Preliminary Review of Off-Grid Cooking Methods

Several people have inquired about the results of my various attempts at the off-grid or minimal input cooking methods I mentioned in an earlier post. Well, here’s an update.

The Sun Oven

Sun Oven

Sun Oven

I love it! As someone who used to be a 100% raw foodist, I have missed the high energy sunshine of 100% raw foods. It’s just that living in Northern Indiana, 100% raw seems so out of touch with our climate and local foods that I’ve switched to somewhere between 50-80% raw, depending on day and season. Having just picked from our garden fruits and veggies seems to offset eating them raw after they’ve been transported to the produce aisle and sat there for who knows how long. Still, I have missed that amazingly joyful, just ate sunshine feeling it’s so easy to imbibe in California and Arizona.

Well … the Sun Oven gives that same vibe to food! It’s amazing, and yet makes total sense, that concentrating solar energy into food would transmit that sunshine quality right into the food. At first, I thought I was just excited to have cooked lentil or mung bean stews with no electricity, but after continued use, I’ve realized that the Sun Oven makes everything taste and feel more alive. Even potatoes. OMG. I never used to like potatoes, but sun-cooked potatoes with cloves of garlic that get all melty in the sun? Over the top joy and goodness!

I have no financial interest in Sun Oven’s, but imho, they are awesome. The only downside is that you do need a sunny day to make use of them. If I still lived in the desert, I’d be using a Sun Oven every day. (They are built to last for 20 years of daily use.) Here in the cloud belt of Northern Indiana, I will get significantly less use from this little gem than in other parts of the country. I remain thrilled with my purchase, though. I did get a super discount sale on it, and I’m awaiting the right timing to try the ultimate of making homemade bread with a wild sourdough starter in the Sun Oven. I just have too many gardening and harvest chores in a week of clouds and rain to try that one anytime soon. Hopefully, some frigid, sunny morning in winter will give me a chance to experiment even further.

The Wonder Oven, aka Wonder Box

Stuffed and ready for action.

Stuffed and ready for action.

Again, LOVE it! Mine’s on the left. I sent the other to my (biological) sister, and I have fabric and filling on hand to make myself another one and to send one to my West Coast “sister,” Tania Marie. Unlike the Sun Oven, this one’s not weather dependent. I’ve even used it to finish off a hot pot from the Sun Oven after the sun went behind clouds or down for the evening. If you don’t use a Sun Oven, fire, or rocket stove outside, then you would need to use a short bit of gas or electric indoors to get the pot contents nice and hot. Instructions recommend boiling for 15 minutes before transferring the pot to the Wonder Oven, where it will continue to cook like an off-grid crock pot.

Does it work? Yes! I have had such fun not needing to babysit pots on the stove, trying to tinker with the dial to keep things warm but not boiling over. A few tricks to keep in mind:

1) You need to use the smallest pot possible for your food, as you want very little air space to cool off. This initially means watching the pot more closely so that it doesn’t boil over on the stove. I rarely boil for the full 15 minutes, and my food has turned out great. I just make sure the items are heated through and then wrap in a towel before snuggling the pot into the Wonder Oven.

2) Online instructions can be a little tricky to follow (at least for me). I found this video super helpful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXyyytHCP5U . You can get a free pattern from the lovely Megan, who’s doing such great service in the world by providing patterns for these amazingly empowering items. You can also find the patterns online if you don’t want to bother Megan or wait for her to mail out the patterns, since this is not a daily activity of hers but more from a sense of volunteer service. I’ve found each Wonder Oven winds up costing approximately $40 $30 [Doh! I added wrong at first!] in materials, plus several hours of time, depending on how adept or challenged you are at sewing. I suspect this second batch of two will go way faster than the first batch. They really are quite easy once you get the hang of the pattern. [Update: please see comments below for more information on cheaper DIY options or a link to purchase a pre-made Wonder Oven on etsy.]

3) You can make yogurt in this by heating up your ingredients to 110 degrees and then adding yogurt starter before putting into the Wonder Oven for twelve hours. I used to make yogurt in a dehydrator set to 110. This works better and is obviously much less energy intensive!

If you don’t want to make your own, you can search online to see if someone’s selling them. Otherwise, you can buy a similar item called the WonderBag. These are pricey, but each purchase also sends one to a third world country, where saving fuel more obviously means saving lives. Here in the West, we don’t often make the connection that we’re using massive amounts of energy in our cooking, but in Africa, where you need to haul the wood yourself, you really make that kind of leap.

In the West, with energy costs rising and the energy companies growing more corrupt by the day, I personally enjoy stickin’ it to ’em with the Wonder Oven. I can make the same food — only moister and tastier — without needing to line the pockets of energy giants or babysit my pots on the stove. A few weeks ago, I even planted a bag of daffodils while “cooking” lentil curry! I’m not one who likes to smell crock pot food all day long since I work from home. I love that the Wonder Oven traps the heat and odors, so that I’m not sick of the smell of my food before I even get a chance to eat it.

Here’s a video comparing the WonderBag, Wonder Oven and a Solar Cooker (not sure this is a SunOven):

(BTW, David, king of kitchen gadgets, has one of those onion choppers shown in the video. They work well! We don’t use it all the time, but it’s great to make uniform diced onions, cucumbers or tomatoes.) It sounds like the woman in the video made her own WonderBag, although I’ve not seen those instructions and patterns online. I’d encourage anyone interested to look around online. You can get a WonderBag on Amazon, or you can make multiples of your own Wonder Oven at home for multi-dish meals.

Those interested in cooking outside with very little fuel might enjoy these Rocket Stove posts. That’s next on my fun DIY list … but again … I’ve got lots of garden and harvesting chores (and sessions!) before I get to experiment with one of these:

Another time I’ll update about the fermentation crocks and mesh dehydrator also mentioned in the earlier post. Let’s just say, I wish someone had been filming me while I unpacked the mesh dehydrator. LOL! It was like a snake in a can — only 3 feet by 5 feet tall! Too funny. I’ve not used it yet to review it, but for packing into a tinier space than I could imagine possible, I give it five stars. ๐Ÿ™‚

17 responses to this post.

  1. awesomeness!! can’t wait for my sweet little wonder oven made with faery love and magick. xoox!! thank you โค

    Liked by 1 person

  2. xoxo โค If this rain keeps up, it might end up being sooner rather than later!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Awesome job on making your Wonder Oven and what a great review you’v offered here on the sun oven and rocket stove! I just shared this on fb and twitter.

    Also an FYI, there’s a brand new etsy shop that just opened yesterday where the seller (who’s a personal friend of mine) is selling Wonder Ovens at $47.50 + shipping. Great price, esp. if yours priced out at $40.

    Blessings to you, Megan

    Here’s her shop:https://www.etsy.com/listing/206970535/my-wonder-oven-a-bean-bag-that-cooks

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  4. Thanks so much, Megan! Blessings, Laura

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  5. Posted by Madine on October 14, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    Wonder ovens done have to cost $40 to make one. I got a large sheet at goodwill for $2 plus beans from Walmart for $16. And I think the beans will make multiple ovens.

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  6. Excellent tips. Thanks, and I am updating my post, as I realized I paid $30 not $40 for materials.

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  7. Madine,
    Are you beans actual beans or the polystyrene? I was considering using buckwheat or other fillers, possibly even wool, if I continue to make these, since for me the largest expense was the polystyrene beads, which I could not even buy in town. I hadn’t thought of using a large sheet. Great idea!

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  8. About the beads, as mentioned above in the comments, a couple references might be helpful to those who are considering which direction to go. Polystyrene beads have demonstrated to be the best for heat retention against other fillers. Beyond that, polystyrene beads are best if they’re the 3mm size rather than the 5mm size (which is the size you’ll find at Walmart) because the bigger the bead, the bigger the air gap in between them. Smaller beads = a more compact “wall” of beads insulating the pot as it’s compressed. You may be interested in looking at a graph included with the following blog post which shows the retention performance between the two sizes as compared to other fillers.

    http://foodstorageandsurvival.com/wonderbox-cookers-insulation-material-and-wonderboxes-for-sale/

    Online, I’ve found the small beads for sale via this link. Each bag — I’m told — contains enough beads for five wonder oven sets. Also, if you have a group, they’ve been offering purchases of $75 or more free shipping.

    http://www.foambymail.com/BBPELET/polystyrene-bean-bag-pellets.html

    Hope that helps a little. Anyone who has questions is more than welcome to email me at myfoodstoragecookbook@hotmail.com. If I can’t answer your question, I probably know someone who can. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  9. Thanks again, Megan! I am going to bookmark that link, because I’d love to incorporate Wonder Ovens into our local food security drive. We have loads of Mennonite and Amish women around here (good at sewing!) and on the other side, a lot of people on food stamps. My contact at the biggest food bank retired, but I’m hoping to find someone interested in having kind of a community sew-fest as part of the week long event. We’ll see how much interest I can garner, but if so, then the free shipping would be great! Many thanks. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  10. Laura. Great timing. I just thought about this last night. Wondering if you had used these yet and how it was working for you. Love the update and all the detail! yay!

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  11. Reblogged this on Reiki Dawn and commented:
    Wanted to share these updates from Laura on her test drives with her sun oven and wonder bags. Alternative ways to cook without using any or little energy from the utility companies. Love the tips, info and reviews.

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  12. Thanks, Dawn! Yes, they’re great. I also just learned that you can cook non-water based things in a Wonder Oven, too, if you put the items in an oven bag before boiling in water. They stay dry but cook with the moist heat around them. I don’t have oven bags yet, so this is hearsay so far, but I’m psyched to try it.

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  13. Looking forward to future updates Laura without the water perhaps๐Ÿ˜‹. Sure appreciate the shared info from Megan too

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  14. That would be an awesome thing to do! What a good idea.

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  15. […] Preliminary Review of Off-Grid Cooking Methods […]

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  16. […] and I doubled the recipe and put it in the bundt pan, as per the Sun Oven adaptation. My first bundt pan experience, btw. I begged it off David’s sister when she went […]

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