the strings together to make removing the tea bags easier. Put the tea bags in the jar, pour the cold water over the bags, and cover the jar with the lid. Refrigerate overnight. Remove the tea bags (a slotted spoon makes it easier). If you want to sweeten the tea, add honey to taste just before serving, stirring until dissolved. Store in the refrigerator and discard any unused tea after 24 hours.

Variations

Loose tea: To use loose tea instead of tea bags, add ½ cup of loose tea leaves directly to the cold water. ‘Brew’ as above, then strain the tea through a fine strainer or cheesecloth before drinking.

Green tea: Follow the directions as above, using up to 12 tea bags for a slightly stronger brew.

Mint tea: Add 1 cup of crushed mint leaves to the mixture before steeping.

Citrus tea: Sweeten the prepared tea with orange juice or lemonade. Or, garnish individual glasses with lemon, orange or lime slices.

Flavored tea: “Flavored tea mixtures can be especially good for making iced tea,” says Kathleen Curtis, co-owner of Village Roasters in Lakewood, Colo. “Apricot, mango, ginger and peach-flavored black teas are all popular for iced tea in the summertime, as well as fruity blends like strawberry-cherry and cinnamon orange spice. You can also experiment and combine several varieties of loose flavored teas to make your own custom mix.”

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