Archive for January, 2008

Baking Below Zero with Sol

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Baking Below Zero with Sol

It’s mid January and supposedly the coldest day of this winter. We have around minus 12 but hey, it’s January and it’s about time we had an honorable winter day. I’m heading out to the south side of the woods to the oven to bake a pan of chocolate chip bars.

Carrying the eleven-pound, suitcase-sized oven along the sinuous, packed trail about a block and a half through the woods, I reach the edge of the old open field. Here the world is bright in sunshine and it is here that I set the solar oven down, attach the reflector, aim it south, slightly right, or west, of the sun. Though the sun is not high at this time of the year it still blasts out the same energy it would on a hot July day. It’s that energy that I am going to call on to do some emissions-free baking.

One could argue that I have no emissions spewing from my house when I turn on the electric oven. The problem is that it requires electricity and if you live in Minnesota, that likely means electricity generated from coal.

No matter what the advertisements say about “clean coal,” there ain’t no such thing yet. Sure it’s a dream and we can hope that there will soon be a way to sequester the carbon released from this fossil fuel, but for now it contributes mightily to greenhouse gases. Not to mention that coal is a nasty purveyor of mercury and all one has to do is read the Minnesota Fish Advisory to learn that this is one nasty toxin.

I have intentionally chosen this frigid day to initiate my new solar oven. Why not choose to bake outdoors on a day where the snow squeaks loudly and bundled folks hurry from car to warm shelter? I have been told that the oven works well in winter so why not try it. Besides, since I am officially a sales rep for the Solar Oven Society I should know what the oven is capable of cooking.

The enclosed solar oven is no more than a uniquely shaped molded plastic box that is covered with a transparent double-filmed cover. The inside is black, as are the cooking pots, to absorb the sunlight. I attached a collar of sorts, which resembles a ring of foil flanges that help reflect more sunlight into the box. Inside next to the pot holding the sweet dessert, I have placed the oven thermometer that comes with the oven.

Think of the solar oven like your car parked out in the sunlight on a hot August day. With your doors and windows closed the temperature inside your car can reach 180ºF. A benefit of using the solar oven there is no need to add water, therefore flavors and nutrients are retained better than conventional cooking.

At 11:15 AM I set the oven in place and hurried back to the house to warm up.

Exactly one hour later, just past noon, with the air temperature still below zero, I bundle up again and trek out to the oven. (It’s actually colder due to the wind chill inspired by a northwest breeze.) At noon, on a clear day, such as this one, the sun, some 93,000,000 miles away delivers about 1,000 watts. Though it is considered a middle-aged dwarf star, one of approximately 400 billion stars in our home, Milky Way galaxy, it can deliver 1,000 watts per square meter on a clear day! This is amazing. I can’t help but think what if we put a fraction of the money we have spent on the war in Iraq in research and development for solar and wind technology. Would the quality of life for humans around the world be better or worse?

One-third of the earth’s human population must do their cooking over open fires. The job of gathering firewood not only contributes to deforestation in many areas but it requires hours and hours of work. Most of the time this work is done by the women and sometimes up to seven hours of their day is devoted to scrounging for firewood to cook meals for their family.

In one hour the oven temperature has climbed to 250ºF! I shift the oven slightly west to stay on pace with the westerly route of the sun and hustle back to the house again.

I don’t go out until 2:15 PM and the oven temperature still reads 250ºF. I am curious about the progress so I crouch in the snow, remove the reflector and unsnap the cover. I am surprised at the heat that is released and pleased at the aroma of the baking treat. Not wanting to cool things down, I immediately cover the oven back up but not before I remove the cover to the kettle that I am using for baking. I don’t know if this is a good idea, but I tell myself that this will help put a slight crust on top of the bars.

The smell of chocolate chip morsels hangs and as I head back to the house for a third time, I can’t help but wonder if the smell might attract a host of squirrels, coyotes, crows and other neighborhood residents. The image of them encircling the oven hatches a grin under the wool scarf that wraps my face.

The sun is in its last hour giving the world a golden yellow cast. It’s time to fetch the baked dessert. I hurry out to the field where dark blue shadows are starting to stretch across it. I remove the reflector, fold it up and pick up the oven and encased treat.

I am pleased with the result. And I know that when Nancy gets home later, she will be tickled by both the sweet treat and the fact that it required only sunlight.

I am in awe of what is possible.

(For more information on solar ovens and the Solar Oven Society go to
< >.
If you are interested in purchasing one, you can order one online or contact me.