Solar Ovens: Next Gen Grilling

Looking to trade in your grill for a greener model? It may not be a bad idea. Charcoal grills, in particular, come with a pretty hefty carbon footprint. Burning those briquettes lets off tons of fumes, heat and smoke. And while gas grills boast better efficiency rates than charcoal burners, they also rely on fossil fuels. So they’re not exactly the best if you’re trying to go green, either.

So where does that leave your backyard BBQ? Well, as you may have realized, we are pretty big fans of solar anything here at Modernize and as it turns out, you can actually use solar to cook that steak for you. Solar ovens offer a sustainable alternative to conventional grills. They use a specialized design to capture solar heat—and redirect it right into your burger. And that has the effect of minimizing their environmental impact. The ovens harness sunlight so effectively, in fact, that under the right conditions, they can reach up to 550 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s one hot meal!

When we first heard about solar ovens, we knew right away that we wanted to try them out. An oven that runs on solar heat? We had to have a peek! So we got our hands on a GoSun Sport, a popular model, and took it for a test run. Here’s what we found out (spoiler alert: things got hot!).

open oven

The Case for Solar Ovens

Along with cutting out fossil fuels, solar ovens cook your food using a readily available, renewable source: the sun. But using one means unlearning some conventional wisdom our parents taught us about food preparation. Namely, you’ll need to shake the notion that food always spoils when left out in the sun. Solar ovens combine a parabolic shape with reflective materials to refract the sunlight shining on them. And that raises the interior temperature to levels that are safe enough for consumption.

In rural and developing areas around the globe, residents have employed this kind of passive solar cooking for many years. Many people in India and China favor them, in particular, especially in areas where access to electricity can be scarce, and sunlight plentiful. In fact, some Chinese institutions use large parabolic reflectors to cook meals for tens or even hundreds of people at a time. Retail models like GoSun’s are a lot more portable, but they employ some of the same technology to get the job done.

They require absolutely no electricity or fuel to operate, and that keeps their environmental impact super low. Owners say they use them for almost everything. They pull them out for your traditional meats and vegetables, of course. But they even cook more complicated items like manicotti, bread, or even cake! Sun-baked cake? That is definitely cool!

open solar oven

For the Gearheads: How It Works

We hear you wondering, “okay, how exactly does this thing work?” I know—we were super curious too. And the Sport’s design is actually pretty unique. Its oven is tube-shaped, instead of a shelf situated in the center of a parabola.

The heart of the oven consists of a cylindrical vacuum tube measuring about two feet long. Inside of that, you insert a long, stainless steel cooking tray that’s attached to a wooden handle. The tray holds your food in place, while the handle sits outside of the oven’s interior so you can pull it out without burning yourself.

A parabolic reflector flanks each side of the vacuum tube, and folds out when in use. Together, they look sort of like little metal wings. The reflectors harness the sun’s heat and direct it into the oven, so it can achieve higher interior temperatures.

Meanwhile, the vacuum seal on the oven keeps heat (and cooking juices!) from escaping while the food bakes. It also protects it from contamination from dust, debris, or any insects that might take an interest in your dinner while it’s cooking.

The whole system works because of simple, good old-fashioned physics. The shiny aluminum surface reflects light instead of absorbing it, meaning it bounces off. But the parabolic shape of the reflectors changes the light and heat from lateral (i.e. straight) waves to spherical waves. That way, the majority of it focuses right in the center, exactly where your food is sitting.

The design also allows you to maximize the amount of solar heat you capture, regardless of the sun’s angle in the sky. That makes it really pretty easy-to-use, since many solar ovens require the chef to frequently re-position the oven to account for the sun’s movement throughout the day.

oven with potatoes and meatballs

How Solar Ovens Stack Up

When we used the solar oven, we were surprised at just how much it heated up—it really did get hot! We didn’t take any official measurements but after a little while, the interior felt just as warm as any traditional oven. Luckily, the vacuum insulation on the solar oven keeps the exterior cool. That way, you can let it sit on the patio or an outdoor table without any trouble, and you don’t have to studiously avoid touching it while the food is cooking.

Our potatoes and meatballs cooked up nice and tasty, just as if they’d been made in any oven. And the whole thing assembled easily and took very little time to get going. We just lined the cooking tray with foil, loaded the food inside and we were off to the races. That made the process significantly simpler than trying to stack charcoal in a pyramid and then waiting for the coals to die down. Plus, because there was no open flame, it seemed like a much safer option for households with young kids.

Overall, the results of the GoSun oven pleasantly surprised us. The meatballs took about two hours to cook through—a little bit longer than expected—but the cooking tray had a lot more cooking space than we’d previously envisioned. And because the oven runs on the free energy from the sun, we didn’t have to worry about running to the store for extra lighter fluid or anything like that. We tested out our oven on a beautiful, cloudless day, but GoSun says you can even use it on cloudier days.

detail of oven handle

And the Final Verdict?

After our time with the solar oven, we can say without pause that they make a nice, sustainable alternative to conventional grilling, especially if the taste of charcoal makes you gag. And it would probably do great on camping trips. The whole thing folds away into a slim package, making it really easy to carry and store. Plus, it lets you cook a wider variety of foods than you can on a camp stove, a welcome addition when the hot dogs and burgers get old.

Best of all, we didn’t choke on any fumes or have to clean up any ashes, which made the whole process feel a lot cleaner in the end. We ended our meal happily full, easy in the knowledge that our dinner was greener and better for the environment than any other meal we’d ever cooked!

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