Notes from Windward: #68
Jen uses the sun's energy to put food on the table
At Windward, it is probable that you will find, in every nook and cranny, some old apparatus waiting to be awakened from hibernation. For me, that device has recently been a solar oven. The design is simple: a wooden box lined with black metal, a glass door on the top and four metal reflectors that flair out at a 45 degree angle on the four sides of the box. For extra efficiency and convenience, there is a thermometer and a swiveling shelf inside.
In preparation for cooking my first solar meal, I read a book called Heavenís Flame to shed some light on the oven and how it is used. Cooking food in a solar oven requires a different mindset than when using conventional methods. First, temperature is not as crucial as is the amount of sunlight for that given day. Solar cooks have prepared meals on snowy mountain tops in the middle of winter because the sun was shining brightly. For that reason, you will have better luck cooking on a chilly, sunny day than a hot, hazy day. Most importantly, you will have to begin preparing the food early so that it will be ready for the ovenbox when the sun is most intense.
As a novice solar chef, I started with a basic starch: rice. After my first solar cooking attempt, I ended up with a half-mushy, half- crunchy cup of white rice. It wasnít the most palatable thing I had ever made, but it gave me some experience and taught me how to move the oven with the path of the sun. What I truly wanted to make was bread.
For my first loaf I followed a basic recipe, adding ground flax seeds and chopped almonds. I made the dough the night before, but it didnít rise. The next morning, I greased a loaf pan and a well-rinsed aluminum can, divided the dough among them and stuck them in the solar oven (with reflectors to the side), hoping the warmth of the sun would kick the yeast into gear. After an hour of slow rising, I kneaded the loaves and placed them back in the oven (out of direct sunlight). After a second rise, the ovenbox was ready to be directed towards the sun with the reflectors unfolded. The loaves saw their first heavy dose of sunlight and 12, and by 1:15 they were crusted golden brown.
It wasnít long before my first solar loaves were devoured, so I began preparing dough for a second bake later that week. I substituted the usual whole wheat flour for some more unusual grains: hard spring, triticale, rye. I dropped a round heap of dough into each of the two 2-pound coffee tins, which I had cleaned and spray painted black. From 10 to 11 a.m., the cans sat outside with a damp cloth over them. During this time, the ovenís reflectors guided the sunshine into its interior and, by 11, it registered 230 degrees inside. I placed the loaves in the box and returned at 12:45 to a steamy glass pane covered in condensation and the sweet aroma of fresh baked bread. I knew the loaves were ready because they slipped easily out of the cans. I turned them upside down to brown the bottoms for an additional 30 minutes. By 1:30, I had two beautiful and healthy loaves of bread, baked by the light of the sun.
Baking with pure sunlight, as opposed to baking with an oven that derives its energy from fossilized sunlight, feels very natural. For many people around the world who lack access to cheap fossil fuels, though, a solar oven is a much more crucial piece of technology than we could imagine. It relieves the families who spend as many as 100 hours a week traveling to collect cooking fuel, and the forests which are being stripped for fuel faster than they can regenerate. The oven has its place at Windward as part of the eventual energy quilt that will support us, with solar energy being an abundant resource on this side of the Cascades.
Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 68