Myrna Wetzel hovers a paper sun over a gooey s’more. Wearing a bright all-yellow baseball cap and outfit, the former teacher describes how she uses common household items, like a pizza box and alumnimum foil, to cook the camping dessert in her yard.
“You can do this if you don’t want to waste electicity with the oven,” Wetzel tells the students at Lockeford Elementary School.
Wetzel is a solar oven cooking enthusiast, having whipped up everything from tri-tip to brownies for more than two decades in her Lodi backyard.
At 10 a.m. on sunny days, she assembles the reflective solar oven, using clothespins to secure the panels in place that will surround the dish. Wetzel prepares what she plans to have for dinner in a dark-brown pot. Then, she places the pot on a cookie rack and wraps it in a plastic oven-safe bag — the same kind used for turkey at Thanksgiving. After that, she blows a puff of air into the bag, and seals it with a twist tie.
Then she puts the dish in the solar oven outside, which she keeps in a wheelbarrow to easily move, and goes about her day. Every couple of hours, she will check the temperature or maybe move the wheelbarrow to a sunnier spot. At the end of the day, she usually has dinner, baked goods or a snack ready to eat.
The way the food cooks depends on a variety of factors, including the weather, how much sun there is and where the oven in positioned.
“I tell people it’s not a science, it’s an art,” Wetzel said.
In the mid-1990s, Wetzel bought her first solar oven and discovered she enjoyed this form of cooking. She can’t remember what prompted the purchase, but she imagines it was her desire to preserve the environment by not using as much fuel and cutting down on pollution.
Over the years, she said there has also been the added benefit of her utility bill going down because she rarely turns on the stove. And then there’s the taste — the melt-in-your-mouth delicious taste.
“Oh, the baked potato. It just tastes better. I can’t even describe it,” she said.
Interest in solar cooking has increased over the years, especially as a way for people to cook in countries where they have limited access to fuel, said Karen Whitestone, assistant database manager for Solar Cookers International.
“It’s not as impactful for a lot of people in North America who turn on their stove, and there is gas or wood,” Whitestone said. “But it’s important in other areas where that isn’t the case, like refugee camps where fuel is not as available.”
Whitestone, a recent graduate from University of California, Davis, made a pizza as her first dish in a solar oven. She has also tried quinoa and beans. She says solar oven cooking requires less energy, and it frees up her day.
“It’s a lifestyle choice to start solar cooking. It’s a way to time your day and plan around things,” she said.
In Lodi, Wetzel is hoping to encourage more people to either buy an oven or simply make one at home. In April, she taught kids at Lockeford Elementary, where she retired 17 years ago, how to construct their own oven with a cooking thermometer, a pizza box and aluminum foil.
And last fall, she gave a presentation during Public Power Week at the Lodi Electric Utility.
Kevin Bell, a utility rate analyst, started tinkering with solar ovens before the presentation. He made one that he painted all black and then collaborated with Wetzel on making one out of a pizza box using common household items.
“I’m not up on the cooking part, but the kids could see that you can do this kind of stuff at home and make something effective,” he said.
Bell even plans on making some solar ovens to take on his next trip to Porvenier, Mexico this October. He regularly visits the town with First Baptist Church to build houses and work with a local mission.
“It’s kind of neat. It will be a fun thing to do with the kids, to have them make a little solar oven,” he said.
Aside from the environmental benefits of not using gas or electricity when turning on the stove, Wetzel has often touted the savings on her utility bill. She recommends families looking to save money this summer consider solar cooking their dinner.
Bell said it is hard to quantify how much much money a solar oven could save a household if they used it regularly. But he did compare the idea of solar cooking to grilling or cooking outside in the summer. By not cooking food on the stove, people avoid the house heating up, which could also theoretically save money on air conditioning.
One of the challenges with solar ovens is that little research has been done on the cooking technique, Whitestone said. Researchers are currently trying to figure out how much fuel is saved through the solar cooking process and whether certain designs guarantee a speciafic temperature.
Whitestone recommends that people interested in solar cooking read about the ovens, and consider getting a starter kit that Solar Cooking International and others sell.
“Don’t be intimidated. It’s much easier than you think. Just think of it as technologically simple, but a revolutionary product,” she said.
Wetzel also said families need to check all food with a cooking thermomether to ensure it is cooked to at least 160 degrees or the temperature neccessary to make it safe to eat. Cooks should also consider elbow-length oven mitts to avoid burning themselves on the heat of the panel.
Even with all the benefits, Wetzel admits she has had her share of mishaps while experimenting with this non-precise form of cooking. Sometimes she needs to pop her meatloaf in the microwave in the evening if it hasn’t cooked to the right temperature and the heat of the day is gone. Another time her rice boiled over.
When she first started, she hard-cooked eggs and when she cracked one open, it was brown.
“It was the strangest thing. I found out later that it tastes just the same, but it doesn’t look terrific because I overcooked it.”
But she encourages people to keep trying — if only to get the delicious taste of a perfectly cooked baked potato.
Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at firstname.lastname@example.org.