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Cooking On The Sunny Side: How Solar Chefs Put Food On The Table

Corn dogs sizzle in a solar cooker made from reflective car windshield shades.
Corn dogs sizzle in a solar cooker made from reflective car windshield shades.

Heat waves have been the bane of summer for many in the Midwest and Northeast, including the millions left powerless after severe weather earlier this month. As we reported, many people without power had to turn to food pantries and soup kitchens as their own food rotted in their muggy homes.

But for Louise Meyer of Washington, D.C., power blackouts followed by sunny days added up to a perfect storm for solar cooking.

Meyer has been cooking off the grid for more than two decades. And she runs Solar Household Energy, a nonprofit that's promoting solar cooking around the world.

At its simplest, solar cooking is about concentrating sunlight and then converting it into heat. One low-tech way is to trap the sun's heat by stuffing a lidded pot full of food inside a large plastic oven bag. You also need some cardboard and aluminum foil to create reflective panels to surround the pot, as shown in the video below.

There are more elaborate ways to solar cook if you want to invest in, for example, custom-made reflective panels like the ones SHE distributes, an insulated black box with a lid, or a parabolic cooker that resembles a shinier version of a satellite TV dish.

But most importantly, you need sun.

"You don't need a hot day," Meyer says. "You just need good light."

Still, only the parabolic cooker can reach frying temperature — 400 degrees or so — and even then you have reposition it as the sun moves across the sky.

A parabolic solar cooker heats up a tea kettle in Nepal.
Tracy Hunter / Flickr
A parabolic solar cooker heats up a tea kettle in Nepal.

Meyer has made quinoa, ratatouille, chicken, spare ribs, and even cakes — all from sitting her solar cooker out in the sun, no electricity or gas required. Cooking time can vary depending on the amount of direct sunlight available, but Meyer says if she puts her solar cooker out midday, her average meal is usually ready within three hours on clear, sunny days. ("On semi-sunny days, I don't even try to solar cook," she says.)

While solar cooking can be cost-effective, relying on the weather to cook your food can sometimes result in an empty stomach. A successful solar cook needs to have a healthy dose of patience, as well as good time management skills. Meyer says she sometimes has to start cooking her dinner in the early morning hours to take advantage of direct sunlight.

"You start learning to read the sky and become in tune with nature," Meyer says.

During fall and winter months, she relies on her indoor kitchen. But she says solar cooking can come in handy in emergency situations.

Patricia McArdle can also vouch for that.

McArdle lost power at her home in Arlington, Va., for four days during the infamous " Snowpocalypse" that hit the Northeast in 2010. Fortunately, the retired Foreign Service officer had multiple solar cookers in her house from training sessions she had done in Afghanistan and the U.S.

McArdle, a former board member of the Sacramento-based nonprofit Solar Cookers International, remembers making steaming-hot chicken soup with her solar cooker while snowed-in on her block with no power. It was 30 degrees Fahrenheit outside, but inside her sunlit solar cooker, she says the temperature hit 300 degrees within 40 minutes.

"We should all have [a solar cooker] in the emergency kit," she says.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.