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Choosing the Right Solar Cooker for Your Needs

Choosing the Right Solar Cooker for Your Needs.

Solar cooking devices come in many shapes and sizes. Each tends to serve a very specific purpose and comes with its own set of advantages and limitations. In this post, we will highlight popular styles and discuss the pros and cons of each, so you can ultimately find the best solar oven for your particular needs.

No piece of survival gear is truly one-size-fits-all kind, and solar cookers are certainly no exception. In determining the solar cooking device that will work best for you and your family, you’ll need to ask yourself a few questions.

  • What specific types of food will you likely want to cook?
  • What kind of food volume will you need it to handle in order to meet your family’s needs?
  • How portable do you need your cooker to be?

A challenge such as feeding a large family can be solved by using multiple solar cookers, allowing you to cook a greater volume of food for each meal. Other issues, like portability, will likely offer less flexibility. If your primary need, for example, is something that you can take hiking, you’ll be looking for a different set of features than someone wanting to cook for a lot of people in a situation where the power goes out, leaving them without a normal oven to cook in.

What is a Solar Cooker?

In essence, a solar cooker is a device that channels the sun’s rays to harness or focus heat for the purpose of cooking food or heating water. Many solar cookers utilize some form of reflectors to help channel rays into, or onto, the cooker. The maximum temperature achieved and maintained throughout the cooking process depends on several variables:

  • How well the oven is aligned with the sun.
  • How frequently you adjust to realign the oven with the sun as it passes across the sky.
  • The amount of insulation that is inside the walls of your cooker.
  • The amount of direct sunshine available on any given day.
  • Whether you’re using reflectors.
  • The tightness and quality of the seal around the door of your oven.
  • How clean the glass or plastic is that the sun’s rays are passing through.
  • How frequently you open the lid to check on the food inside.

Solar Ovens vs Solar Cookers: What’s the Difference?

All solar ovens are part of the solar cooker family, but not all solar cookers are part of the solar oven family. What’s the difference? Many solar cookers are designed to cook a very small amount of food. For these micro models, true baking isn’t really an option. Some products also specialize in just heating water, which is why those models can’t really be called “ovens.”

Alternative Cooking Preparedness

In a real emergency scenario where the grid is down for a period of time, solar ovens make a lot of sense. Earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning, fierce winds, ice storms, and more, all have the ability to interrupt the power we rely on for everyday living. Loss of power leaves communities without light, refrigeration, or the ability to cook using most traditional methods. The ability to cook is important because it makes many foods (like meats) safer to consume. Food also brings some level of comfort in the wake of a tragedy.

In some cases, natural disasters damage the power grid so severely that power can’t be restored for weeks … or even months. It’s in these situations that having alternative methods for cooking become particularly critical. You probably have a BBQ grill at your house. Most grills run on propane. You may even have a propane camping stove, or a butane stove. Some people store firewood so they can cook over an open fire or on top of a wood-burning stove. All these cooking methods are valuable and certainly have their place, but they also all share one major weakness: They are FINITE. You have a limited supply of propane, butane, charcoal, or wood. Once you’re out … you’re out! Realizing that, you may work to stockpile an impressive amount of fuel, and that is great. But even then, it may not be enough for prolonged use.


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Solar cooking can help to extend your supply of fuels. We know that the sun will continue to come out. It won’t shine unobstructed every day, but it will on many days. If we cook with the sun on the days when the sky is clear, then we can stretch out and ration all our other fuel sources much more effectively, only using these fuels when the sun isn’t shining. Utilizing this emergency cooking strategy can dramatically impact the length of time that every other fuel source lasts. It may also free you up to use some of your fuel for other purposes, like heating your home or sharing with a neighbor in need.

In addition to preparing food, solar cookers can provide a means for pasteurizing water. Pasteurization is the process of raising the temperature in order to kill the pathogens in contaminated water sources that can make you sick. Lack of drinkable water can pose a much more immediate and serious threat to your family than even lack of food does. A quality solar cooker can help on both fronts.

Types of Solar Cookers

In general, there are four main design categories for solar cookers.

  • Box
  • Panel
  • Parabolic
  • Evacuated tube


We will discuss positive and negative aspects of each design below.

Box-style Solar Oven:

These ovens offer a full enclosure for the food cooked within them. Many box ovens have insulated sides, which helps them to retain heat much more efficiently than non-insulated competitors. They often have reflector panels that help direct additional rays into the oven to achieve higher temperatures. Box-style units can easily be used as ovens to bake bread, cakes, cookies, and other items.

There are several different box style solar ovens available, but in our findings, Sun Oven has a product that provides the highest overall value. The company has been around for decades; they’re used extensively overseas, in areas where fuel is expensive or unobtainable. These solar ovens last and last. Sun Oven only uses well-crafted, high quality, parts, and they do a careful job of assembly to ensure that build quality is exceptional. We’ve never known anyone to have a Sun Oven brand solar oven that had any defects, or that broke or failed. Durability is a critical consideration when you’re purchasing a device you plan to use in survival scenarios. Having a warranty is nice, but a warranty won’t do you any good when you need to eat TODAY! It also won’t help much if the mail isn’t going out, or the company that manufactured your cooker has gone out of business.

In addition to baking, the All American Sun Oven can be used to dehydrate fruit or meat, steam, or boil. It can even be used to pasteurize water, so you can ensure it’s safe to drink. It folds into an easy-to-transport box with a handle attached to one side, and weighs just 23 pounds in total, making it a fairly portable solar oven. The All-American Sun Oven reaches temperatures of 360 to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Because of the tight-fitting door and insulated sides, the All-American Sun Oven is an extremely practical and efficient all season solar cooker. It’s also more stable on windy days than many other solar cooking options. Parabolic cookers can catch wind like a kite because of their shape. Even a small wind gust could knock them over. Panel cookers are flexible and lightweight, so they can also experience a lot of shifting and movement during episodes of strong wind. The box of the All-American Sun Oven, on the other hand, has a fairly low profile. The crossbar in the back ads stabilization, and the pre-drilled holes in the crossbar that allow you to stake the solar oven down to the ground add peace of mind as well. When the reflectors are up on a gusty day, they move along with the wind, and the unit is quite secure once it is staked.


Pros:

  • Walls and insulation allow for effective use, even during winter months
  • Even heat throughout oven
  • Reasonable temperatures
  • Ability to bake, boil, steam, and dehydrate
  • Portable

Cons:

  • Limited space. You can’t use full-sized cookie sheets or many of your larger dishes.

Parabolic Solar Cooker:

A parabolic cooker functions like the burners on your stove. It is a large and highly reflective concave solar apparatus that deflects and focuses the sun’s rays to a center point, where the concentrated beams are then used to cook a dish. Parabolic cookers resemble a satellite dish. The larger the surface area, the more heat it can produce. These cookers can sometimes reach temperatures in excess of 800 degrees at the focal point. The high heat is both a blessing and a curse. Food can cook faster, but you have to really watch it to keep things from burning. One great advantage of the many parabolic cookers is that the combination of high heat and easy access to the pot allows you to deep fry foods using this cooker model. Most other styles will allow you to bake, boil, steam, and even dehydrate ... but not fry. If you commonly pan fry food, and having that ability would be important to you during an emergency, then you would want to consider purchasing a parabolic-style cooker.

The parabolic cooker and the box-style oven described above each serve slightly different cooking needs. The parabolic device is like the burners on your stove top. You can put pots and pans on top of them to cook a wide variety of things. You can fry an egg or do stir fry, for example. A box-style solar oven, on the other hand, is more like your kitchen oven. It’s ideal for any form of baking, but it isn’t good at cooking things in pans, you couldn't do pancakes or scrambled eggs in a box style oven for example because the glass door needs to stay closed while cooking is taking place, which limits access.


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Pros:

  • Capable of achieving incredibly high temperatures - all from the sun!
  • Can be the fastest-cooking solar cooker choice
  • Accommodates pots of various sizes
  • Ability to fry foods

Cons:

  • Typically large and hard to handle
  • Not very portable
  • Difficult to store
  • Not designed for baking
  • Easy to burn your food
  • No walls or insulation around food

Panel Solar Cooker

A panel-style cooker is sort of a hybrid of a parabolic cooker and a box-style cooker. It consists of reflective panels that wrap underneath and around a pot. The sun’s rays are redirected to shine on a pot in the center, heating the pot and slowly cooking the food inside. Panel cookers are low-temperature devices. They don’t focus the sun’s rays as efficiently as parabolics do. They also don’t have walls or insulation, so cooking in a windy or low-temperature environment could prove challenging. Generally speaking, panel-style solar cookers are capable of maintaining temperatures in the neighborhood of 250 to 300 degrees.

Using a panel cooker, you need to allow lots of time for the cooking process. It’s typically going to act like a solar crockpot. It often really helps to place a dutch oven in the middle of the cooker instead of a regular pot or bowl, since the heavy cast iron retains heat much better.


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A solar oven bag is an adaptation of the panel-style solar cooker. It uses reflective panels to redirect rays onto a bowl or pot so you can cook. The oven folds up for easy transport and has a plastic door that creates a full enclosure. This type of oven is incredibly lightweight. These highly portable ovens can achieve and maintain temperatures in the neighborhood of approximately 200 to 280 degrees.



Pros:

  • Easy to assemble and disassemble
  • Lightweight
  • Portable

Cons:

  • Low temperatures (284 degrees Fahrenheit under ideal conditions)
  • No enclosure or insulation (so winter cooking could be difficult)
  • Rain, leaves, or blowing debris could collect in the bowl-shaped cooker

Evacuated Tube Solar Cooker:

Tube-style solar devices are often referred to as a Solar Kettle. They typically consist of reflectors that redirect solar rays onto a tube to heat liquid contained inside. More recently, the technology has been used to cook food inside the chamber as well. Some brands use just the tube and some add reflectors. These cookers can reach 500+ degrees Fahrenheit, but their main downfall is the pitifully small amount of food most of them can cook - only enough really for 1 person, though most advocate that they make 2 servings. But the solar cooker tube is great at what they’re made to do, heating small amounts of water and food with a very portable device. They are great for heating water for hot drinks or to rehydrate dehydrated or freeze-dried foods. They can easily fit in a backpack for easy transport and weigh very little. Water is quite hot after a couple of hours in the sun. These devices would work well for the needs of one to two people, but if you were trying to meet the needs of a larger group, you would either need to use more than one, or you would need to use a larger solar cooker that can accommodate larger pots of water. To review options for larger solar ovens, click here.


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Pros:

  • Compact and portable

Cons:

  • Only works for heating water, or some can cook small amounts of food
  • Limited capacity -ideal for one to two people

What About Homemade Solar Cookers?

We’ve probably all seen the idea for the aluminum-foil-covered pizza box solar cookers. My kids have had a great time assembling these masterpieces. There’s a sense of pride that comes from building something ourselves. We feel good about the accomplishment and may have saved money in the process. But eating still-doughy cookies after several hours in such a makeshift solar oven taught us a lesson. There are certain areas where saving money isn’t the main objective. I once went skydiving. I paid more for the adventure than I typically would for a couple hours of fun, but it was something I wanted to experience at least once. I might have been able to save a little money by rolling my own parachute, but that thought never even crossed my mind. My safety and survival was on the line. I wanted to make sure my chute worked as predictably and efficiently as possible when my time of need came. It would have been so frustrating and terrifying to have a problem at the very moment that I needed that piece of equipment to work, because my life was literally depending on it. In your hour of need, when you have to feed your family, you’ll need something that works as efficiently and predictably as possible. It would be frustrating and maybe a little terrifying in that moment when you need your solar device to cook your food, only to find that your DIY solar oven isn’t working well or isn’t holding up.

Manufacturers refine their products and processes over time to ultimately produce fine-tuned offerings. They also often have access to better, more specialized materials and craftsmanship than most individuals would, especially when building just one unit. Your main consideration should be function and durability. It needs to be functional AND efficient. Can I line a used pizza box with foil and melt or even cook something small and fairly flat? Yes, probably. Could I rely on that used pizza box to provide hot meals for my family through weeks or months of use and occasional nasty weather? Probably not.

Which Style Should You Choose?

As we discussed earlier, there are various reasons that one style or another might make sense for your needs. In reality, it’s best to acquire at least two or three solar cookers over time. There are two reasons for that recommendation. First, having multiple cookers allows you to cook multiple things at the same time, so you can complete a total meal much faster. Second, different types of cookers have differing strengths and benefits. Isn’t it so helpful to have working stove burners as well as an oven in your modern kitchen? A parabolic cooker is like the stove top burner that you use at home daily. It will work great for many things you cook in a pot or pan. A box-style solar oven, on the other hand, will allow you to bake! Having both types of devices at your disposal will enable you to cook a wider variety of food. Having multiple ovens also speeds up preparation time and provides critical redundancy. If you have two solar cooking devices and one gets lost, broken, or stolen, you’ll still have one remaining.

Having said all that, I wouldn’t advise waiting until you can afford multiple solar cooking devices before buying your first. It would be FAR better to only have one solar cooker during a major emergency than it would be to have none. Choose the device that makes the most sense to start with based on all the factors we discussed. As soon as you’re able, consider adding a second solar cooking device.


Key Features and Capabilities:

Box Parabolic Panel Tube
Works like cook-top burner X
Works like an oven X X X
Max temperature (Fahrenheit) 400 800 285 500
Typically portable Yes No Yes Yes
Bakes X X X
Boils X X X X
Steams X X X
Dehydrates X X
Fries X

Use Your Solar Cooker for Everyday Cooking

Remember that regardless of the style or particular brand of solar cooker you ultimately choose for your home, practice is critical. If you don’t use your oven until disaster strikes and you need it in order to survive, you’ll be at a big disadvantage. If a time like that should roll around, you’ll have plenty on your mind and a to-do list that is a mile long! You won’t have the mental or emotional bandwidth to break out the instructions and learn how to use the device properly. Imagine the fright of realizing that the power won’t be coming back on for weeks or months after a natural disaster. You remember that you purchased a solar cooker, and the thought brings a great deal of relief. You venture into the garage and find the oven buried under a pile of other unopened boxes of gear, then bound back inside to open it. As you unpack the oven, you realize that your current roasting pans and other dishes don’t fit. Fear returns as you wonder where you can even buy pans now.

Cooking a meal once a week, or even once a month, will give you real familiarity with proper operation of your oven. You will have an opportunity to purchase pans and accessories if needed, and you’ll also discover favorite solar dishes … the ones that you like to make and your family likes to eat!

The development of skill is a critical component of survival … not just the accumulation of survival gear. Practice with your oven. Get skilled in its use. When emergencies strike and the oven comes out after many days of regular use, you’ll have a reassuring feeling of confidence and well-being as you go to cook with your trusted and well-used solar cooker. The process will have become second nature.