Last summer, I was very excited to get a call from an old friend of mine, Sam Erwin. Sam had invented what I considered to be the most efficient solar cooker I have ever used. Sure enough, he was calling me about his new solar cooker, the StarFlower (see solar-chef.com).
I first read about Sam’s early solar oven, the Solar Chef, in Joe Radabaugh’s book, Heaven’s Flame. I saw my first Solar Chef and met Sam at a Solar Energy Expo and Rally in Willits, California, in August 1994. He had transported the very large “restaurant-sized” Solar Chef from Colorado, where he and his family had used it for 18 years. He was roasting whole ears of corn, husks on, and handing them out to fair-goers to showcase solar cooking. That year, Sam sold every unit he brought to the fair. And that corn was yummy!
The Solar Chef arose from a homemade solar water heater gone awry. It wasn’t working very well as a water heater, so Sam removed it from his roof, stuffed an uncooked chicken inside a coffee can, and put that in the unit. It cooked surprisingly well. That was when Sam began fine-tuning the now-patented solar cooker design.
The original Solar Chef is a handsome unit. The center cooking enclosure is covered with a faceted glass cover that is the focus of many mirrors cut and mounted just so. The outside is plywood, painted a neutral brown and cream. The aluminum frame and wheels are what make the Solar Chef so easy to use. The one we bought had a painted wooden cover that slips underneath the cooker to provide a smooth surface for the wheels.
In 1997, Sam, who had been testing and fine-tuning his cooker, sent me a newly designed Solar Chef. The cooking chamber on this model is covered by a molded, clear plastic dome instead of glass, and has reflectors made of polished metal. They radiate from the cooking chamber like the petals of a large metallic flower. On the back of each “petal” is a bow of metal with an adjustment screw positioned two-thirds of the way up the bow. Turning a knurled screw on the bow allows you to change the curve of the collectors according to what you are cooking. If you are cooking in a pot, you want the light to be very focused on the pot. If you are baking bread, you would want the light/heat more diffused to eliminate hot spots. The Solar Chef finished a 15-pound turkey in 15 minutes less time than called for on my cooking chart. It has quickly become my favorite of all the solar cookers I have used or tested over the years.
We still have and use our Solar Chef. It has become a venerable friend, sitting outside our back door, where it can get full sun. Usually, the recipe rule for solar cookers is that it will take roughly twice as long in a solar cooker as in a conventional oven. But the Solar Chef cooks in real time. This doesn’t mean “set it and forget it” like with an electric slow cooker—it means set your time, and check the oven when the alarm sounds.