This Earth Day, build a solar cookstove | TheUnion.com

This Earth Day, build a solar cookstove

Sandy Philpott
Special to The Union

Having lived off-grid in Nevada County for the past 10 years, I've learned to get creative when it comes to cooking using solar energy.

We have a conventional gas oven and BBQ, but I thought it would be fun to experiment with solar cooking — meaning, cooking with the heat of the sun itself.

During the winter months, we're short on sunshine but have plenty of burn piles, so we joke that it's that time of year again for "burn pile baked potatoes" — which we've actually done. Once the pile is down to a glow, we place potatoes wrapped in foil in the coals and voila!

I love scouring the pages of "Mother Earth News" and other eco-friendly magazines for inspiring articles and came across one on solar cooking. It piqued my curiosity so I took it a step further and bought a book called "Cooking with Sunshine." It provides step-by-step instructions on building a few types of solar ovens that you can make at home.

Of course, you could just buy one for under $100 on Amazon, but why not enjoy the process and reap the benefits of your own creation?

There are lots of great reasons to learn how to make a solar oven, and this is an excellent family project for Earth Day. Maybe later this summer, you're going camping or are interested in learning about different ways to concentrate the sun's energy. Building a solar oven is fun for anyone who likes cooking, being outdoors or exploring science.

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If you're interested in methods of cooking that don't add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere and would like to make a difference on Earth Day, a simple solar oven could be for you. As long as you're patient and willing to move your oven out to where the sun is, a solar oven will reward you with hot, yummy food.

How to build a solar oven

Materials: Cardboard pizza box, pencil, ruler, box cutter or scissors, aluminum foil, clear type of tape, black construction paper, plastic wrap or large transparent plastic bag, newspapers, oven mitt, dish or pie plate, cooking Ingredients (like those for S'mores or nachos), Optional: a thermometer that goes up to 250 degrees F.

Important note: Although tempting, don't try to use your oven to cook raw meat. Basic solar ovens do not get hot enough to cook the meat thoroughly.

Let's Build It!

Clean any stray bits of cheese, sauce or crumbs out of your pizza box.

Using the ruler and pencil, draw a square one inch in from the edges of the top of the box.

Use the box cutter or knife to cut out three of the four sides of the square.

Make a crease along the uncut side of the square to create a flap that stands up.

Cut a piece of aluminum foil large enough to cover the inner side of the cardboard flap.

Wrap the foil tightly, and secure with tape.

Line the bottom of the pizza box with black construction paper.

Cut two pieces of plastic wrap that are the same size as the top of the pizza box.

Use tape to secure the plastic wrap to the inside edges of the square window you cut into the box. You are creating an airtight window.

Roll up some newspaper pages into tubes to stuff into the sides of the box. Make sure you are still able to close the lid of the pizza box.

Now it is time to cook something! The best time to use your oven is between 11 AM and 3 PM. Make sure to set the food on a dish so you don't mess up the interior of your oven.

One food option is a solar S'more. Place one or two marshmallows on top of a graham cracker. Put two to three squares of chocolate on top of the marshmallow. Wait until it's done cooking to top it with the second graham cracker.  You could also make nachos by placing grated cheese on top of tortilla chips, or use the oven to heat up leftovers or soup.

Solar Oven Recipes

From the book "Cooking with Sunshine" by Lorraine Anderson and Rick Palkovic, reprinted with permission

Pesto Pizza – Serves 4

The Pesto:

2 cups of fresh basil

½ cup olive oil

2 tablespoons pine nuts

2 garlic cloves

½ cup grated parmesan cheese

Blend all ingredients together until evenly blended. Can be made ahead of time and kept in the fridge. It should keep for several days.

The Pizza:

1 (16 ounce) pizza shell

1 cup pesto

¼ cup grated parmesan cheese

4 Tablespoons pine nuts

2 cups grated mozzarella cheese

2 tablespoons sun-dried tomato pieces

To make the pizza, spread the pesto evenly over the pizza shell. Sprinkle the grated parmesan, pine nuts and mozzarella evenly over the pizza and then sprinkle sun-dried tomatoes on top. Place the pizza on a dark pizza pan or cookie sheet and bake uncovered for at least 1 hour in the solar cooker until the cheese has melted.

Crunchy Nutty Granola – Makes 10 cups

2/3 cup canola oil or flaxseed oil

1/3 cup honey

½ cup molasses

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

7 cups rolled oats

1 cup raw sunflower seeds

1 cup wheat germ

1 cup raw cashews

Mix the oil, honey, molasses in a large dark pot and heat in the solar cooker until thin

Add vanilla and stir. Then add the oats, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, and cashews and stir well to coat

Spread the mixture in a dark, shallow, nonstick baking pan in a thin layer

Prop the lid open slightly to let steam escape

Bake until dry about 3 hours, stirring occasionally

Broccoli Breeze Casserole – Yields 4 servings (Please note that pizza box oven probably isn't deep enough to accommodate a casserole dish, so it may require a larger solar oven box)

2 Tbls butter

2 cups chopped steamed broccoli

2 eggs

1 cup sour cream

1 cup cottage cheese

½ cup all purpose baking mix

1 tomato, thinly sliced

½ cup grated parmesan cheese

Cut the butter into small pieces and melt in a dark 8 inch square baking pan in the solar cooker. Coat the sides of the pan well and pour the remaining butter into a mixing bowl.

Place the steamed broccoli in the baking pan in a single layer

Add the eggs, sour cream, cottage cheese and baking mix to the bowl with the butter and beat for one minute. Pour the mixture over the broccoli.

Arrange the tomato slices on top; sprinkle with parmesan cheese

Cover and bake for 2-3 hours in the solar cooker until firm

Sandy Philpott lives off-grid on an organic farm with her husband Jeffrey. During the day, find Sandy at Byers Solar, where she is a solar project administrator.

"It's really great to help people move to solar energy and know that they are saving money while doing something good for the environment. We can be independent and get all of our energy from the sun. We do not have to be so reliant on utility companies.  Energy rates are skyrocketing every day and causing people hardship. It's great to part of a solution that lightens the load on peoples' budgets and our planet."