Whether you’re spending more time at home to avoid COVID-19 infection or taking advantage of the inherent social distancing of tent camping in the wilderness, it’s summer in the U.S.A., it’s hot outside, but we still need to eat.
I’m a lazy cook who has hungry kids to feed every damn day, but our utility bills skyrocketed due to the whole household being home 24/7 as we sheltered in place.
You can try to record a TED talk from your home office with your windows open to save energy, but the attempt almost guarantees a neighbor will pull out a leaf blower before you nail your performance. Ask my husband how I know!
Solo, I might subsist on cold cereal and the occasional spoonful of peanut butter, but my standards for parenting are a little higher than those for self care. I want to feed my family healthy meals consisting of whole foods sourced from readily identifiable ingredients found in nature, but I don’t want to spend too much time slaving over a hot stove to do so.
I want easy, healthy solutions to mealtime that won’t give me heat stroke.
At our first home, we installed a full size barbecue grill in the backyard. It was conveniently plumbed into the natural gas line and just a few steps from the kitchen, so my husband grilled often, especially on those hot, sunny days when I didn’t want to cook.
Full disclosure: I almost never actually wanted to cook, but I mind it less when the weather is moderate to cold.
Our current home has a very different layout, however, with a second floor kitchen. We love its attached balcony with peek-a-boo peeps of the sea, but it is too narrow for a large grill plus the modern composite decking seems unsuitable for that kind of heat even if I was willing to shimmy past a scorching surface. DH will lug out a tabletop propane model once in a summer’s while if we’re craving burgers, but it’s not a setup that induces me to try my hand at grilling.Sport model) and a Saratoga Jacks Stainless Steel Thermal Cooker.
Both of these were purchased by—or for—me from retail stores (online), and I’m not being compensated in any way for the opinions that follow.
GoSun Sport solar oven
If you bake a lot—or just prefer to cook away from an open flame like I do—a solar oven is a magnificent way to make tasty food while keeping the heat outside your already-hot-enough kitchen.
The GoSun Sport oven was a sheltering-in-place splurge purchased from REI for $249 in June 2020. After just a couple of months with it, this item would be my first choice* for emergencies, power outages, and camp cooking. It’s easy to set up and even easier to use.
Here are a few of the things I’ve cooked or reheated using the GoSun Sport in the past two months:
- eggs (poached and scrambled)
- baked and hash brown potatoes
- roasted vegetables
- buttermilk biscuits
- frozen fish sticks, fries, falafel, and burritos
- hot dogs
- dry roasted almonds
My elementary school science class tried building a solar cooker in the 1980’s, but I recollect that experiment as something of a failure. Strong, direct sunlight is a rarity during the school year where I grew up in the rainy Pacific Northwest. You can absolutely build your own solar cooker from a cardboard box, black paint, tin foil, etc., like my class did, but you will probably get better results from a commercial model such as the GoSun unless you live in a sunny desert climate.
That said, there are minor imperfections that don’t negatively affect my review of the product. The letter “g” of the GoSun logos started peeling off both reflector interiors almost immediately (I actual prefer less branding and would like the oven better without a logo on this highly polished surface.)
The hinges on my Sport were so tight as shipped that I need help from an able-bodied family member to deploy it from the storage position. As is, I would never be able to effect the rotated “boil water” orientation if I owned the necessary accessory for that task. Tight hinges don’t slip, so I prefer this to overly loose ones regardless.
Reaching out to GoSun customer service, I did get a quick response to a query about this issue. They say the hinge is adjustable, and they do claim it will probably loosen up over time. The fact that I haven’t nagged anyone into adjusting it yet proves what a slight inconvenience this is. I simply use a pile of blocks to adjust the Sport so it properly faces the sun.
Now, as for actually cooking with the Sport solar oven, I’ll begin, as always, from my position as laziest cook in America: the cooking tray is dishwasher safe. The wooden handle unscrews easily even with arthritis and shortens the long, skinny tray from 28″ to a more machine-friendly 22″.
Note that it still has to go into the dishwasher at a diagonal to fit, so hand washing may often be preferable.
The oven does come with a special green scrubby that screws onto the internal end of the cooking tray. You’ll need this when the interior of the glass oven tube itself needs cleaning. I’ve only had to use this once in two months, and that was because I overfilled the tray with food.
Bonus: the interior of the glass tube appears to have magical hypnotic powers when you photograph it! You’re getting sleepy, sleepy…
I already owned silicone muffin cups that fit in the unusually long, narrow cooking tray; many other home bakers may also find themselves similarly well prepared. Cleaning the ridges on the silicone cups is often harder than cleaning the tray itself!available on their website for $39 each. You could also start with the Pro Pack kit (list price: $359, but currently on sale for only $30 more than the base oven); in addition to the oven itself and a bunch of other stuff, it includes a second cooking tray and the Brew water heating accessory ($35) that I almost immediately wished I had to complement my Sport. If you regularly cook for more than a couple of people, you, too, might prefer the expanded capacity of the Pro Pack Kit.
A bigger issue than weight for many users might be storage space. The GoSun Sport is a fairly long object. Though I have extra deep (27″) base cabinets on this side of my kitchen, the Sport still has to be stored at an angle and it definitely wastes some space. It is lightweight enough that it could be safely stored overhead, for example, on top of the refrigerator or in one of those absurdly shallow cupboards where an exhaust fan duct hides.
I’ve read in other online reviews that you can’t burn food in the GoSun Sport, but I’ve disproved that repeatedly. Yes, I definitely can burn† food in the Sport through lack of attention. Those are all sweet potatoes in the rainbow assortment of silicone cups, and I burned many of them black.
I do find it fascinating how the second cup from the red handle end clearly received the most heat, though. I would’ve guessed the internal end would have been the hottest spot…
A cheap, simple solution to avoid burning your solar cooked meals is… a kitchen timer. The Sport manual includes a chart with suggested cook times, and the provided ranges are pretty accurate. If you forget all about what you are cooking, however, you can burn food in the Sport.
The reason it is relatively harder to burn food in the GoSun Sport as compared to your home oven is the moisture retention provided by the small volume of the enclosed glass tube. One of the externally visible signs that your food is cooking is condensation near the vent by the cooking tray’s handle.
For the same reason, if you fill the tray as full as I did when roasting these vegetables, they will end up more steamed than caramelized and roasted. Either will be safely and thoroughly cooked, but the latter are more delicious, so I recommend doing root vegetables in smaller batches whenever possible.
There are no settings or adjustments to the GoSun Sport oven beyond putting in food and pointing it at the sun. You can pretty much tell by your own shadow where the sun is in the sky and where you should aim your oven to best utilize its power.
There is a little bump at the sealed end of the glass chamber that works like a sundial to help you aim; this is sold separately on the GoSun site as the “Solar Dial,” but my Sport came with one installed. Oddly, there were no instructions or references to the Solar Dial in the manual, but it appears obvious that you want the red dot’s black shadow to land in the center “target” inside the bubble to indicate ideal placement.
Setting a timer and remembering to check on what you’re cooking is literally the whole process. I wasn’t sure how well it would work for baked goods for that reason—i.e., there’s no oven temperature setting—but my buttermilk biscuit test using Prepared Pantry’s Classic Buttermilk Biscuit mix worked out great.
I keep meaning to whip up a cake batter and see how a “tube of cake” turns out, but I haven’t gotten around to that experiment yet. Summer heat really suppresses my overall urge to bake.
I should get this done; I’d really like to eat some cake. The heat does not suppress my urge to eat baked goods!
There are two sensory clues that also let you know when your food is nearing readiness. First, wisps of steam become visible with most recipes. I suspect that the more moisture inside the cooking tray, the more likely this is to happen, but it is pretty reliable. Glancing through the glass door to my balcony from inside the kitchen, I can often see steam rising when it is time to check on lunch.
The other clue is the smell of delicious, cooked food. You won’t notice any odor when you set out the cold oven, but the aroma becomes enticing when your meal is almost ready. Sit nearby, even with a great book, and I suspect your nose will remind you that you’re cooking.
I love my GoSun Sport because it is so simple to use. The body of the unit doesn’t get hot, so I feel comfortable letting my kids cook with it.
Of course, the interior does get very hot—it’s an oven, after all!—but the wooden handle never does. This would be a great device for teaching kids to cook because of its ease of use, excellent safety profile, and also the relatively small tray that would minimize waste when experiments inevitably go wrong.
You just need to emphasize to any new users that the tray and the food inside will be hot coming out of the oven. It seems obvious, but, well… remind everyone! Also, use a trivet when you set the hot tray down. You’re welcome.
You may have noticed from the backdrop of all of my food pictures, but I tend to set mine down on my commercial range’s cast iron cooktop which is impervious to heat. There is also a natural depression between the burners that holds the round-bottomed tray steady. It takes a row of several normal potholders or trivets to protect other surfaces due to the cooking tray’s length.
Negatives against trying out a GoSun Sport are minimal. One is the unusual and very specific size and shape of the cooking tray itself. It reminds me of nothing else so much as a traditional rolling pin. This would be a wildly inconvenient tool for cooking, say, a whole chicken. It’s much more convenient for small bits like stew beef or other meat prepared for kebabs.
The Sport is ill-suited to soups or stews: the volume simply isn’t there, and liquids would be too inclined to slop around as you shift the oven to face the sun as its position in the sky relative to your position shifts.
Finally, there aren’t very many recipes written specifically for the GoSun oven. It’s a new, niche cooker; you’ll need to adapt recipes yourself. Luckily, doing so is usually trivial.
Saratoga Jacks Thermal Cooker
Some of us reach instinctively for a slow cooker before thinking to plop a pot on the stovetop. I couldn’t serve Thanksgiving dinner without my array of not one, not two, but four Crock-Pots. If you resemble that remark, consider a Thermal Cooker for your new best summer friend.
A modern thermal cooker is basically a very large Thermos bottle with a lidded cooking pot or two that fits perfectly inside. You start food on a traditional stove or over any other heat source, such as a campfire, bring it to a full boil for ten to twenty minutes or so, then put the cooking pot into its well insulated cocoon and seal in the heat. The food keeps cooking for hours with the retained heat trapped inside.‡ with a thermal cooker. At home, I’m using my gas stove; if I were camping, I would start meals over the fire or on a camping stove.
Many recipes written for slow cookers will adapt seamlessly for use in a thermal cooker. It might be possible to do a roast this way, but I can only speak to soup and stew recipes that use lots of liquid. It is vital for success with a thermal cooker that the interior is very full with enough mass to keep the temperature high enough to maintain food safety.
If cooking anything less than a full main pot in a thermal cooker, boil water in the smaller secondary pot to fill the interior space and ensure food safety.
The 5.5 liter Stainless Steel Thermal Cooker with- 2 Inner Pots being sold on the Saratoga Jacks website as of July 2020 looks like my pot, but I’m not certain it is the exact same model. I received my thermal cooker as a gift from my in laws at least five years ago now so I can’t confirm in which year or at what price mine was procured.
The Saratoga Jacks Thermal Cooker is reasonably lightweight. My kitchen scale tells me it weighs 2959 g (about 6.5 lbs.) I store it in a corner base cabinet, on the upper rack of a built-in, pull-out lazy susan. I originally stored several of my slow cookers in the same spot, but they were too heavy for me to wrestle in and out easily which is why I bought an open shelf rack for those. That might help you put the thermal cooker’s weight into perspective if you also have arthritis or other physical limitations.
The 5.5 L Saratoga Jacks Thermal Cooker is roughly similar in size overall to my 6 quart Crock-Pot Smart Pot slow cooker. The thermal cooker feels bulkier but much lighter in your arms; it’s taller, but not as wide as my largest oval Crock-Pot.
I could imagine starting a slow-cooked meal at home and bringing the thermal cooker along on a road trip for supper-upon-arrival, but I would think carefully about the ideal placement for a full pot within the vehicle, and that probably wouldn’t be right by my kids’ feet.
On a hot summer day, I set the thermal cooker full of boiled food outside in the hot sun and let it rest by the balcony door. Like all Thermos and similar insulated jars, reducing the difference between the ambient temperature and what’s inside will extend the length of time the ideal temperature can be held without adding more energy i.e., putting the cooking pot back on the stove and burning more gas.
The interior cooking pots are nice—but not exceptional—quality. It doesn’t bother me to stir up a soup in the big pot, but I don’t enjoy using it the same way I do my favorite Le Creuset or Cutco cookware. These are simply functional and sufficient housewares.
I have used the small pan to sauté onions in an effort to wash fewer pans afterwards. The result is a visibly stained small interior pot. I’ve reverted to using my small, purple Le Creuset cast iron pan for that task because I enjoyξ the process so much more. In spite of the staining, there is no functional degradation to the smaller cook pot. It didn’t warp or deform from that usage.
The outer thermal container, like all Thermos jars, is not dishwasher safe. You may notice my home printed label affixed to the Saratoga Jacks Thermal Cooker reminding my family to WIPE CLEAN ONLY! Happily, the interior cook pots and lids are all dishwasher safe. They are no harder—or easier—to clean than typical stainless steel cookware.
Whereas my GoSun Sport solar oven tends to cook a little less than my family needs for a typical lunch for Mom plus two kids, my 5.5 L Saratoga Jacks Thermal Cooker makes more than we eat at one meal. Soups and stews are usually ideal for batch cooking and freezing, however, and this has been how I’ve produced most of the make-ahead meals I’ve frozen during our COVID-19 quarantine.freezing leftovers in my silicone pans in a recent post. The thermal cooker was a vital tool for letting me keep up with this time- and energy-efficient method of cooking after the weather turned hot; I really hate heating up the kitchen in the summertime!
Should I buy a solar oven or a thermal cooker?
At the end of the day, your choice to buy a solar oven and/or a thermal cooker will depend upon:
- How you prefer to cook and which type of food you want to prepare,
- When or for what reason you plan to cook outside,
- Whether you need a cooking method independent of the power grid or the vagaries of your local weather conditions.
Either the GoSun Sport solar oven or the Saratoga Jacks thermal cooker would make a great travel partner for someone looking to cook at a campsite or on road- or day-trips where basic kitchen facilities are available at the start or end of the day. Both are portable, functional, and nicely designed options that can churn out well-made meals with just a modicum of cooking skill required.
For myself, recent experience has taught me that I will eat a lot more vegetables with the option to roast them outside on hot days. I’ll admit it: I will eat salad someone else has made, but the effort of prepping cold vegetables far outweighs any enjoyment I get from eating them.
I’m highly salad resistant!
Using the solar oven definitively encourages me to eat a better variety of vegetables in the summer because I like the taste of roasted root vegetables a lot more than I do cold leafy greens.
Yup. This is true even when the weather is hot!
The solar oven also lends itself beautifully to convenient, quick baked treats in the sunny season. While far from health foods, prepared frozen or refrigerated bread and cookie dough can be prepared with minimal effort and in perfectly portioned small quantities to serve a single snacker.
On the other hand, for batch cooking entire meals for my family, the thermal cooker allows me to seamlessly re-create the recipes which are a delight steaming all day in my kitchen… but only in colder months when I’m not simultaneously using electricity to cool that same room.
When COVID-19 emptied the shelves of local grocery stores and I couldn’t buy my husband’s favorite packaged black beans at any price, the ability to slow cook a batch of dry beans went from quaint, old-fashioned act of economy to the only way to feed our family’s primary breadwinner a healthy food that suits his particular palate.
I own and use both of these non-electric small kitchen appliances. Each has seen at least weekly use through the pandemic summer of 2020. Cooking outdoors has been a diversion during a stressful time, but also a great reminder of how bountiful my access is to cheap utility power compared to people worldwide.
One takeaway for myself: If I can prepare the same meal for my family using a fraction of the electricity or natural gas, shouldn’t I at least try to do so?
Then, as Hurricane Laura barreled over the Gulf Coast a few days ago, I was also prompted to recognize the fundamental value of the work I’m doing as I practice cooking for my family in these less-grid-dependent ways. As hobbies go, I appreciate the double impact of having a pretty good time whilst simultaneously increasing my self-sufficiency and resiliency for unknowns the future might hold.
Oh, yeah, and all this effort feeds my family pretty well, too.
* With the caveat that a solar stove only works when the weather is sunny! Households with young children or elderly members who might quickly decline in an emergency should not rely on a solar oven as their only emergency cooking solution. Combined with a storm kettle or a small camping stove, however, to ensure hot food in any weather, it remains a fantastic choice.
† I also burned two batches of almonds before I realized how quickly they would get done. Check your nuts after 15 minutes if you want to learn from my mistakes.
‡ Early American pioneers prepared some of their meals using a “hay box” functioning exactly as the thermal cooker does. A well insulated box (full of hay) let a meal, started over the breakfast fire, keep cooking all day in the back of the settlers’ wagon as they made progress across the prairies. You don’t need to buy a thermal cooker to experiment with this kind of cooking. You can build something similar with a heavy Dutch oven you already own and any heat resistant box filled with insulation.
ξ Or hate it less?