Scot’s Product Review: SUN OVENS International All American Solar Oven

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I’ve already written about solar cooking (and plan to continue writing about solar stuff), but I will try not to repeat too much from the last review in this one. That said, there was some good generic information there, and you might want to refer back to it .

As I continue on this trail, I have come to the All American Solar Oven http://www.sunoven.com/. It is a very high quality, made in the USA product that works extremely well. SUN OVENS is a long time player in the field. The original Sun Ovens came on the market in 1986, so they have been around for 28 years. I was impressed with the firm’s history when I read their “about us” page. I liked the fact that they go back to the beginning and credit the original inventor, Tom Burns, and describe the process of developing the oven. I was fascinated that they got help from the Sandia National Laboratory to improve the oven. Sandia is well known for energy and weapons research.

Paul M. Munsen, the company’s president today, took over making the ovens in 1998 from Burns. He had originally gotten involved in helping market them, having been excited by how much solar cooking could help people in the third world. Munsen spends a lot of time promoting the use of solar cooking, and a significant amount of the firm’s income subsidizes solar ovens used by poor people around the world. Munsen says “We believe there is a lot to be said for free enterprise and seek to take a private sector approach to helping solve problems, which people think should be addressed by governments and nonprofit organizations.” He adds that they seek to help entrepreneurs make and sell SUN OVENS in the country where they will be used.

So what is this thing like? Think of a 19.5”x19.5” box that sits about 15” high in the back and 9” high in the front. It has folding, aluminum, 22-gauge, reflector panels on top that stick out about 1.5” on each side. They protect the glass door on the oven when they are collapsed. I really appreciated how they folded over the edges to make the panels sturdier, as well as to cover the sharp edges. The reflectors fold out into a square with 32” sides. The whole thing is then about 30” tall in the back, but when you tilt it to aim at the sun, it can get taller.

The cooking chamber is 14” square, about 11” deep in the back, and 8” deep in the front. You can get a turkey into it if you need to. When you fold it up, there is a strap to secure the reflectors and a folding handle to carry it around like a suitcase. It weighs about 23 pounds, so it isn’t hard to move, but it is a bit bulky and certainly not suitable for backpacking.

The cooking chamber has a thick glass door, and there is an excellent seal around the opening to keep the heat in. Two clamps pull the door tightly shut. With the included thermometer, you can monitor the oven temperature, which is very important. The tightly sealed cooking compartment is one of the keys to this oven’s efficiency.

On the back of the oven, there is a retractable leg that helps you tilt the oven as needed for aiming it at the sun. You also get some stakes to help anchor the legs, should you have wind problems.

On the top of the oven, attached to the glass door, you get SUN OVENS E-Z Sun-Track Indicators, which make it a snap to keep it aimed precisely. They are one of my favorite features of the oven. You can aim it by its shadow, but I found using the indicators really helped maximize the heat in the oven.

My other favorite feature is the Levelator cooking rack. It is ingenious and simple. It is a wire rod rack that hangs from two bolts in the cooking chamber. Remember aiming the thing at the sun? That often involves tilting the oven, and tilting pots full of food isn’t a good plan. What the Levelator does is swing, so that what you are cooking stays horizontal. I think being able to tilt the oven towards the sun offers a major improvement in cooking speed, and it would be tough to do it without this feature..

The All American Solar Oven is, by the way, an improvement of the firm’s Global Solar Oven, which is marketed outside the U.S. The All American has a 20% larger cooking compartment, a thicker glass cover for the oven, the E-Z Track aiming devices, a more versatile self-leveling cooking tray, and a better stand for aiming it. The improved stand is one of Munsen’s favorite features, as he said it reduces the chance of wind tipping the oven over and spoiling a meal.

The reflectors are made out of sturdy sheets of anodized aluminum and well attached to the top of the oven. They are polished on the reflector side and dull on the outside. The outer box is made of ABS plastic, and the inner shell is black, anodized aluminum. The top is poplar wood and nicely finished. There is a layer of insulation between the inner and outer shells, which retains heat and keeps you from burning yourself when you pick up the box. They use a food grade fiberglass for the insulation.

As I mentioned in the last review, I have some concerns about the visibility of solar cookers at a distance. Something I would do if I owned this oven is paint the back of the reflectors in a subdued color. The oven arrives with the polished side of the reflector panels covered with a protective film, so they would be protected if you paint the backs of the reflector panels before removing the film to deploy the oven. You also might want to consider a sheltered area with blocking vegetation or a fence, though you don’t want them to shadow the oven. Someone above you, though, will still probably see it if they are at the right angle.

The kit I tested included the Dehydrating and Preparedness Accessory Package and goes for $399.00 with shipping included. Besides the oven, you get three racks that can be used to dehydrate food and two, nice, Granite Ware, three-quart, roaster pots. One of the pots has a glass lid that is very helpful for some foods, as you can keep an eye on it while it cooks. The other has the standard metal lid. You also get two loaf pans and a roll of parchment paper, which is handy for some dishes. Then there are Water Pasteurization Indicators (WAPI), like the one I wrote about with the last oven. It has wax inside that melts at the temperature you need water to reach for safe drinking. Heating the water until the wax melts and shifts to the other end kills the bugs in the water. You haven’t, however, removed chemicals, so you may still need to filter the water.

One big plus that comes with the All American Sun Ovens is the Cook’n software. It starts out as a recipe program that allows cooks to easily grab recipes online and organize them as they see fit. SUN OVENS populates it for you with a number of nice recipes that work in solar cookers as well as the oven instructions and tons of helpful information on using the oven. There are links for their videos as well. There is also a Preparedness for Life series with links to videos and presentations that offer some advice and tools for organizing one’s preps.

I have been testing it in the same time period as the last one I wrote about, so I will repeat my whine about the weather not cooperating. We got a lot of mid-day cloudiness and early afternoon thunderstorms in late June and July. We normally get the cloudiness and storms later in the day at this time of year, so this really impinged on my cooking time. I did finally figure out that I could put the ovens out as early as 8 AM and start cooking at 9 AM and get some meals done before the weather went bad. I had read elsewhere that solar cooking is best done between 10 AM and 2 PM but discovered you can still do a lot of cooking earlier and later if the sun is out. SUN OVENS does say that you get more cooking hours in the summer than the winter, which makes sense. That said, they have reports of ice fishermen in Minnesota using them with success along with an expedition to the Himalayas.

There are, besides cloudy days, some drawbacks to solar cooking. First, it’s not so hot for breakfast. You just don’t get enough sun early enough for that. One recipe I read suggested that you can cook up a batch of oatmeal and refrigerate it for later use. That’s a good plan if you have refrigeration. You can do the same with bacon. Another suggestion was to simply enjoy breakfast foods at different times of day, and I have to admit to liking that idea a lot.

Another drawback is how much you can fit into the oven. You can get a large stew or other one pot meal done easily. Since the Granite Ware pots will stack, you can cook two things at once, if you want to have several courses and have a large family, you might need more than one oven. It’s also hard to cook several items with different heat and time requirements as anytime you open the oven to add or remove something, you lose a lot of heat. Planning will help, though.

I think it would be hard to sterilize enough water for very many people with one oven, especially if you are trying to cook with it too. SUN OVENS suggested using one quart canning jars for water pasteurization, which worked quite well, but the oven only holds six of them. That’s not enough for even two people a day in a hot climate. Again, this points to wanting more than one oven for multiple people. I’m really not much of a cook; I’m more of a direction follower, so I was surprised that I was able to make some good meals and dishes with solar cooking. Normally, I mix ingredients, set the oven temperature, and leave it in for the specified length of time. Solar cookers depend on a variable heat source, so the heat varies and the cooking time will too. Thankfully, there are a lot of things you can cook that come out okay, even if you can’t use a set time to go by. Crock pot recipes, in particular, seem to work well. The one thing that has been eluding me is pasta. We like the stuff, but so far, I’ve managed to make paste, but I will keep trying and report back. Part of the problem has been forgetting about it, and letting it cook too long. That doesn’t work on the stove top, either.

As with the last oven I tested, baked potatoes came out great. I’m unlikely to ever want one from the microwave again.

Stews are a natural for the solar cooker. I found a recipe in the software that came with the oven that was a huge hit with everyone in my household, though I had to hold the vegetables for my nine-year-old. He was willing to eat around the dread carrots but drew the line at green beans or peas in the stew. Those he would eat separately but not in the stew. (sigh) My mother is looking down and laughing. The surprise ingredient in the recipe was coffee, by the way, so I knew I was going to like it. I left the stew in all day and the inexpensive, stringy stew meat I bought came out with a pleasing texture and flavor, just as it would have in an all-day cook in a crock pot.

A turkey loaf my wife picked up at the store also came out great. I used the thermometer I bought for solar cooking. It has a probe on a wire that can be placed inside the pot while the display unit remains outside the cooker and doesn’t melt. Combined with the built-in thermometer that monitors the temperature inside the oven, you can really stay on top of your cooking. The turkey was moist, succulent, and I think better than it would have been in the electric oven.

I found that I could easily hard boil eggs in the All American. Fresh eggs have been problematic for me when boiled in water, as they are usually very hard to peel. They peeled a lot easier from the solar cooker, but I also have to say that older eggs seemed a little harder to peel than when I boil them in water. Both methods led to tasty eggs, and I have to admit the fresher ones cooked in the solar oven were better than the older ones boiled in water. In short, you get a payback for working a little harder. Much of life is like that, though.

Hot dogs and other pre-cooked meats and foods were a breeze in the solar oven. You could also heat leftovers, but it was hard to walk past the microwave to use the solar oven for that purpose. I think a power outage, when I can’t run a generator, will change that attitude quickly.

There’s also a brownie recipe in the software that came with the oven. Brownies are a big deal here, and this recipe, cooked in the sun oven, was an enormous hit. I left off the butter and confectioner’s sugar drizzle, and I bet they would have been even better with it. Next time. We served them warm with vanilla ice cream. It took a bit longer than the suggested 30-40 minutes to cook, but I had the wrong size pan, and I made them thicker than recommended. They finished in a bit more than 45 minutes. I’m convinced that cooking at a lower temperature in the sealed up Sun Oven keeps them moister and nicer than they would have been in a conventional oven.

I’m sure someone would like for me to compare this oven and the last one. That would be like comparing apples and oranges. The last one was highly portable and light weight. This one is much bulkier, and while you can move it, it isn’t going to work for backpacking. This one is a much more efficient at cooking for a number of reasons. The tightly-sealed cooking chamber that is heat absorbing black makes most of the difference, but the aiming system is also important, as is the insulation. If you are going to be at a base, this one will cook more and do it faster. If you are on foot, you are going to need something that is much more compact and lighter. This one does cost more, but the extra cookware and the software are a big plus. They also include free shipping. I really like both ovens and see a place for each of them, but for cooking at home, I really want this one. For campouts, I want the other one. Having both of them would really multiply how much you could get done in a crisis.

A solar oven is not going to cook all of your meals, but it can make a big dent in your need for fuel. It makes no noise, and you have to be aware of its reflections, but I think it is an important tool. I really liked this oven and hope to be able to afford to keep it. We really enjoyed using it in our day to day lives, but I could well see it being a big help in a grid down scenario.

Some of the websites I found useful while working with solar cooking:

– SurvivalBlog Field Gear Editor, Scot Frank Erie

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