Meet the Solavore Sport Solar Oven

IMG_7172 (1)As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the good folks at Solavore have loaned us a solar oven to play with this summer. We’re still working on how to cook in the thing–more on that later–but we thought we’d take a moment to show you the oven itself.

The basics:

This is a Solavore Sport, which sells from their website for $229.00 US, plus $39.50 for the optional reflector. (We’d recommend the reflector, unless you live near the equator, or only plan to use your oven at midday in high summer.)

Solavore is a woman-run company, based in Minnesota, and the ovens are made the U.S. Plus, Solavore partners with NGOs to bring sun ovens to sun-rich, fuel-poor developing countries.

Solavore keeps an extensive, and attractive recipe section on their site.

The oven itself:

The floor of the oven measures 9 1/4 inches x 17 1/2.

It weighs 9 pounds.

It is entirely made of plastic. The body is all black molded insulated plastic, while the lid is double-walled clear plastic, molded to fit the oven body.  There seems to be a trade off going on here between portability (and perhaps lower shipping costs) and structure. They opted for it not to have a heavy casing.

It doesn’t seem flimsy by any means, but at the same time you can imagine doing it some serious damage if you were to trip over it. I worry particularly about cracking the lid around the thin edges. Yet at the same time, I really appreciate the portability. I love how light and easy the Sport is to manipulate. It is simply no big thing to move it around, and until you get the hang of solar cooking, and learn the way the light moves in your yard, you’re going to be moving it a lot. It’s light weight makes it good for camping and picnicking, too.

IMG_7224The oven is made to hold two cooking pots at a time, which is handy, because you can do a main dish and a side at once, or a pot of something for dinner and a pot of something for lunch.The Solavore comes equipped with two shiny new black Speckleware casserole pots for this purpose, though you may choose to use any pot you like–though lightweight black pots like the Speckleware are best for solar cooking. It’s also big enough hold a casserole dish or a quarter sheet pan.

The Solavore also comes with a free standing thermometer which you can use to monitor the internal temperature of the oven.

We don’t have experience with any other commercial sun oven by which to compare the Solavore Sport, so all we can say so far is that it totally works. It’s been getting to cooking temperature easily (200-250F), even though the sun is still a little low in the sky at this time of year, as long as you follow the directions and use it correctly.

IMG_7174Quibble with the clips

So far we have no complaints at all, and only one quibble: the clips.

The lightweight lid must be clipped down to the oven body to maintain proper heat efficiency. Having failed to read the starting instructions properly (ahem), I missed that detail on our first trial, and had trouble getting the oven up to cooking temp–which lead to a lentil disaster.

I failed to notice the lid clips were there at all first time out because they are not immediately obvious. They are small metal hooks which are permanently affixed through holes in the oven’s body. They come up over the lip of the lid to hold it down tight.

The good thing about these clips is that they are very simple and would be easy to replace with a piece of wire if you break them. Also, since the clips are tied to the oven, they can’t be lost, which is another major advantage.

The downside is that they are finicky to use. I have a hard time getting them over the lip of the lid, and always feel like I’m in danger of abrading or even cracking the edge of the lid as I force them on and off. Each time I  wrestle with them, I dream of a quick release system, or wish I could just use binder clips to clamp the lid to the body–but regular clips don’t work because of the particular shape of the lid/body interface.

But all in all, that is, as I say, only a quibble.  We’re enjoying playing with the oven, although as I alluded to in my last post on the subject, there is a learning curve to solar cooking. We’ve had a few disasters, which we’ll talk about, but we’re beginning to get a good feel for what works well in this cooking system. More to come soon!

083 Kris De Decker of Low Tech Magazine

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Our guest this week is journalist Kris De Decker, the creator of Low Tech Magazine, a blog published in English, Dutch and Spanish that covers low tech solutions in great depth and detail. Without exaggeration, I think it’s safe to say it’s my favorite blog. On the podcast we discuss high tech problems, Catalan vaulting, fruit walls, Chinese wheelbarrows, open modular hardware, fireless cookers and alternate forms of the internet.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Announcing Our New Solar Cooking Initiative

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Last December, when the summer heat finally subsided, I decided that since Los Angeles has become the capital of the planet Arrakis, we may as well as make hay with the sunshine. I decided to learn how to cook in a solar oven, and more than that, I wanted to learn how to do it really well.

We have made and used and written about solar cookers here,  and here, which are reflective surrounds for a cooking pots, and which can be quite effective under the right circumstances, but we’d never played with a solar oven, which is, in its basic form, an insulated box with a clear lid. Solar ovens reach higher temperatures than cookers, and can be used in less ideal conditions. But we’d never invested in a solar oven because they are rather pricey, especially for an unknown quantity. Would they really work? Could we make good food in one? I certainly didn’t want to spend a couple of hundred bucks on an oversized rice cooker.

Wait! I almost forgot. We do have a solar oven in our garage! And if I don’t mention it, the Internet will make me a liar. Erik posted on it back in 2013. He was gifted a Sundiner, which is a 60’s era solar oven. We never use it because, being a product of the 60’s, it has a very small, shallow cooking box, suited only for cooking hot dogs and frozen dinners.

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So, anyway, being cheap and not fond of TV dinners, I decided to make a proper, box-style solar oven (there are a lot of DIY plans out there) and test it out come the equinox, when the days are longer and the sun a little higher. Then, just as I was about to start construction, the good folks at a sun oven company called Solavore contacted us and offered to loan us their oven, the Solavore Sport, for an extended trial period. It was one of those moments where the universe seemed to be conspiring to help us along, so I answered, “Funny you should offer…”

A few happy emails later, and now we have a shiny new Solavore Sport to explore. In the spirit of DIY, I will still make an oven later this summer and report back on that process, and I will also run a comparison between the commercial oven and the homemade oven and see how they stack up.

But my primary goal in this season of solar cooking is to figure out whether, if properly used, a solar cooker can create meals of the same quality as those I turn out with my kitchen stove. Not “It’s not bad for solar” but “Hey….this is scrumptious!” More than that, I want to figure out what solar ovens do better than real ovens. I want to master the vocabulary of solar cooking.

I figure the learning curve is going to be high–it’s like having to learn how to cook all over again–but I’m excited to have the Solavore Sport on hand for these experiments, because I can focus on the cooking itself instead troubleshooting my construction techniques.

Throughout this short winter I’ve been looking at fusty old solar cookbooks from the library and poking about on the Internet for inspiration, and frankly, most of what I found has been pretty bleak. A lot of the recipes seem outdated or just out of step with what Erik and I like to cook and eat. But, in all my looking somehow I never stumbled on the Solavore website. It turns out they have an attractivecollection of solar recipes, so that is where we will be starting out.

I’m calling this series Solar Oven Summer, and no, I do not find the acronym S.O.S. pessimistic. And yes, it is summer here now, as far as I’m concerned. We’ll tag all these posts so you can find them all at once. In our next post we’ll take a close look at the Solavore Sport, and then we’ll begin learning how to use it, one recipe at a time.

Are any of you solar chefs? Any advice? Horror stories? Favorite resources?

004 Egg Ethics, Solar Food Dryers and a Question about Earth Ovens

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On episode four of the Root Simple Podcast Kelly and Erik discuss the tricky ethics of eggs and mayonnaise, what kind of solar food dryer is the best and we answer a question from Ed about earth ovens.

Plans for the Appalachian Solar Food Dryer can be found in an article on Mother Earth News.

We have a detailed post on how we built our adobe oven here.

If you want to leave a question you can call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected].

The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho.

A downloadable version of this podcast is here. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store. Note that it takes a few hours for the new episode to show up in iTunes.

What’s the Best Solar Food Dryer?

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Appalachian Food Dryer. Image: Mother Earth News.

Dehydration is a great way to put up food. Second to freezing, it’s the best way to persevere nutrition without adding sugar or salt. And if you use the power of the sun, you won’t need to spend any money on electricity.

In a desert climate you can just put your food out on screened trays. But just a bit of humidity in the air makes this approach risky. Food can spoil before enough moisture is removed. That’s why you should build a solar food dryer.

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Brace Direct Food Dryer. Image: FAO.

There are two basic designs for solar food dryers: direct and indirect. Direct dryers are just a box with a piece of glass on the top. Indirect dryers use a box to collect the heat of the sun and then, thanks to the fact that hot air rises, take that heat up into an enclosed box that contains the food you want to dry.

The Poistk Dryer

The Poisson Indirect Dryer. Image: Mother Earth News.

Which design works best? Dennis Scanlin, Coordinator of the Appropriate Technology Program and Professor of Technology at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina has been studying solar food dryer technology for decades.  According to Scanlin, indirect drying is the way to go. Scanlin tested three dryers, the Appalachian Solar Food Dryer (an indirect dryer that he invented) against a direct dryer developed by the Brace Research Institute and the Poisson indirect dryer. In an article in Permaculture Activist, “Evaluating Solar Food Dryers: Stocking Up with Solar Power,” Scanlin says,

The Appalachian indirect dryer produced higher temperatures than the other two dryers and also removed more moisture from the tomatoes drying inside each day. In one test, the Appalachian dryer removed 32 oz. (0.95 L) of water during ta day, while the Brace direct dryer removed only 20 oz/ (0.59 L), and the Poisson dryer only 15 oz. (0.44 L). The Appalachian dryer was able to remove as much as 3.73 lb. (1.69 kg) of water in a single sunny day from tomatoes drying inside.

Scanlin also notes that direct dryers degrade the quality of the food and possibly nutritional value due to direct UV exposure.

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Our Appalachian Food Dryer, badly in need of a paint job.

We built a Appalachian Dryer several years ago and it works great. You do need to remember to bring in the food at night to prevent rehydration and spoilage (for some reason I often flake out and forget to bring in the food). For awhile I had an electric Excalibur Dehydrator on loan and it’s a lot more convenient. But, of course, it uses electricity and makes a lot of noise.

Since I built my Appalachian Dryer Scanlin has decided that it’s not necessary to use insulation. This makes the project even simpler. For just around $200 worth of materials you can easily make an Appalachian Dryer out of plywood nails and screws.

You can find plans for Scanlin’s dryer here.