In this age of green energy, many of us are looking to for cleaner ways to cook, like a solar cooker. Of course, cooking with wood or charcoal is eco-friendly in the sense that the fuel is part of a closed chain. We burn wood, or charcoal made from wood, the carbon dioxide enters the air and trees photosynthesize the carbon dioxide, release the oxygen and lock up the carbon in their bodies creating more wood.
If instead of burning the wood, we let the trees die decompose, then the carbon dioxide still enters the atmosphere – albeit at a slower rate - because dead trees decompose. So, in a rough and ready way, wood and charcoal cooking are carbon neutral.
8 Best Solar Cookers 2019 - Our Top Picks
But is there a better way – or at least an alternative that has the virtue of being a “go anywhere” solution that is also carbon neutral? Well “go anywhere” is a relative term. After all, not every fuel is available everywhere. And when the fuel isn’t portable – and sadly sunshine is not portable – then it isn’t really a true go-anywhere solution.
But like I said, “go anywhere” is a relative term. After all you wouldn’t really want to do an outdoor barbecue when it is pouring with rain, or even just cloudy and overcast. Maybe a quick grill on a gas barbecue on the porch. But then, as soon as it’s ready, you’d bring the food in and eat indoors.
But when the sun is shining, that is the time for a true outdoor meal. And solar cookers are the perfect way to exploit that cleanest of all energy sources.
And so, in this review, we will be reviewing a number of solar cookers and giving you the lowdown on the type of results they produce.
Sunflair Portable Solar Oven Deluxe
Weighing only 18 ounces (barely more than half a kilo) it is a true go-anywhere solar cooker. That weight refers only to the solar oven itself, which is made of soft material. The entire kit of course adds extra weight. But when you bear in mind that the kit includes one enamelware pot, two silicone pots, two heat-conducting baking trays, two baking/dehydrating racks and a solar thermometer, you can well appreciate the value that this kit has to offer. They also throw in a user guide which doubles as a recipe book. The oven itself is its own carrying bag.
Best of all, it requires no assembly. It can be set up or folded away in seconds and easily stored out of the way. Its folded size is 2 x 15.5 x 19 inches. The silicone pots collapse to 2 cm height. And the pots are dishwasher, microwave, and oven safe.
It works by reflecting the sun’s rays with aluminized material onto the centre of the cavity. At the same time, the cavity is sealed behind transparent material creating a greenhouse effect. And the whole thing is thermally insulated. The combination of reflectively focussing the sun’s race and trapping the heat, raises the temperature inside the cavity of this solar cooker to the cooking temperature.
But What Can You Cook With It?
Well the makers give the obvious examples of cookies and pizza. You can also use it to dry fruits and herbs. But it can do a whole lot more than that, because it can reach an internal temperature of 285° F. That’s lower than the temperature of an oven, but in the upper range for a slow cooker. More important it is significantly higher than the boiling point of water and thus perfectly good for a wide range of cooking.
Technically, the makers of this solar cooker recommend a UV index of 3+ for solar cooking. They claim that it can used in all four seasons within 40° of the equator and in “three seasons” outside that zone. The makers even claim that you can sometimes get better temperatures in winter than in summer, because there is less dust in the air, making the sun’s ultraviolet rays more intense.
At these temperatures one can do stews and cook flat pieces of meat off-the-bone. Remember that the required internal temperature of the meat for safe cooking is lower than the temperature that the oven must reach in order to deliver that internal temperature. Delivering the right internal temperature depends on two factors: oven temperature and time. Conventional ovens rely on temperature. Slow cookers rely on time.
And therein lies the problem. This solar oven functions like a slow cooker. It is great for the kind of recipes one does in a saucepan, casserole, Dutch oven or Potjie. But you can even roast a whole chicken in it, if you are ready to wait three hours. On the other hand, rice can be cooked in it in 30-40 minutes and baked apples in 25.
Catch your food on the... er... fly?
But what is really great, is that you don’t necessarily have to bring food along at all. If you are going fishing on a catch-and-keep basis, you can catch your dinner in the river, lake or sea and then cook it in the solar oven. Again 30 – 40 minutes will ensure that most fish are done to perfection. And if you catch a whopper and can’t be bothered to take it home, you can just extend the cooking time to 50 – 60 minutes.
Obviously if you want to set up and cook something quickly this is not for you. Also, it is important to use a reliable meat thermometer to test the internal temperature (of the food, not the solar cooker) to make sure that any meat you are cooking is done. Hot dogs can probably be cooked relatively quickly, although we didn’t actually test this.
The makers also cite other uses of the Sunflair, such as sterilizing bandages and emergency surgical tools, candle and soap making, clay crafts and cooking frozen dinners. We can’t vouch for any of these. Nor can we vouch for their claim that it can be used from Alaska to Afghanistan. But they do offer a 30-day return policy and claim that a portion of proceeds goes towards “providing a safer, healthier, and greener cooking experience for all, both here at home and across the globe.”
- Can be used anywhere
- Easy to use
- Folds away
- Easy to clean
- Very slow
- You need a food thermometer to be sure food is cooked through
VERDICT: A useful emergency standby solar cooker that can cook (slowly) for 4 – 8 people.
SolSource Classic Solar Cooker
The SolSource Classic – and its little brother, the SolSource Portable – are reflective parabolic dishes that reflect the sun’s light onto a focal point, thereby creating intense heat. The cooking utensil is then placed at the focal point where it can be heated to a theoretical maximum temperature of 300°C (572°F). This is comparable to a domestic oven. But more importantly it reaches this temperature in a mere 20% of the time it takes a charcoal grill to reach its peak temperature.
It is made of reflective polymers, described by the makers as “self-healing” – which presumably means it automatically corrects deformations in its shape, if and when they occur. You might think that this is inferior to an aluminum parabolic dish, but in fact we found it better than most of its aluminum competitors in terms of heating capacity. The fact is, reflective polymers work better than aluminum. The downside is that it can get damaged slightly more easily, if (say) hot oil or grease from the cooking utensil splashes onto it.
You operate this solar cooker by pointing it directly at the sun. However, if you want to cook on a lower temperature than the max, you simply adjust the reflectors, so you are not getting the full solar heat. In effect, you make the parabola less focused on the bottom of the dish. To facilitate this, the kit includes a small darkened mirror so that you can make the adjustment without looking directly at the sun or its bright, reflected light.
Versatile... within limits
While it doesn’t offer the special flavor of a charcoal grill, it does have the advantage of avoiding the fumes you get blowing in your face when you cook over an open fire. You can use the SolSource to boil, fry, braise, grill, sauté, roast and bake. These last two are achieved by placing a baking or roasting tray inside a larger pot like a Dutch Oven. Ideally you should turn the baking tray, or the pot housing it, at regular intervals, to ensure that the food bakes or roasts evenly.
The one limitation of this solar cooker is that you can only use the SolSource when the sun is visible. That doesn’t mean it has to be a hot day, or even a warm one, but the sun has to be visible. If it is completely concealed by cloud cover, then it isn’t going to work.
You might think that because the surface reflects solar heat that it gets extremely hot itself. However, this is not the case. Because the SolSource works by focusing the heat from a large surface area onto a small one. So, the reflective surfaces of the mirror sections heat up the utensil at the focal point, without getting hot themselves. This greatly reduces the risk of burning yourself – although you still can, if you touch the heated cooking utensil.
Easy to use, easy to clean
But the real value of this phenomenon is that when you have finished cooking, the surfaces are easy to clean. Just wash them with soapy water, wipe the grease off and you can put it away for next time. Weighing a tad under 40 pounds, it can easily be moved around by a single adult.
The cooking utensil stand at the focal point of the reflector is cleverly designed. It is reversible, so it can accommodate a wide variety of pan sizes. You can use it with a Dutch oven, skillet, ribbed grill pan, frying pan, saucepan, etc. To get the best results, you should use pots with dark, matte exteriors. Aluminum or steel will reflect some of the sunlight away, whereas pots with dark exteriors will absorb it.
According to the makers of this solar cooker, this device was tested by nomads on the Himalayan Plateau and was designed with portability in mind. It can withstand high wind, and even though the reflective dish might appear to move around a little, as long as the legs are staked down at the bottom (and it comes supplied with stakes) it will remain stable in most windy conditions. However, the SolSource Classic is not really portable. That is why they call it a backyard solar cooker.
Good but not perfect
One small problem we noticed is that although you can vary the angle of elevation, it does not have a wide enough range or vertical motion to catch the sun when it is low in the sky. This is particularly frustrating when you’re trying to cook in the evening. Also, the clamp that locks the dish in place vertically does not have enough grip and we had to use a bit of force to tighten it.
The pot stand also wobbled a bit and didn’t provide much stability for smaller pots.
But perhaps the biggest obstacle is the price. There are several aluminum solar cookers out there that are cheaper.
- Heats incredibly fast and cooks quickly
- Versatile (takes many utensil sizes)
- Easy to vary temperature by mirror realignment using black mirror as a guide
- Heats food without getting hot itself
- Easy to clean
- Somewhat expensive
- Not enough range of motion to catch low sun
- Weak clamp lock for vertical elevation
- Wobbly pot stand – especially for small pots
VERDICT: In good sunlight, this solar cooker quicker than an oven and also a good conversation piece for a summer meal in the garden.
SolSource Sport Portable
Weighing in at just 10 pounds, the SolSource Portable solar cooker is the little brother of the classic. It is easy to assemble and disassemble, with clearly written instructions as well as several useful videos, available on YouTube and the company’s own website. The mirrors can be detached, and the frame collapsed in three or four minutes. It even comes with a bag for the outer panels and then a larger backpack bag for the whole thing. Once dismantled, it can be packed away in its dedicated bag and put in the back of a car or even carried. And one can do this over and over again without damaging it or inflicting wear and tear.
Because it is smaller in surface area, it cannot reflect as much light onto the cooking area. Therefore, the SolSource Portable can only reach temperatures of about 200°C (400°F). However, whilst some oven cooking is done at higher temperatures (like thin-crust pizza), most is done at the between 175°C (350°F) and those upper temperatures above.
- Requires no fuel
- Heats up quickly
- Easily assembled and dismantled
- Can’t reach highest oven temperatures
VERDICT: Unlike the Classic, this is a useful device for outdoor cooking that you can take with you on the road.
The GoSun is quite a remarkable solar cooker. Essentially it consists of a dark transparent vacuum tube and two parabolic reflectors (>95% reflectivity). The reflectors – which must be angled towards the sun, aim sunlight at the tube. The sunlight penetrates the tube and is trapped inside, heating the food inside and cooking it. That does not mean that the food itself is in a vacuum. Rather it is like the contents of a transparent thermos flask. The vacuum forms an insulating layer. But the glass also creates a greenhouse effect, as the ultraviolet light penetrates the chamber and heats the contents, but the infrared given off by contents is unable to penetrate the glass to escape. It can work even on overcast days as long as the sun is above the horizon. But on cloudy days the cooking process is noticeably slower.
In practice this process converts the solar energy into heat with a whopping 80% efficiency, reaching temperatures of 288°C (550°F). This is easily enough to cook food. In theory, this might be enough to actually burn the food. But this doesn’t happen in practice. The nature of the heat capturing technology is such that you can even cook in cloudy conditions, as long as you can see a defined shadow. It is the sun’s ultraviolet rays create the heat.
The “lid” of the food chamber (more like the end piece in practice) is made of stainless steel and is insulated so that you can touch it without burning yourself. The frame is also stainless steel, but the reflectors are aluminum and the feet are made of rubber for grip and stability. This use of materials ensures that the outside never gets hot. Only the inner chamber, where the food is cooked, heats up.
The food is cooked, by placing it into a steel pans that slide into the cooking tube. After you’ve finished cooking, you can leave the food inside to stay warm – i.e. turn it or not rep-angle it, so that it is no longer getting direct sunlight. Or you can close the reflectors. Then, when you’re ready to eat, just slide the food pan out of the tube and serve. In the case of the GoSun Sport (as opposed to the larger GoSun Grill), the tube is 24 inches long and has a 2.3-inch diameter.
The GoSun solar cooker is rounded off by a user manual, a recipe booklet, a cleaning tool that attaches to the end of the tray, a 7.5-pound foldable, clamshell case (with handles) and a two-year no quibble warranty “when ordered on Amazon from GoSun Stove or Brookstone.” It also comes with a strong carry bag, making it truly portable.
At the kind of temperatures that the GoSun achieves, food cooks quickly. Hot dogs and fish are easy enough, but burgers and steaks are a bit more difficult, if only because the narrow diameter of the tube makes it impossible to lay them out flat. Of course, if one cuts meat into cubes one can cook it. One could even add some liquid to the steel cooking pan and braise the meat. Or start off with oil to sauté or brown it and then add liquid to braise it and cook it through.
But if you want to cook larger quantities, you should consider getting the bigger – and more expensive - GoSun Grill (see below). That said, meat and potatoes can be cooked easily in the GoSun Sport in an hour to an hour and a quarter. You can perhaps, maximize the amount you can cook, by cutting the food into strips or cubes. But it is really only suitable for cooking a full meal for in small quantities. That could be anything from one hungry adult and a child to 2-3 average adults.
It is basically a new sort of camping cooker. It is versatile as to the type of food it cooks, beef, chicken, hot dogs, fish, dough-based products. But you must be flexible to work with these limited dimensions. You can even hard “boil” eggs (in their shells) in the cooker. Chicken drumsticks and wings can also be cooked to perfection, especially when you spice them nicely before putting them in. In good conditions it cooks fast. You can have a meal ready in 15-20 minutes.
The problem is that it is not cheap. The price seems pretty steep for a solar cooker that doesn’t cook large quantities.
- Easy to use
- Can be set up to cook and keep warm
- Heats up quickly
- Retains heat well
- Works (slowly) on overcast days, if sun is visible
- Small, limited capacity
- Quite expensive for what it does.
VERDICT: It works, but it is not clear what is the target market, given its limited capacity.
The big brother of the GoSun Sport, the GoSun Grill has considerably more capacity. It comes with two long deep stainless-steel cooking pans. And if you can even buy extra pans to be able to cook a second round as soon as the first round comes out of the grill. But even with just the two pans, packed to the brim, you could easily cook a full main course for 4-6 people.
And because you get two pans with the solar cooker, you can cook different items. For example, you could roast four chicken quarters in one and potatoes in the other. You could even bake a load of bread in one of the pans.
- Good capacity
- Heats up quickly - works fast in direct sunlight
- Works in cloud-filtered sunlight
- Retains heat well for keeping food warm
- Very expensive
VERDICT: Because it is bigger than the Sport, the GoSun Grill makes a very useful backup device in the event of a grid failure and good try out for outside eating. But it is expensive.
All American Sun Oven premium bundle
This is essentially a large box with reflectors inside and out to direct the sunlight (and thus the heat inside the box where you can put racks, trays, dishes or pots to cook food – just as in a normal oven. In fact, it comes with a dehydrating and baking rack set, 2 “easy stack” pots with lids, 2 loaf pans and an eCookbook with 600 recipes.
The reflectors are made of rust-proof, highly polished aluminum. The makers claim that it can reach temperatures in the 360 – 400 °F. However, in our experience, it would be more realistic to say 300 – 350 °F.
As with many of the other solar cookers reviewed here, it works best when there is enough sunlight to cast a shadow. You can do pot roasts and stews, bake cookies and cakes, even roast potatoes. It works if it is sunny outside, even if it is not actually hot. Conversely, it also works (somewhat) if it is cloudy, but then only if it is hot. If it is neither cloudy nor hot, then it will not work.
Sun ovens like this, were originally designed for the third world – especially the hotter climates of the third world. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Eskimos and Inuits using it in summer, but I wouldn’t like to make them any promises either. For equatorial and tropical residents, however, it is a useful tool.
But what about affluent westerners? Does it have any value? Well it could certainly be a useful backup in the event of a power outage, if you cook normally with electricity and don’t have gas facilities. But then again, does that make it any better than wood or charcoal? It is probably not as fast. And it can only be used when the sun is out. On the other hand, if you live in an urban area and there are restrictions on wood or charcoal burning, then a solar cooker like this could fulfill that backup function.
Some one suggested that it was useful in the event of a tornado taking out part of the grid. But we can’t endorse this suggestion, as it is best not to use the sun oven on windy days. The wind will blow the reflectors out of alignment and you will find yourself adjusting them constantly.
A problem with this solar oven is that when it first arrives out of the box, if it is put to immediate use, it is haunted by a not very pleasant plastic odor. At another user’s suggestion we solved this problem by putting in an open container of vinegar and exposing the oven to direct sunlight. Some of the vinegar evaporated, steaming out the inside. Then we wiped it down and then started cooking.
The results are comparable to an oven set between 300 and 350. You can roast par-boiled potatoes in an hour, small cut raw potatoes in an hour and a half and if you like them brown and crispy, leave them in for two hours. My sister’s potato and sweet potato mixed roast (using olive oil and garlic) also took two hours to come out perfectly.
The opening to the oven is set at an incline, to catch the sun. But you also have to turn it horizontally to get the best results. Now obviously, there are limitations to this piece of equipment. Unlike parabolic reflectors, it cannot reach the temperatures required for frying or to operate a pressure cooker effectively. Also, it cannot reach the temperatures necessary to bake thin-crust pizza. But it can bake, braise, pot-roast, roast and stew.
- Can duplicate oven cooking for all but the highest temperatures
- Works (to at least some degree) wherever there is sunlight
- Useful backup device
- Can’t achieve high temp for pizza, frying or pressure cooker
- Still a little too expensive for such low tech
VERDICT: A useful backup for power outages if you live in an area affected by them and an alternative to oven cooking on hot days.
Portable Solar Oven
This is the same type of solar cooker as the GoSun, but a whole lot cheaper. So we’re talking about a vacuum tube oven with two hinged parabolic reflectors, a stainless steel cooking tray with an integrated silicone seal and a wooden Handle for getting food in and out. It also comes with a cleaning tool, a thermometer and sun dial to assist with correct orientation.
With a similar internal size to the GoSun Sport (two feet long by two inches in diameter) it suffers from the same practical limitations. It can cook for two or three people, depending on how hungry they are. But the good news is that, in the right conditions, it reaches a high temperature quickly. In bright sunlight, it climbs rapidly to 330°C (626°F). At that temperature, you can cook some foods in 15 – 20 minutes. So, if you are cooking for more than three people, you can cook in relays. An appetizer for all first, followed by food for hungry children and then the adults.
Better still, like the GoSun products, this solar cooker can cook even in cold conditions as long as there is direct sunlight. (The makers claim you can cook in -30°C).
Like the parabolic reflectors – and unlike the solar ovens – you can easily fry and sauté in this device, because of the temperatures it is capable of reaching. You still can’t do pizza or heat up a pressure cooker. But those are dimensional problems, not temperature limitations. You can certainly boil water in it. So you can steam food in it, for a healthy meal. And you can braise, bake and roast in it – not to mention, aligning it away from the sub but taking advantage of the vacuum tube to keep the food warm, if you don’t want to eat immediately.
Because it is portable – weighing just 3.3 lbs – you can take it on the road and on camping trips. When the mirrors are closed, the solar cooker has an effective double handle and it also comes with its own carry bag.
- Very affordable
- Heats up and cooks very fast
- Works in cloud-filtered sunlight
- Can fry and sauté as well as bake, roast and braise
- Retains heat well for keeping food warm
- Small – limited capacity
VERDICT: Excellent for camping trips and a useful backup for power outages. Also, great value for money.
Solavore Sport Solar Oven
This solar cooker is a rival to the All-American Sun Oven (above). In other words, an insulated box with four mirrors to reflect sunlight through a transparent insulating layer into the box. The reflectors are durable and corrosion-resistant.
Made from pressure-molded, recycled, industrial plastic, it is very eco-friendly in every respect. Weighing a mere nine pounds, it comes with two 3-quart graniteware pots and its own polyester carry case. The case has a two-way zipper, a reflector pouch that closes with velcro, double handles for carrying and a shoulder strap.
But the good thing about this solar cooker is that you can use it as a slow cooker without the reflectors. One can set it in the direction the sun is going to be either halfway through the intended cooking time, towards the tail end of that time or due south so it heats up and peaks at mid-day. Put the food in one (or both) of the pots and have a hot meal waiting for you when you get home in the late afternoon or evening.
Like the All-American, this oven is outgrowth of low-tech cooking solutions developed for the third world. It is principally a backup system. But it can also be used by choice in summer as an alternative to outdoor gas, charcoal or wood. You might ask, why not just use the house oven? Well the answer is that on a hot day, you might not want to heat up the oven in the kitchen. After all, when you heat up the oven, you heat up the house. In fact, on hot, lazy days this is the preferred option. And if you are lucky enough to have a whole string of hot days, so much the better.