You see this stuff in movies all the time: someone finds himself in a desolate place and has to survive. After catching a fish, a chicken, or whatever hops by, the person puts together a heap of dry grass or hay and waits until the sun is at its highest point. In his hands he has a piece of glass—eyeglasses or a magnifying glass—and manages to start a fire using the sun's rays. The sun is his only hope of survival.
Frying an egg on the hood of a car. Grilling gyros on a slide. How cool is that?
Rik, 49, lives in Amsterdam. He writes about cooking with the sun on his blog. On a sunny day this summer, he crammed a small portion of his solar cooking studio into four bags, just for me. When you're in the Westerpark around 7:00 PM, you can hardly see because of all the blue barbecue smoke. But I'm about to cook with the sun—not with a piece of glass, or on a hood or a slide, but with solar cookers.
"There are three different devices," explains Rik as he starts unpacking his bags. "Parabolic cookers, panel cookers, and solar ovens. They come in many variations."
Rik began cooking with the sun about six years ago. "I went deeper into renewable energy and felt that solar panels were becoming nonsense more and more," he says. "Especially when I found out that you could cook directly with the warmth of the sun. The yield is four to five times as high, you can make the equipment from old junk and you don't need a factory. You can't just make solar panels yourself. This, on the other hand, is easy to make. If the sun is shining, you can catch about 1,300 watts per square meter in the Netherlands; 1,000 watts is pretty much similar to a stove."
The first thing Rik builds up is a parabolic cooker, which he himself made out of a satellite dish, the base of an office chair, and parts of a vacuum cleaner, a bicycle, a flag holder, a closet, and a stove. "I found everything in the garbage," he says, pointing at each item. "Only the film on the satellite dish is bought. This is special foil, but the aluminum tape at your local supermarket or inside a bag of chips reflects the sun as well. On a dish with holes you can even screw CDs and use old coins as reducers."
Despite the weird parts, the parabolic cooker looks like an ordinary stove. The sunlight that reflects on the round satellite dish comes together in one small focus point that lights up brightly. Rik angles the dish toward the sun in a way that the iron stove holder is directly above the focus point. "A disadvantage of this solar cooker is that you must rotate and flip it to the sun every ten minutes. If there is a cloud that blocks the sunlight, it stops working."
Just in case of that, I've brought extra-thin burgers and quick-cooking rice. This immediately turns out to be unnecessary. When I hold my hand above the glowing focal point, I have to pull it away immediately. "A parabolic cooker can heat up to 300 to 400 degrees when there's a good amount of sunshine," says Rik. "You can control the temperature a bit by holding the pan higher or lower, or by partly standing in the line of the sun. The temperature will go down then. It's like you'd lower the gas supply."
Rik puts a wok on the stove holder and adds salt and corn kernels to it. "Making popcorn is a test for me," Rick explains. Popcorn requires a temperature of 190 degrees Celsius. If you can make popcorn, you are also able to do baking and frying. "You can do that above a temperature of 180 degrees," he says.
Rik attracts a lot of attention with his alien device. Two minutes later, a passerby by asks if Rik's cooking is any good. I answer with my mouth full: "Yes, it is. Popcorn."
Rik places the first burger in a skillet. While the burger cooks, we get water at the green fountain in the park. We're going to cook rice in a panel cooker he brought with him, and boil water in a solar oven for tea.
Panel cookers are open reflection screens, which consist of cardboard or plastic coated with foil. They reflect the sunlight into the pan you put in it. To prevent heat loss, people often wrap the pan in a roasting bag or in plastic foil. Rik uses another trick with the custom panel cooker he took. He puts a black pot with water and rice in a glass bowl. "A glass bowl can retain the heat better. When there's a lot of wind, the pan will cool less quickly."
Solar ovens are insulated boxes that are covered with glass or transparent plastic. They absorb sunlight well, even if there's a cloud in front of the sun. Rik has brought a folding variant with him: the Trotter Cooker, which is ready-made and comes from China. It looks like a camping mat, covered with clear plastic. You can unzip it and fold it flat. Rik puts a black pot with water in it for the tea.
"Panel cookers and solar ovens get less warm than parabolic cookers," he says, adding that they usually just reach boiling point. "It's more like slow cooking. There's a reason I use black pans; they absorb the heat of the sun better." As the water for the rice and tea rises to 70 degrees, the second burger is ready. It tastes just like a regular burger: good.
Cooking with the sun is a hobby for Rik at the moment. He has all kinds of solar projects in mind, but hasn't had the time to realize them yet because of other pursuits. He hopes that solar cookers will become more popular in the Netherlands.
"You can only use them a few days in the year," I say.
"Yes, but those are just the days that all Dutchies want to go barbecuing outdoors. Solar cooking is a good alternative to barbecuing. You don't need fuel and there's no smoke and debris," Rick replies.
Just when I think we're done cooking with the sun, it appears that that's not the case. Rik grabs a solar rocket from his bag. It's a green bottle, which he folds open. It looks like a small spaceship. "This is a kettle and thermos in one," he explains. There's double glass in it and the interior has a super-absorbent coating. Because there's a vacuum in between the two layers, it retains all of the heat. The bottle also comes from China, but Rik has made some small modifications to it. "I have put a different cover on it. The old one popped off all the time. We boil water in it. But you can cook sausages in it too," he says.
Rik keeps taking things out of his seemingly bottomless bag. He shows me a mini-coffee machine, which he puts on the parabolic cooker. He also grabs a wicker hat, which is covered with the same film as al the other devices. "This hat keeps my head cool while cooking," he says. After coffee and tea, he grabs a cigarette and a makeup compact from his bag, which he directs toward the sun. "A solar lighter," he says. His cigarette alights in the blink of an eye. I find it very special, but Rik shrugs. "You can thank the sun."
This article originally appeared in Dutch on MUNCHIES NL.