Putting it all together

Let me try to summarize the various cooking methods I hope to use regularly in future. Almost all involve a solar cooker at some point.

I’ll begin with what started this whole journey for me: the solar box oven. Pretty much any slow cooker recipe will work for a box oven. The main constraint is consistent sunlight for a long enough period of time. Intermittent clouds can sometimes reduce the oven temps below safe levels. Also, if you are not home to re-orient/aim the oven every hour or two, then longer cooking times will be necessary.

The parabolic cooker does not require as much sun time as the box oven, but you need to be ready to cook when the sun is out. This works fine if you have sunlight an hour or so before the planned meal. One way to extend the cooking time is to use a heat-retention method (hay-box or thermal cooker) to keep the food hot until mealtime. You can find other sources of insulation if hay is not handy.
Note: you can always click on an image to see a clearer (sometimes larger) version.

Thermal cookers (wide mouth thermoses work) and hay-boxes are especially good for cooking stews, curries & soups; dishes with high liquid content. The parabolic cooker would bring the food up to a boil and then the boiling hot food would be transferred to a pre-heated container to cook further in your choice of heat-retention apparatus. This way the food stays hot even if mealtime is hours away. When cooking for 4-5 people I use a 4 qt. Zojirushi thermal cooker. For 1-2 people I will be using this Thermos Nissan 48 oz. Wide Mouth Stainless-Steel Bottle.

Another tool to help with limited sun time is to use a pressure cooker. Recipes abound for this cooking method and you can often have a main dish ready with less than an hour of parabolic cooking time.

The final method is arguably not cooking per se, but dehydrated food can often help in speeding up cooking when sunlight is limited. It doesn’t take nearly as long to reconstitute dehydrated potatoes or meat as it does to cook them in from their raw state. Of course dehydrated fruit, veggies, jerky & fruit leather can be eaten as snacks.

To bring it full circle to solar cooking, the trays of my electric dehydrator can be placed into my solar box oven with a few modifications (subject for another blog post). I will have to pick the types of food to match the amount of sunlight anticipated on a given day, but if the weather doesn’t cooperate I can always complete the dehydration in the electric dehydrator.

To recap:
*box oven: slow cooking & dehydrating
*parabolic cooker: re-heating, fry/sauté & bringing to boil to put into hay-box or thermal cooker
*thermal cooker: slow cooking soups, stews, curries
*pressure cooker: too many to list
*dehydrator: almost anything you can think of including fruit leather, jerky, fruit chips, cooked corn/potatoes/beans…

Solar dehydrator

A recent discussion on the Yahoo SolarCooking forum brought up the topic of solar dehydrators. A few clicks later brought me to this section of builditsolar and this explanatory video.

I have a suitably large piece of glass that’s been sitting idle for years and plenty of scrap plywood, so I thought I’d research a bit more to see what else was needed. That lead me to the trays and various liners. Here is what the ones from an Excalibur brand dehydrator looks like.

Both materials need to be food grade quality. (Yes, I know folks have used wood and window screens for years, but this is just the road I choose to take. YMMV) The Excalibur trays are made of hard polycarbonate and the polyscreen of “FDA approved food-grade materials.” You can buy them directly from Excalibur for $10 and $3.75 respectively. If I
ordered 5 of each, it comes out to ~$69 +tax & shipping. That’s getting close to the price of one of their basic 4 tray dehydrators.

So I searched for alternatives. An hour later and the best I could find were these cooling racks & silicone baking sheets.

For $40 I would have 6 trays and 4 sheets. Many things I plan to dehydrate would fit fine on the racks themselves without any danger of falling through the gaps. But things like fruit leather (fruit roll-ups), corn, peas, etc. need something like the silicon sheets.

Somewhere around this time my young niece and nephew saw me browsing through solar dehydrator designs on my iPad. Of course they wanted to know what they were. I did my best to explain and they (mostly my niece) listened with mild interest. But when I mentioned that we could make fruit leather…well, the interest level rocketed and plans to mix all sorts of fruit flavors started flying. Needless to say this project moved up a few levels.

I knew my lack of woodworking skills was going to mean a long development (thinking through) time, so I went back to shopping the 4 tray Excalibur. There are less expensive dehydrator brands out there, but my gut reaction was they wouldn’t work as well. JMO. Another hour going through eBay, Amazon, etc. resulted in finding a company in AZ that would ship it to CA for $106 total. I also ordered four of the $5 silicon sheets needed to make fruit leather. I’m eagerly awaiting the start of a new cooking adventure. It won’t be totally solar-less because I plan to use my parabolic cooker to gently cook some of the fruit to be used in the fruit leather.

If you’re like me and don’t know much about dehydrating food, these videos might be of interest to you.