Adventures in Off-the-Grid Cooking with a Solar Oven~Part 3: Cooking with the Solavore Sport Oven

I picked up my Solavore Sport test oven from the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, a non-profit organization and Solavore distributor, at the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair. I’ve spent the last couple of months experimenting with it, and had some wonderful results.

solavoreThe unit is made of thick recycled plastic (reinforced with glass fibers to prevent heat degradation and crushing) and is lightweight (9 lbs), durable, and easy to transport and assemble, which has made it very convenient for us to use. I’m by no means an expert on solar ovens, but it seems extremely well-designed (read more here).

The clear plastic lid is made of two layers (one is thicker plastic, one is a thinner polyester film) with a space in between to help retain heat. From what I’ve read on the Solavore website, it sounds like there can sometimes be issues with moisture getting trapped between the two layers (Solavore recommends storing the unit on its side to help drain out any moisture), or with the polyester film getting punctured. I haven’t experienced either of these issues, but it’s nice to know that if you do have a problem with the lid you can order a new lid or lid repair kit, rather than having to replace the whole oven. The oven also comes with a thermometer and a WAPI stick for water pasteurization.

solavore_punjabieggplant

Roasting eggplant, tomatoes, onions and garlic to make “Punjabi Eggplant.”

At the end of the day, I can pick up the whole oven, with food still hot inside of it, and carry it into the house. It comes with two 9-inch black graniteware pots so we can cook two dishes at once (which is somewhat rare for solar ovens), or multiple ingredients for the same dish that require different cooking times (for example, a pot of rice and a pot of roasted veggies).

 

I’ve experimented with a number of recipes, and had the best results with roasted veggies (beets, eggplant, tomatoes, etc.), which come out absolutely juicy and delicious after just a couple of hours. As a rule of thumb, cooking time is twice as long as conventional methods, with an additional half hour for the solar oven to preheat.

One of my favorite things about using the solar oven is that is doesn’t require oil to cook veggies (which is both healthier and more economical). Because the oven cooks slowly at lower temperatures (typically ranging from 210º – 260º F, maxing out at 300º F), it’s hard to burn or overcook things, and the veggies retain more nutrients. This is a big perk for me because I tend to multi-task and get distracted when I’m cooking veggies on the stove and often end up overcooking them, which my partner hates.

solar_lentils_before_2

Soaked rice & lentils prior to cooking

Lentils and rice (after being soaked overnight) have also come out beautifully in the solar cooker. One of my current life goals is to get better at cooking “exotic” cuisine – Indian, Ethiopian, etc.

I used to work at an Afghani restaurant that served the most exquisitely delicious food I’ve ever eaten, and learned that one of their secrets (in addition to high-quality ingredients and some serious culinary talent) was cooking dishes for long periods of time over low heat, to allow the flavors to really sink in. I’m hoping the solar oven will work well for this task, sort of like a slow cooker.solar_lentils_2

Not your average camping food: delicious solar-cooked spiced lentils & rice!

One thing that’s important to note about cooking in the solar oven is that you need to use less water than usual (about 25% less), because water takes longer to heat up. I’m still experimenting with liquid ratios for rice, beans, lentils, etc. A few times I haven’t added enough liquid and the final product comes out a bit dry and under-cooked, so I’ve end up adding water and finishing it on the stove (which takes less time than if I were to cook the dish on the stove from the beginning).

I’m also trying to figure out how to cook larger dried beans like black beans, Great Northern white beans, and pinto beans. After soaking some Great Northern white beans for two days, I tried cooking them in the solar cooker. After a full day in the sun they were still pretty uncooked, so I ended up putting them in the slow cooker. But I tried the same thing with black beans, and it worked beautifully. Either way, it seems important to soak the beans beforehand if you want them to cook fully in one day.

Another challenge is that if you’re cooking something that takes all day, you need to be able to adjust the oven so that it stays in the sun. On a cloudy day, you can add metal reflectors that easily snap on to the oven to concentrate the limited sunlight, and usually things cook just fine that way. According to the website, the Solavore Sport Oven also works well for winter cooking—which I’m excited to try—and can maintain a cooking temperature of 250 degrees even when the air temperature is below zero. The oven can be turned on its side for winter cooking to better capture the lower angle of winter sun rays. Amazing – talk about appropriate technology!

The Solavore Sport Oven with reflectors retails for $269, and you can order it from the Solavore website. For a low-budget homesteader this feels like a big investment, especially when you could build a solar cooker yourself. But it’s actually cheaper than other commercial models, and personally, the time I would have spent researching and deciding on a design, gathering materials, and building the oven could be worth the financial investment, especially since I know the Solavore Sport Oven is so well-designed, efficient, durable, and convenient to use.

If you’re already thinking about purchasing a solar oven, I highly recommend this model. You can purchase the oven without reflectors for $229, but if you’re going to make the investment in the oven, I’d recommend purchasing the reflectors for those days that aren’t as sunny. I’ve already gotten a lot of use out of mine. You can also save a bit of money (about $25 per oven) if you and a friend go in together on a two-pack of ovens.

That’s all for now – time for a dinner of solar-roasted zucchini and some solar baked peach-banana bread for dessert!

This article is Part 3 in a 4-part series: Adventures in Off-the-Grid Cooking with a Solar Oven. The rest of the series is linked below:

Part 1: Why Go Solar?

Part 2: Choosing a Solar Oven

Part 4: Recipes & Tips for Solar Cooking

 

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