My grandmother was a very frugal woman who often told me “if you will mind your pennies your dollars will mind themselves.” I hope to share here some of her wisdom and the wisdom of others I have learned over the years

Sunday, July 29, 2012


Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m a research geek.  I’m far better at researching things than actually following through on them.  Oh I eventually follow through on everything I am truly interested in, it just may take me a while.

Solar cooking is one such thing.  I’ve been “wanting” a solar cooker for as long as I can remember.  I’ve pulled up “make your own “ plans hundreds of times.  I’ve put solar cookers on my I want for (fill in the gift giving time) list and on and on.  But I’ve never followed through on it.
Either the units cost too much, or they got bad “plastic tasting” reviews online, or we simply never got around to gather the materials to build one.  So it has never happened.
That is unless you count the boiling bag meals that we’ve heated up on the dash of the car in the summer while traveling.  But those were pre-cooked at home, then packaged in a boilable cooking bag and merely heated by the sun.
Well I finally did it for real.  The whole event started off rather innocently, in fact quite wonderfully.  My son got a call he’d been waiting on for two years, a potential employer wanted him to come in for the interview, and he got the job.  Wonderful!
But that meant our free satellite tv service from his current employer was no more.  No biggie, other than news I seldom watch it during the day, and as a family we watch it maybe two hours max at night.  So we decided to do without the service for a while.
That meant I found more time to search the web for various projects I have in mind. Like I said I’m a research geek and I truly enjoy doing it.  That too started out very innocently.  I started with ChefTess’ blog over at the Cookin’ Cousins blog,  looking at her meals in a jar. 
If you haven’t visited this blog and are interested in food storage I HIGHLY recommend it.  In fact be prepared to see meals in a jar show up over on Patterson’s Pantry and the recipes on Patterson’s Pantry Recipes—with an official nod to Chef Tess for the recipes.
On her blog, Chef Tess, mentions using a solar oven to prepare several of the meals…Uh oh, there it was the link in the chain of events that finally lead me to experiment officially with solar cooking.
Of course I didn’t have a solar cooker YET!  So off I went to look on utube for videos on fixing meals in a jar AND building a solar cooker.  Only this time it was different.  There on the utube was how to build a $5 solar cooker!
FIVE DOLLARS!!!! My inner tightwad screamed!  $5 I could afford $5, heck I’d save that in just cooking one meal out in the summer heat instead of running the crockpot in the sunroom!  Even more over cooking in the house.  Hey, it averages 106 degrees daily here right now, that’s almost enough heat to cook with without a solar oven!
So I clicked on the link thinking “Yeah, it will probably take skills I don’t have to do it with.  Or materials I can’t get.”
Nope, everything could be purchased at the Dollar store!  Even better I had everything here at the house but the sunshade and I might even have one of those in the camper from where we cleaned out a truck!
So I did more research, of course I did—I’m a geek remember!  The original video  was very clear how to do it with the following materials—all of which can be purchased at the dollar store:
A car sunshade
A cookie cooling rack
Self-adhesive Velcro strips
Browning bags
Oven thermometer
Further videos said skip the Velcro strips and use clothes pins.  And said that you could use plastic bags instead of browning bags if you wanted to.  Wow!  This I could handle.
So I emailed my husband and son and asked them to stop at the local Dollar Tree to get me a sunshade on their way home from work that day.
I then kept an eye on various locations throughout the rest of the day to see where it stayed the sunniest all day.
Then I planned my meal.  I decided to do  Pulled Pork for the next day’s dinner.
The only concern I had was keeping all the critters from having dinner before we did.  After all we do live in the woods and we do have domesticated critters.  If all went well and it started cooking and smelling good well…
But, alas it was not to be that day, or for two days afterwards.  Due to 21 straight days of 100 plus temps here in OK every dollar store we checked was out of the sunshades.  NUTS!
Someone online suggested Wal-Mart or an auto parts store.  So my husband checked Wal-Mart the next day on his way home from work and not only did he find one, but he found a jumbo sized one—which meant I could possibly do larger pans of food using it.   It also cost more than $1, but dh would not tell me how much more because he knew I wanted to do this project for as little money as possible.  He said he had used his blow money to make up the difference.  So it couldn’t have been much.
So on Sunday morning, today, I decided “Today is the day”.   First I had some minor obstacles to over come.  Breakfast for one.  Because I didn’t have the solar oven set up yet I used the regular oven and threw in the Cinnamon Pull-a-Part Rolls to bake while we did morning chores.
Then it was time to set up the solar oven.  The second through twenty obstacles were next in my line of concern.  Those being 17 geese, 2 dogs and all the wild animals of the woods. 
All the videos show setting the solar oven on a bucket or cube of some sort on the ground.  For those of you who don’t raise geese you might not know they are “tasters”.  Meaning they will “taste” everything new in their area to see if it’s good or if they can tear it up. 
Since the sunshade was covered with thin Mylar I didn’t want their serrated bills tearing up the sunshade.  I decided to use one of our numerous spare tables and set the unit up out of bill and dog reach.  The wild animals I’d simply have to hope the other 19 would keep away.
Next was location, location, location.  I finally decided upon the center of our circular drive because it was in full sun most of the day.  It also was a bit of a walk from the kitchen, but hey the exercise is good for me right?
So then we worked on getting the meal going.  Dh said using one of our round glass topped picnic tables would be best because it was wide enough and tall enough the critters wouldn’t be able to reach the food.  What he failed to mention is it is also heavy enough we needed some strong folks to move it from the side deck to the middle of the circle. 
My son was still asleep, so we decided on brain power rather than brawn.  Carefully the two of us slid the heavy piece of smoked glass off the top of the metal table and leaned it against the porch rail.
We then tilted the round table on its side and dh rolled it like a hoop of days of old off the deck, across the yard, across the driveway and into the middle of the circle. 
The glass, unfortunately could not be rolled that way for fear of breaking it.  So we eased it off the porch on to a dolly and dollied it to the table where we slid it back on top.  Hey who needs muscles right?
I placed the black crate we’d planned on using for funnel support in the center of the table then we scooted back into the air conditioning. It was already 95 degrees out.
We only had 2 pieces of the self adhesive Velcro so we worked as a unit, with ds, who had gotten up while we were outside and already had his breakfast,  as camera man lining the pieces up on the edges of the two ends of the sunshade to form a funnel.  We found laying the opened sunshade on the dining room table made this job slightly easier. 
We also found that having both the loop and hook segments of the Velcro attached to each other made the lining up much easier.  We adhered one side to the first edge of the sunshade and then formed our funnel, lined the edges up and then removed the protective backing from the Velcro attached it in just the right spot on the other side.
It quickly became clear to us we’d also need clothes pins to help hold it all together because of the size of the sunshade.
Next I cut two pieces of my large bulk purchased boneless pork loin to fit in the pan I planned on using. 
A note on cookware.  I have both cast iron and black cookware, both have their drawbacks for my usage in the solar cooker.  The black cookware has a shiny silver lid, which would reflect the sun’s rays rather than draw the heat in to cook.  The cast iron, being the older stuff (as in my great grandmother's) is thick and takes longer to heat up.  However, it will hold the heat longer if the clouds or o’dark happen to happen before you empty your cooker.
Also always remember to make certain your pot will fit in the size cooking bag you have.
Today I decided to go with the thinner walled black cookware.  I placed a dark maroon hand towel over the shiny lid.  I also, thankfully remembered to make certain to close the steam vent on the lid. 
All I did for the pulled pork is put a dry rub on all sides of the two pieces of meat then placed them in the bottom of the black pot. This I slid into a turkey sized roasting bag. 
Then it was time for the grand assembly.  The three of us went to the circle.  First trying out the planned on black crate.  It was too big.  The funnel would not form properly.
Next a nearby bird bath, too shallow, it let the funnel open too wide.  So off to find a 5 gallon detergent bucket.  Luckily dh found one quickly.  Once the funnel was properly positioned it the bucket he added the cookie cooling rack I had brought out of the kitchen.  PERFECT fit.
I added the dark towel and oven thermometer (both of which we already owned) to the top of the pot then twisted the cooking bag tightly shut, sealing it with a twist tie.  The bag was then placed on the rack.  A note here, since no food touches the cooking bag it could easily be re-used if you open and close it with a twist tie rather than a zip strip.
The wind, of course, was coming up so a dowel rod was fetched from the garage and clothes pinned across the front to help provide support in the wind. We adjusted the bucket to face directly into the sun and noticed the wind was making the lower front of the funnel flop a bit.
Dh grabbed the black crate and stood it on end to go under the edge of the funnel and it fit perfectly.
We watched in amazement as the thermometer in the roasting bag was already climbing quickly.  It was 11:45 am and already 104 degrees outside.  Fifteen minutes later the temperature in the bag had gone from ambient temperature to  225 F.  By 12:30 pm it was nearly 240 and still climbing.  By jove I think it just might work!
We checked the temperature every hour on the hour after that.  It fluctuated all day between 225 and 250, but never higher.  Part of the problem could have been the wind and occassional bouts of clouds--for this the cast iron would have been better.
According to all the websites I visited as long as it maintained 220 or above we were fine for cooking.  The pan felt very hot to the touch whenever we touched it through the bag. 
We discovered quite by accident that the glass top on the table would spin.  This was VERY handy for adjusting the funnel to follow the sun.  Periodically one of us would go out to make certain the shadow of the cooker was directly behind it.  If it was not we'd rotate it to where it was to help maintain the unltimate heat.
At 4:00 pm we decided to check for doneness.  Meat thermometer in hand we headed out as a group, after all this was exciting.  One look at the meat told us it was definitely not done.  It had definitely been cooking as evidenced by the liquid in the bottom of the pot and the wonderful smell that greeted us when we opened the bag.
So we had to make a decision.  Leave it cooking for 2-4 more hours in the solar oven and have a very late dinner on a work night. OR put it in the oven at 400 degrees for 30 minutes or so.  This was the choice of the hungry crew.  The meat thermometer only registered at 140 and that was just too low for pork to be considered done. 
So the experiment was some what of a failure, but not a complete one.  We learned a lot.  Dh thinks the cone was too floppy, so he plans on adjusting the dowel rods and the supports for our next experiment.

I think part of the problem was it was two large chunks of boneless meat that had been placed in the pan in a near frozen state.  No ice crystals, but just this side of frozen.  I also think four hours was too short a time frame for such large cust of boneless meat.  We won't give up, I think next I'll use all dried foods and make a soup--Maybe tomorrow in fact.

In the meantime I finished the meal off in the house oven, and it was delicious served with
BBQ Sauce , corn on the cob and two types of French fries (white and sweet potato) for dinner with ice cold glasses of sweet tea.
It was delicious!  We all decided that the solar cooker could be a success we just need to tweak the set-up a bit.   I’ll definitely be using it on many sunny days to come to do a lot of my baking for “free”, experimenting until I get it just right.   I do still want to work more on getting the temperature up a bit.  Maybe using the glass bowl idea one utube video suggested, or a better angle to the funnel?
Jan who was hoping for a perfect success, but instead learned she must start the meal much earlier in the day if she's doing such large cuts of meat in OK


  1. Thanks bunches for sharing Jan... this is on our to do list this week.... I'll keep you updated how mine goes too

  2. Lea, I am looking forward to see how your experiemtn works out. Jan who hasn't been home enough to set it up since Sunday to try another recipe in OK