Archive for the ‘solar cooking’ Category

Aladdin lamp

Aladdin lamp lit up our evenings

Earthquakes and hurricanes!  Some of you from far away may be wondering how we’ve fared with the earthquake so close and Hurricane Irene coming past on her way to Vermont.  First, about that earthquake.  Here in Ashland, Virginia we are about a 45 minute drive from the epicenter.  Out there it did considerable damage in places, closing two schools that may have to be rebuilt.  I was sitting on the back porch and suddenly felt the house shaking behind me.  Some people who were walking or driving in Richmond at the time may not have felt a thing, but if they were in a building they did.   It was big excitement for sure around here, but no damage at our place.  People needed to check their plumbing and chimneys to make sure nothing shook loose.

We also escaped damage from the hurricane.  We can count our blessings that the only disruption for us was that our electricity was out for four days.  Many big trees came down in the area, some on houses, but I remember much more damage from Hurricane Isabel in 2003.  At that time we lost power for 5 days and some lost it for two weeks.  Say a prayer for the people in Vermont who suffered so much flooding from Irene.  Since our electricity was out, my access to the news was limited to what was in the local paper, so I’m not up on the details.  I just know things were pretty bad up there.  All of this has made me really think about our food supply and general household management.  If a tree falls on your house or a flood washes it away, you have way more problems.  My thoughts here are about managing without electricity.

So far, when the big power outages have come, they are expected in the form of snow and ice storms and hurricanes.  I make sure the laundry is done up and the house is clean, since I wouldn’t be able to vacuum.  I would already be thinking about emptying the refrigerator.  What I’m worried about is that there will come a time in the not so distant future that the power grid will go down SUDDENLY while we are all about our everyday lives.  After a few days, and for sure, by the end of a week, the challenges of a sudden change in lifestyle begin to take their toll.  Those with no thought or preparation for these changes are hit the hardest and even twenty-four hours without electricity is stressful enough for them.

For us the biggest challenge is water, since we have a well with an electric pump.  We have some rain barrels so there is always water available for toilet flushing, even without warning.  Anticipating a power outage, I fill lots of containers with clean water in the house to use for cooking and drinking.  For Irene, I thoroughly cleaned four five-gallon buckets and put them out to catch rainwater (after the roof was washed from the rain) and used that water for washing dishes and ourselves.  We used it conservatively and only needed two buckets before the power was restored. A hand pump on our shallow well would be a good thing to have. 

Refrigeration is probably our next biggest challenge.  In 2001 we were gone for two weeks for the first time ever.  We returned home to find that our freezer filled with meat had stopped working.  At one time we had a milk cow and raised our own beef.  We sold the cow in 1996 and began buying beef, a year’s supply at a time, from a friend.  However, by 2001 there were farms where we could buy grass-fed beef by the cut.  Besides that, we were eating less meat and concentrating on eating more in season from the garden all year.  We decided not to have the freezer repaired and make do with the freezer on the refrigerator.  Also, if the power would ever go out, I didn’t want to have to worry about keeping a freezer going.  Many people have generators, but my husband and I really dislike the noise they make.   Power outages often push people outside, with the TVs and computers turned off.  It is a nice time to sit on the porch in the evening or eat dinner at the picnic table in the fading light.   The noise pollution from the neighborhood generators, however, makes it not so nice.  Without a separate freezer we only had to worry about the fridge in the kitchen.  We ate a lot of food and put the rest in a cooler with ice.

preparing beans for salting

My food preservation methods are drying, canning, and fermenting so what I had put up was safe.  In fact, during the time the power was out, I salted down beans from the garden in a crock and dried tomatoes and peppers in the solar dryers.  In case of flooding it is advisable to keep all your stored food off the floor.  You can elevate crocks at least an inch or two by putting them on rolling platforms, which makes it easier anyway when you have to move them.  In case of shaking from an earthquake, it is advisable to have the shelves firmly attached to the wall and to make sure they are strong enough to hold what you put there.  I will be speaking about Low Energy Food Preservation at the Heritage Harvest Festival on September 17, 2011.  Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation, will also be there.  Find more information at  http://www.heritageharvestfestival.com/  I’ll also be giving a presentation on garden planning.   

Kelly Kettle for boiling water

Kelly Kettle for boiling water

To cook our meals we used the solar oven and gas grill.  The grill is my husband’s domain, so it was kind of nice having him make oatmeal or pancakes in the mornings.  I would not want to depend on the gas grill for an extended period, since the fuel could be hard to get when there are shortages and everyone is after it.  Besides, it depends on fossil fuel and I’m trying to move away from that.  I used a Kelly Kettle to boil water for tea.  That is really great to have and works well with the dried food.  You can boil water using sticks as fuel!  Using the same principle is the rocket stove.  I didn’t need it for this disruption, but I have one that I should use more often so that it becomes another way of life.  This summer the solar oven has gotten a good workout.  One thing about hurricanes, usually nice sunny days follow.  We have a wood stove in the house and in the winter I can use that to cook on and heat water if necessary.  Otherwise, I would use the rocket stove much more.  You just need sticks!  You can find directions to make a rocket stove at http://www.aprovecho.net/offerings/publications/.   Download the publication Capturing Heat II and check out the rest of the website.  To make my rocket stove I used a lard can that I purchased at a hardware store.

rocket stove

You can build a rocket stove!

Lighting was taken care of mostly with our Aladdin lamp, which was a Y2K purchase from Lehmans.  It gives enough light to read by, which we did in the evenings after dark when we weren’t playing Scrabble or Dominoes.  We also used candles and flashlights when necessary.  The oil in the lamp was Ultra-Pure oil which is liquid paraffin.  The candles were beeswax.  In fact, we made more candles during the power outage by melting wax in the solar oven and pouring it into molds.  The wax was saved from the cappings gleaned when we harvested the honey in June.  Longer term accommodations could be made by adjusting our activities to make the best use of the daylight both inside and outside the house.  A more major adjustment might be skylights.

How can you prepare for similar disruptions?  Think of challenges as new opportunities.  Learn new skills and begin acquiring the tools you will need.  Even if you never have to use them in dire emergencies, it will give you peace-of-mind to know you can.  During the power outage, my grandson and I visited Monticello, a trip we had planned for weeks.  I couldn’t stop thinking of how that whole place was run without electricity back in the day.  We can learn a lot from history.  Once you have the skills and tools, you will have already begun transitioning your life to a new one.  I have not read it, but there is a book called Transition Handbook which has spurred the Transition Town Movement.  You can find more information at http://www.transitionus.org/.  If we really want to transition away from a fossil fuel economy, we need to think about it as communities. Yes, we need to stock our pantries, have food coming from our gardens year-round, and look to the needs of our families.  At the same time, we need to support community efforts toward taking care of everyone.  If you know something, teach it to others who want to learn.  It will take some time, but we can make changes that will benefit our families and communities for the long term, no matter what happens.  Enjoy the journey!

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You may not have grains in your garden like I talked about in my last post, and you may not be ready to build a solar food dryer that I talked about in the post  before that.  Solar cooking, however, should be possible for almost everyone, unless you really do live with a cloud cover every day.  I have been playing around with solar cooking for several years, learning a bit each year.  Now I’m ready for more commitment.

There are plenty of designs for solar cookers to choose from.  All you need is some cardboard and aluminum foil and you’re almost there.  Well, it’s not quite that easy.  I thought about it a long time before I took any action.  My life was already overflowing with projects and each project takes time and attention.  Learning to cook with the sun is no exception.  I finally bought a CooKit from Bountiful Gardens.  It is cardboard with foil covering one side.  You put your container of food in the plastic bag that comes with it, but you can use any oven cooking bag.  I never liked using the plastic bag and this year came up with a terrific solution.  I am using the top to a glass cake saver.  It works great!   

solar box oven

Because I didn’t like to fold and unfold the CooKit and I didn’t like the plastic bag, I made a solar box oven from two  boxes with newspaper insulation in between.  That was a project I started one day with my grandson, thinking it would be something fun to do for the morning.  He quickly lost interest and I worked on making that thing ALL day.  I never had as much success with it as I thought I would.  The slightest breeze would bring down the lid that was held up by a rod cut from a clothes hanger.  I would frequently lose that rod and have to make another one.  But it worked well enough for me to know that if I made some refinements, such as adding more reflectors and securing that rod, things could be better.  In the end, though, I would still have a cardboard box that needed to be brought in each day since we have such heavy dew at night.  To really make solar cooking a part of my life, I  needed  a weatherproof solar oven that I could leave outside all the time. 

I learned a lot from these two solar cookers. 

  • Most importantly I learned that, although they can be left unattended for long periods of time, they work best if you can adjust their position at least every hour to follow the sun.
  • If it is windy, the flap on the box oven might close or the CooKit might be repositioned.
  • Clouds might move in and cool things quickly.
  • The best time to cook means that dinner is ready before we’re ready to eat it. 

Global Sun Oven

Last summer I had the opportunity to borrow a Global Sun Oven for a couple of months.  It worked well, although I would have liked it to be bigger.  Since I had borrowed it, I brought it up to the porch each night to protect the finish.  It worked so well, I bought one when I visited Lehman’s Hardware in May.  I believe I have used that more in the past seven weeks than all my solar cooking efforts in the past several years.  I fold the reflectors in when I’m not using it, but if I’m using it day-to-day, I leave it outside.  If the weather is threatening or I know it won’t be used the next day, I’ll bring it onto the porch.  I still would like to build a larger solar oven on its own swivel, so just a tap will turn it with the sun, but I knew I didn’t have time to do that this summer. 


I have cooked quiche, brownies, rice, potatoes, polenta, meatloaf, and melted cheese sandwiches.  I hardcook eggs, brew tea, and make applesauce from dried apples.  The tomato sauce on my recipe page cooks up well in a solar oven.  One thing that may make some people hesitant to get started is the lack of proper cooking vessels.  I find I cook a lot in wide-mouth quart canning jars or glass casserole dishes that I already have.  Early in my solar cooking experience I bought a black enamel pot with a lid and a small black enamel roasting pan.  I like the jars or casserole dishes because I can see what’s happening.  I’ve discovered that the lids on casserole dishes will fit pie plates.  When I cooked the quiche, I used a deep dish glass pie plate with a casserole lid on it.   I solved the problem of food being done before we we’re ready to eat by putting the dishes in a hotbox once the solar cooker starts to cool, usually around 4pm.   We happen to have an insulated “Fresh Eggs” box on our porch. I made it to fit a styrofoam cooler years ago when I sold eggs.  I would leave them in there for my customers to pick up.  I have newspaper and a towel to further insulate the hot dishes.  Our meal stays hot until we’re ready for it.  You could use any large picnic cooler for the same purpose.  The most wonderful thing is that the kitchen stays cool on these hot summer days.

Before you make a major purchase of a solar oven, do some internet research, read some books, and make a solar cooker.  Just do it.  A good place to go for information is Solar Cookers International.  Every new skill you learn is something to build on.  It is the learning that’s important and the learning comes from the doing.  By cooking with the sun you can save fossil fuel, keep your house cooler, and become more attuned to the natural world around you.  I’m really enjoying my new Sun Oven, but now that I’m using the cake saver with the Cookit instead of a plastic bag, I’ll continue to use that, also.  I gave my box oven to a friend.  You can make a solar cooker from a car window reflector and a bucket, or so I’m told.  There are adventures to be had, so what are you waiting for?

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