April and Kevin in Kuna Yala, the northeast coast of Panamá

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Our new Solar Oven

Friends are a wonderful thing...even when they plot behind your back. Little did I know before Tabassum and Linda arrived for a Christmas time visit that they were plotting with our mutual friend Bill to haul a heavy gift to us.

Bill, who owns a business installing irrigation systems, did some work for one of the guys (I hope I got this story right) who works at Solar Household Energy (SHE), a 501(c)(3) not-for profit that makes solar ovens. Well, Bill was hooked with the idea of a solar oven that cooks using only the energy of the sun. He bought one and enjoyed using it.

Bill soon decided that we needed one and so sent us one via two petite couriers. (Linda and Tabassum were really looking forward to leaving that heavy stove at our house...little did they know that they would leave here with bags a little heavier than when they arrived. Thanks for hauling our beach glass collection home!) Due to good protective packaging and careful hauling, the stove arrived in excellent condition. We opened it Christmas day.

Well, I understand why Bill was hooked. It is a pretty cool stove, and works well with full sun. It is incredibly simple and easy to clean. I was also thrilled that I can use the pots as mixing bowls...something that I was lacking. They also serve well for overnight storage of food.

Why cook solar? The Solar Household Energy (SHE) webpage says:

Currently, more than half of the world’s population relies on biomass (wood, animal dung and crop residue) for cooking, according to the U.N.’s World Health Organization (WHO). This practice causes disease, economic hardship, and environmental degradation. Modern solar cooking ovens like SHE’s “HotPot” offer practical, affordable, long-term relief.

In our community here in Panamá there is evidence of families that suffer from smoke related illnesses. There is a high incidence of respritory illnesses and colds. A couple of the ladies that we work with have even been advised by their doctors that they should avoid cooking with leña (wood) because of the negative impacts of the smoke on their health.

Of course, we were excited to receive it...and so made bread with it the same day. The first 4 photos below are from our first attempt at bread. I made the dough for a white herbed onion and garlic bread. I covered the dough with oil and put it in the pot...

This is what the whole stove looks like, the mirrored surface makes understanding it's shape a bit more difficult.

Within half an hour of putting it in the sun the glass was steamed up and the pot was really warm to the touch.

The bread turned out really well. It had good flavor and a rich dense even texture. I think that it will work better to let the bread rise more by not pointing it directly into the sun at first. The only problem that I had is that the stove lid catches the evaporation and sends it back into the pot...which is a good thing if cooking soup, a stew, or roasting something, but when cooking bread resulted in a soggy bottom crust.

I also tried rolls...and put them in a bowl inside the pot as a measure of protection from the moisture. They were ok, I think that they overcooked as they were dry and heavy. I will have to try that again. But, they did raise well.

I also cooked a casserole (rice, mushroom soup, veggies, tuna, and a bit of leftover cheese on top) and that cooked wonderfully in about 3 hours. It was enough food for 2.5 meals for the two of us. Below are before and after cooking photos.

Baco's also gave this casserole a good flavor boost.

Other things that I have cooked?

  • rice (too sticky from long slow cooking),

  • eggs (hardboiled well without water),

  • brownies (my first failure as the sun clouded over about 45 min after putting out the stove...but I cooked them on the stove top as normal and did not mind the excuse to eat a little brownie batter)

  • Zucinni / pumpkin bread (done 3 times now and a big hit with everyone who trys it)

  • Water (heated to do laundry with hot water...best for the dirtiest clothing)

With direct hot sunlight things cook well, taking about 2 or 3 times as long as normal. This can be an issue if you need to go somewhere or the weather changes. Reheating foods is also possible and doesn't take terribly long. Wind, clouds and curious kids standing between it and the sun can all increase cooking time.

This stove offers a good alternative to fuel based cooking for some types of cooking. It is not a perfect alternative. Solar cooking is more suited to slow cooking foods and can not make fast cooking foods (can't fry with it for example). In our community here in Panama, this might mean that it would receive limited use...maybe for beans and soups and roasts, but it is too cool for frying and cooks rice so slowly that it is more sticky than most would like. It is not reasonable to think that people will change their traditional diet to use a new type of stove, when they still have access to the means to cook traditionally. In areas where the situation is more dire this stove would be more fully utilized out of necessity. Please do not interpret this to mean that my neighbors would not use it, rather it would be one of many cooking methods.

All in all, I am a fan of the solar stove and plan on continuing to try new foods. I particularly want to try to roast a whole chicken without oil or water like the directions book says you can...I think that that might just confirm my "wizard cooking abilities" in the minds of my nieghbors if it goes well. We like it so well that we plan on hauling it (even though it is HEAVY) to the next volunteer conference here in Panamá so other volunteers can see it too.

A big THANKS to Bill and his helpful couriers Linda and Tabassum for this wonderful and very appropriate gift. Our plan is to pass it along to another PVC when we finish here in Panamá so another volunteer (and their curious community) can enjoy it too.


Bill said...

Looks like your just heating up with all the possibilities of the Solar Pot. Wait until your neighbors see the full potential of cooking chickens, roasts, fish and such in the pot. You may be able to open an island museum, and display the Estufa Lorena. Or at least place it on the endangered oven list, only used in dire rainy circumstances. Your neighbors might even name a new island holiday in your honor. "Sun Wizard Cook Day" on the day of the summer solstice. Just make sure to limit Kevins intake of the vina de palma during the celebration. Please keep the blog updated on your future solar cooking during your Panama adventure.

Tabassum Majid said...

I'm SO glad that I could fit it in my duffel bag!! :) Happy cooking adventures to you both, we miss you!

Linda said...

I'm SO glad that it was finally taken out of Tabassum's duffel bag! It made room so we could fit her in the bag :P

Heidi said...

Wonderful, loved the info

****Please...can u let me know the website, or address so I can get a solar pot as in you photo. I am trying to share this info with my church and have workshops to promote solar cooking.
Take care