Safer Cooking With Solar Using the Sun for Emergency Preparedness

I use my Global Sun Oven to cook anything that I would normally cook in my regular oven. My family loves fresh-ground wheat bread and we regularly cook roasts, cookies, rice, casseroles, baked potatoes, cakes and more. I can't tell you how many times I've been told that sun cooked chicken tastes better than Kenny Rogers' rotisserie chicken (and I love K.R. chicken).

ecent threats of terrorism has put our country on a high state of alert. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been working with The American Red Cross, The Department of Homeland Defense, local police departments and other agencies to educate American citizens on the importance of preparing for emergencies. Mandatory reading for every family should be an important document recently published by FEMA titled 'Are you ready" located at http://www.fema.gov/areyouready/. It includes information on steps that you can take before and after most natural or man-made disasters.

Nowhere in this important publication does it mention how we can use solar energy to be better prepared. There are several products that use the sun's rays which can be of tremendous value to us before, during and after a disaster. In our first article we discussed how the sun can provide us a source of energy for safer lighting during emergencies. This second installment addresses the importance of having backup methods for cooking food, and how solar thermal energy can, and should, top our list.

San Fernando Earthquake

A few years ago I remember watching on television how people who were directly effected by the San Fernando Earthquake lined up for blocks to get food cooked by the National Guard. People who had no food storage or a means to cook food had to wait in long lines for several hours for breakfast, wait more hours for lunch, then turn around and wait three or more hours for dinner. Thousands of people were afraid to go into their damaged houses to prepare food, so they camped in their yards for days or weeks until the threat of dangerous aftershocks subsided. Those families who had no food or a way to cook it, soon realized that eating to stay alive was a major task rather than an inconvenient "camping experience".

There are a lot of ways to cook food in an emergency. The important thing is that you make a plan, then take action, so that if needed you don't have to stand in line nine hours a day at government run food kitchens.

Black Pot Cooking

After an adequate food and water storage program, I think that one of the most important utensils you can own and use is a good quality Dutch oven. Cooking in a black pot, like our ancestors, is fun and the food tastes great. If you are new to Dutch ovens, ask around, anyone who has cooked a few pineapple upside down cakes or home-brewed chili recipes will be glad to tell you how to do it. There are a lot of brands sold and most of them are imported, but every experienced Dutch oven cook that I have spoken to said the best pot you can own is a "Lodge". These heavy-duty cast iron utensils are made in America by Lodge Manufacturing and will last a lifetime - or more. Investing in high quality cooking utensils will increase your outdoor cooking pleasure and insure that you have effective emergency cooking pots if needed.

Dutch ovens are easy to use, and they clean up with little or no water, (great when water is scarce during disasters). They are most often used with charcoal briquettes on the ground or on a metal table. They can be used on a propane stovetop, campstove, in a BBQ, or the way I like it - in a solar cooker.

To the novice, the hardest part about starting out with Dutch ovens, is the curing process. All cast ironware must be properly cured. This involves washing the unit, then baking an oil coating on it before use. Cast iron cookware can be cured in your oven, a BBQ, or almost magically in a Sun Oven. Detailed instructions are available on my web site at: http://vegastrailer.com/vts/curing.html . This page is hit more times per day than any other page on my site.

There are several things to consider when anticipating cooking needs during an emergency: 

  • Type of cooking device
  • what fuel to store
  • what are the dangers in storing back-up fuel
  • portability
  • ease of use.

Risks of Fossil Fuels

Camp stoves use a variety of fuels; white gas, propane, alcohol, or unleaded gasoline. All fuels must be stored and come with inherent risks during storage. Camp stoves are portable but must be watched constantly while cooking and for a few minutes after use because of hot surfaces. The unfamiliarity of using a portable stove instead of your home stove during a stressful situation suggests a higher risk of injury, especially to small hands. Refueling stoves can lead to fuel spills and fuel can not be stored for long periods without special additives. Heavy duty propane camp stoves are probably safer and easier to use but they are heavy and less portable.

Briquettes and Fuels Produce Smoke

Briquettes are easier and safer to store for emergencies, but they are not environmentally friendly. It takes 7 pounds of wood to make one pound of charcoal. Briquettes and other fossil fuels produce smoke and advertises to the entire neighborhood that you are cooking.

If you like using charcoal briquettes, the Volcano cookstove uses one third of the normal amount of charcoal. The air flow is regulated and the heat is channeled to the sides of the pot so Dutch ovens work great. The Volcano is easy to use, relatively safe and can be used with a grill for barbequing or a pan for frying. I keep a few briquettes handy in case they are needed for cloudy days or night-time use, but I prefer helping the trees a little by using my solar cooker on sunny days.

Cooking with the Sun

I use my Global Sun Oven to cook anything that I would normally cook in my regular oven. My family loves fresh-ground wheat bread and we regularly cook roasts, cookies, rice, casseroles, baked potatoes, cakes and more. I can't tell you how many times I've been told that sun cooked chicken tastes better than Kenny Rogers' rotisserie chicken (and I love K.R. chicken). Moisture stays in the food so it naturally tastes better. The food heats up evenly and never burns or sticks to the pan. My Sun Oven frequently reaches temperatures over 400 degrees F.

Moving from novelty to necessity, solar cooking is gaining acceptance throughout sunny areas of the world and they come in a variety of configurations. There are simple home-made cardboard and wood versions up to more expensive and effective cookers like the Global Sun Oven. There's even a mammoth commercial solar cooker called the Villager. It is easily transported on a small utility trailer and will cook up to 1200 meals a day.

Typical solar box cookers can be made easily and inexpensively, and they work. There are hundreds of sites on the web extolling the virtues of solar box cookers. My favorite site is sponsored by Solar Cookers International (SCI). In addition to providing information on solar cooking, they manufacture and sell a small cardboard solar cooker called the CooKit. They also sell books and an inexpensive device called the WAPI, which is an effective water purification indicator. SCI helps distribute the much needed CooKit to refugee camps in Africa and other places in the world where the need is great because fuel is scarce or nonexistent. Literally half of the world cooks with fuelwood and could significantly benefit from solar cooking. I also maintain a site about solar cooking at: http://greensun.org.

We could entertain an entire discussion on the benefits of solar cooking, but for now I want to give you some of my thoughts on why I think that it is important to use a Sun Oven for emergencies.

Along with water and food storage, medical supplies, clothing, bedding and quality cooking pots, a Sun Oven could be one of the most useful preparedness items for emergencies. Food cooked in a Sun Oven takes about 15 to 20 minutes longer than in your regular oven. On a sunny day, bread takes about 50 minutes and a chicken is perfect in 1 to 2 hours. Normal bread pans can be used but darker colored pots are better than stainless steel or aluminum pots because they absorb the solar thermal heat better.

Sun Ovens are Portable

Often, during emergencies, families have to move quickly. Recently we have heard that families should put together a "72 hour kit" or "mobility bag" in case an evacuation is necessary. Though most foods in a 72 Hour kit wouldn't need cooking, if one had to leave for an extended period of time, the Sun Oven would be a welcome companion. Weighing in at 21 pounds it is very portable, carries like a suitcase, and other items like paper towels or light bedding could be carried in the unit.

Sun Ovens Cook Without Dangerous Fuels

An uncontrolled fire can turn an emergency into a disaster. A Sun Oven uses no fire to cook food so there is no chance of accidental fire. Due to their small burner grates, gasoline or propane camp stoves can be cumbersome to use in emergencies making it is easier to get burned from falling pots. Cooking fires must be tended to constantly. During stressful emergency situations the cook can easily get distracted, creating an increased burn risk to the wandering hands of a small child or an inadvertent nudge by a large adult. Using the Sun Oven for cooking food gives greater peace of mind than using fire or briquettes and there is no danger of spilling volatile fuels during refueling.

Cooking Fuels do Not Have to be Stored

Families concerned about preparedness will have greater peace of mind if dangerous fuels do not have to be stored in their homes or garages. We've all heard stories about disastrous home fires resulting from stored fuel. Local fire departments will be happy to learn about your new safer cooking device.

Sun Ovens are Safe to Use

While the inside of the oven chamber will get very hot, the closed and latched glass lid will not burn the skin when casually touched. Because air is moving over the top of the glass, it only reaches temperatures of about 140 degrees F. The four shiny reflectors do not get hot because they reflect most of the thermal sunlight energy into the oven.

Sun Ovens Don't Advertise that You are Cooking

Smoke from cooking fires, barbeques and stoves can travel great distances and advertise to anyone, including the bad guys, that you are cooking food. Often in emergencies predators seek out people who are prepared. They somehow feel others owe them supplies or food, often at great cost to their victims. Though most people work together when disaster strikes, many have learned through sad experience that there are those who feel they can take what they want from others who have prepared! Solar cookers produce no smoke because fossil fuel is not used, insuring a safe and private method of cooking.

When cooking in a normal oven, that wonderful smell picked up by our noses is actually moisture molecules from the food that is released into the air. The typical oven burner is constantly replacing air in the cooking chamber so moisture is pulled from the food and released into the air. Cooking with sunlight produces very little smell during the cooking process because moisture is retained in the food.

For added privacy try this: When your food is finished cooking, simply fold up the reflectors and take the Sun Oven into the house with the food still in the oven. When you are ready to eat, simply unfold the reflectors and take out the piping hot food. This keeps the aroma of cooked food in the house. The box is well insulated and with the reflectors down I have kept dishes tongue-burning hot for over an hour.

No Stirring - Won't Stick - Won't Burn

Because moisture is retained and food heats evenly, stirring is not needed and food will not dry out so it is less likely to burn and stick to the pan. This saves food waste and clean up is easier needing little or no water. There is enough stress during emergency situations and now cooking doesn't have to be one of those difficult tasks.

We have learned from areas of the world where water is polluted with deadly bacteria that solar cookers can also be used to pasteurize drinking water. A quart of water is purified in about an hour, and in a pinch, the higher temperatures produced by commercial units like the Global Sun Oven and the Villager can sterilize medical instruments.

A Global Sun Oven will work fine on sunny winter days but they won't work at night and on cloudy days, therefore some thought should go into other back-up cooking plans. Though not essential, it would be good to become familiar with the ease of solar cooking before it is needed in an emergency.

The large Villager Sun Oven was made primarily for remote village use, but it is a practical option for large groups or community preparedness contingency plans. It will consistently cook food for up to 600 people without the use of any fossil fuels. Please see my website for more information.

I believe that any emergency preparedness items you purchase should also help your family during non-emergency times. Solar cookers, especially the Global Sun Oven, can be an important part of your daily life and help your family attain a more independent lifestyle. I could never fully express the personal satisfaction I feel when I see loaves of bread browning to perfection without using utility energy. I also feel good knowing, if needed, my family has a safe and effective emergency cooking device powered by earth's star.

This is the second in a series of six articles concerning solar power and emergency preparedness. Mr. Little has sold solar energy products for 21 years. He is the manager of Vegas Trailer Supply in Las Vegas Nevada, and conducts free solar living and preparedness seminars at his store. He can be contacted by email at: michael@vegastrailer.com. More information on using solar for emergency preparedness, mitigation and recovery is available at: http://solarprepared.com. You can also visit a blog about using Solar for Emergencies at: http://solarguy.blogspot.com

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