Old-school necessities like knitting, canning and gardens with actual food in them seem to have launched into popular culture of late, possibly because of the growing realization that the next zombie apocalypse is one germ away. Applying this concept to cooking seems critical considering an open fire will give away your position every time. In the spirit of practical preparation, consider the solar cooker.

Solar cooking represents the low-tech end of slow food, but comes with all of the same benefits — deep flavors and melt-in-your-mouth textures that turn cheap pieces of meat into delicacies and take vegetables past chopped salads. The principles of the method bear some resemblance to science experiments of your youth or perhaps sadistic Sid from Toy Story in that the user focuses the sun’s rays using appropriate angles and reflective surfaces toward a focal point that then becomes really, really hot. When combined with heavy cast-iron pots or the popular enameled versions, you’ve got dinner.

Case in point? Ribs.

This Archibald family special used to come straight from the oven: country or spare ribs wrapped in foil with a small amount of liquid, bacon and spices sat in that little heat box all day long at roughly 225 degrees, finished quickly on the grill with barbecue sauce. The panel-style solar cooker my dad acquired changed that forever. He’s been at this since he went through his hippie phase in the '90s and has gone through many designs, materials and cookers in the process. This most recent addition to the collection involves an amalgam of plastic shell, insulation and reflective panels topped with a clear plastic cover. Ugly, but effective.

Right in the middle goes a black cooking vessel with the ribs that nestles inside a clear glass bowl – all the better to retain the heat, my dear. The premise for the ribs remains the same with one, subtle difference. Whereas your home oven stays in one location (usually) the solar version needs to move to catch the sun for maximum impact. We are, after all, still on a giant rock hurtling through space. 

You also have to give your cook pot of choice some thought. Castiron works like a charm but also retains flavors which may not work out so well if you’re trying to bake a cake (totally possible) in the same pot you did the ribs in last week. Unless you like pork-flavored chocolate, which I hear is a thing.

What kind of cooker you use depends entirely on what you want to do with it, what materials are available to you and what you need it to do. Over at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., students under the tutelage of Professor Timothy Bond work annually to construct new, interesting and more effective designs that can work in rural communities abroad. The class partners with Grupo Fenix and Las Mujeres Solares (literally "the Solar Women") in Totogalpa, Nicaragua, a small, poor municipality on the northwestern end of the country near its border with Honduras. Their current challenge is to make the cookers lightweight and portable for use in high altitude locations like the Peruvian Andes, said Bond.

Like any other topic under the sun, solar cookers come with a strong internet following and a multi-thousand page Wiki that can walk you through the basics of construction and appropriate ways to angle the device to catch rays. They even include places you can buy them pre-made if you only want to go half-DIY, although you’ll miss out on some post-apocalyptic, back to the good old days cred. The choice is yours.

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