Interview With Paul Munsen

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Jennifer: So let’s just get to it. Today we have an interview with Paul Munsen. He is is the president of SUN OVENS International. For the past 18 years, Paul has devoted his life to sharing fundamental Sun Oven Cooking techniques with people all over the world. Paul has been involved in solar cooking projects and taught solar cooking on 5 continents. SUN OVENS are made in the USA and the company is committed to helping people in the US prepare for emergencies and save energy while using a portion of the proceeds to work in third world countries. Paul has addressed the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development at the UN Headquarters in New York. He is the past-president of the Illinois Society for International Development, and a member of Solar Cookers International and the Illinois Solar Energy Association. Welcome, Paul!

Paul Munsen: Thank you I appreciate the opportunity to be with you today.

Jennifer: For those who don’t know what the heck is a Sun Oven?

Paul Munsen: A Sun Oven is a well-insulated box you set out in the sun and it cooks. It can bake and boil and steam foods. And on really sunny days it gets temperatures between 350 and 400F. It can pretty much cook anything that you can cook in your oven or stove top with the exception of fry foods.

Jennifer: For people who have never seen a Sun Oven before. I know you brought a video with you so you people can actually see this in action because if you’ve never heard of this before it might be hard to visualize so we’re going to play that video for you. So you can see exactly what we’re talking about when we say Sun Oven.

(See the video for Sun Oven demo video)

Jennifer: That video had a ton of information in it. Can we break some things down like what are some of the things that you can cook in a Sun Oven? I know you said just a minute ago everything besides fried food but can you give us like an overview of some of your favorite things and what you can do with the Sun Oven?

Paul Munsen: Well, it’s great for making bread. It’s great for making bread. When you make bread in the Sun Oven it really has a wonderful taste and texture and you were mentioning earlier that you’re not necessarily enjoying now, but it’s great to use on a hot day if you want to make bread or make rolls. The other thing that incredible is meats. When you make a roast in the Sun Oven it is so moist and so succulent and you can make up to a 21lb turkey for example in a baking bag in the sun oven. Anytime that I’ve ever made a turkey in the Sun Oven anyone who has eaten has said that the light meat of the turkey is moister that the dark meat of any other turkey they’ve ever eaten. So it’s great for those kinds of things but it’s also really good for food storage, like freeze-dried and dehydrated foods. It’s by far the most energy efficient way to rehydrate food storage because you don’t have to boil the water first you just put it in and it will re-hydrate your food perfectly. Besides using less energy and less water, it really is a way to enhance the taste of a lot of food storage that has a tendency to be a bit bland.

Jennifer: Very interesting! What are some of the advantages of the Sun Oven over other off-grid cooking methods?

Paul Munsen: You can use the Sun Oven any day that there’s enough sun to cast a shadow. So as long as you can see a shadow on the ground (think of the groundhog) then you can cook. So the main benefit is you don’t have any storage, you don’t have any cost, so the days when it’s sunny you can do your cooking as well as dehydrating and boiling water and a number of other things without having to have anything else stored or using up something. Many people will store firewood but eventually if there was any kind of a long term period without having power… it’s totally renewable, the solution comes up every morning – just look east every morning and your cooking fuel starts to rise on the horizon.

Jennifer: Now that leads me to another question. You were saying that you need a shadow – will the work in the winter? Does the temperature make a huge difference?

Paul Munsen: No, the outside temperature really has no effect on the Sun Oven at all. The cooking is exactly the same, the only difference in winter cooking and summer cooking is that in June you can use the Sun Oven for over 13 hours a day and in December you can use it five or six hours. Also, if you’re in a cold climate you normally can pre-heat a Sun Oven up to 300 degrees in about 20 minutes but in the winter if you’ve stored it outside, the inner box is metal, your pre-heating time might be double, but your actual cooking time is the same. I’ve cooked in temperatures as low as 10 below zero, and the work really well.

Jennifer: Well that’s impressive! So Marilyn is asking “How do you regulate the temperature when you’re dehydrating foods in the Sun Oven?”

Paul Munsen: The Sun Oven has a glass door that shuts for cooking, and there’s two latches on it that you use to latch the glass door in place. What you do is take and turn one of the latches in towards the center of the Sun Oven, then set the glass door on top of it. That leaves a gap of air that allows moisture to escape out of the Sun Oven and keeps if from getting too hot. Generally with most things you dry it’s generally between 110 and 155 degrees – herbs are better off to dry right around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But if you leave the door propped open a little bit, and then what I usually do is align the Sun Oven as if I was going to cook, and then I move it the opposite direction the sun is traveling. I move it towards the east in essence, and I do that about 6 inches off of where it would normally be for cooking, and I do that two or three times a day, and you’ll keep it at a nice temperature in that 100 – 150-degree range.

Jennifer: That makes a lot of sense. Now you alluded to this just a second ago, but I just want to ask you specifically about the health advantages of cooking with the Sun Oven.

Paul Munsen: Well, the complex carbohydrates break down slowly when you cook in the sun, so there are some health benefits with that, but the other… for example, when you make things in the Sun Oven that you would normally make on your stovetop, you use 25% less water. So if you’re going to make vegetables, for example, you would use 25% less water, and of course, if you use a full pot of water and pour the water off you wind up pouring a lot of the nutrition down the drain. So if you use less water, most of the water absorbs directly into it and allows a lot of the nutrients to stay in the food. When you sundry for example, herbs – there’s a lot of nutrients that when you dry with an electric dehydrator wind up coming out of it, where sun drying at a lower temperature will allow more of the nutrients to stay in the food, so that improves the health as well.

Jennifer: Right. And you were talking about how you can’t cook with oil, or you can’t fry foods rather, in the Sun Oven. So if somebody’s watching their fat intake, that would probably be an advantage as well.

Paul Munsen: Sure, definitely.

Jennifer: So here’s a big question that a lot of people want to know, and that is about the taste. Is there a taste difference between something that is cooked in the Sun Oven and something that is cooked conventionally?

Paul Munsen: Yes. Virtually anybody who eats sun-cooked food says it tastes a lot better. When you cook in the Sun Oven, there’s no movement of air. The Sun Oven’s chamber is an air-tight seal. There’s no movement of air so food doesn’t dry out. So when you make roasts, they’re really moist and succulent. When you bake bread you get a different taste and texture. And the taste is different. For example, we get hundreds of emails from people who just can’t believe the taste of beans. When you make beans in the Sun Oven, there’s a flavor that you get that you’re not going to get any other way. And I’m not 100% sure even why, but when so many people tell once they’ve made beans in the Sun oven, they hate cooking them on the stovetop because it tastes better. And if people do have food storage, packaged food storage like dried foods it’s amazing how the taste of that… if you cook it the conventional way or you cook it in the Sun Oven without boiling water first and you get a completely different taste which most people find very preferable.

Jennifer: Wow, so basically what you’re saying is the food just tastes better in the Sun Oven.

Paul Munsen: Absolutely.

Jennifer: Ok, so what are some of the other advantages to having a Sun Oven other than cooking, because I know there are quite a few?

Paul Munsen: Some of the other advantages to having a sun oven – there are thirteen different things you can do with a Sun Oven. You can use it to boil, pasteurize drinking water, you can use it for making sun tea which comes out really delicious. If you were in a long term situation without power it actually can be used to sterilize medical instruments. A lot of groups that take Sun Ovens on medical mission trips to developing countries have found that they can then use the Sun Oven to clean the instruments or you can actually steam the instruments or you can just use it like an autoclave. If you find that any of your grains or dried fruits have gotten bugs that have infested it… if you take and you put the bug infested grains or dried foods into the Sun Oven you bring it to the temperature of a 145 degrees Fahrenheit for ten minutes that will not only kill off live bugs but kill off the bugs in any form of development they’re in and allow you to salvage some of your food storage. On days where it’s cloudy or overcast and there’s not enough sun to cast a shadow, you can use the sun oven as a way to like a wonder box or a retained heat cooker or a wonder basket. There are different names for it – the idea is that if you get your food half cooked with a conventional fuel source and you put in a very well insulated box or basket you food will finish cooking and the Sun Oven can be used for that. And if you’re into sprouting in the winter time people find their sprouting slows down a lot. If you take when you’re not cooking in the sun oven if take and put candle a long burning candle in the sun oven and you put… just like I just mentioned for dehydrating, you turn the latch and you put the glass on top of it, so airflow gets into it. You’ll find that it will keep it at a temperature that sprouting just loves and it will thrive all winter long.

Jennifer: Wow that’s a long list. That’s great. I love the tip about the wonder oven. That is great because that just gives you more options. Can you tell us a little bit about your international work because that is one thing that attracted me to your company in terms of things that you do other than just cooking in a solar oven? You actually go out and make a great difference in the world. So could you elaborate on a that a little bit?

Paul Munsen: Sure, we’re really passionate about the work we do internationally. There are still two billion people in the world who cook with wood or charcoal or animal dung as their primary cooking fuel. And when a woman cooks over a wood or charcoal fire she inhales the same amount of smoke as smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. Each year in the continent of Africa alone 1.6 million children under the age of five dies of respiratory diseases primarily from the indoor air pollution of cooking fires. In more than half the African countries more children under the age of five dies of respiratory diseases than they do of HIV, AIDs, and malaria combined. So when can replace 80% of that smoke with the sun, it has a huge effect on the health of women and children it has an effect on deforestation and some environmental issues and also in developing countries when women go out to gather wood sometimes they are susceptible to being attacked or raped and they’re able to then not have to gather as much wood and it has a big effect on it. So we have programs all over the world with the Sun Oven. The Sun Ovens that are sold in the United States are all made in the United States. We’ve actually transferred the technology so Sun Ovens can be made in Haiti, Ghana, and the Dominican Republic and Uganda and Ethiopia and Mauritania. We actually have a shipment over in the water right now to start making them in India which will start sometime next month and so we transfer the technology so that U. S. made parts can actually be assembled in other countries and that reduces the cost of the Sun Oven. But it also contributes here. Also, we make a large commercial solar oven that’s able to make 1,200 meals in an eight hour day. Twenty-eight loaves of bread an hour with just the power of the sun. Right now frankly we’re in very much to self-reliance to emergency preparedness. What we’re trying to do is get as many of those into orphanages as we can in developing countries, because… the US has been a very generous donor to a lot of orphanages around the world but if the economy here goes south, there’s a good chance that donations will drop off, so if an orphanage has 100 kids they only need 200 meals a day, they don’t need the 1200 meals they can make in the Villager Sun Oven, so when we ship it to an orphanage we ship a whole bakery package that has 150 different pots and pans, and insect-proof flour containers. In the off hours when they’re not cooking, they can bake bread, sell the bread, generate income to create their own self-sufficiency, and then also particularly in Africa normally a child who would learn a trade would learn from their parents, and there’s a lot of orphans who age out of the orphanage without a job skill, and they can learn to bake bread in the orphanage so they have a job skill they can use when they leave. So we have a pretty simple business philosophy, our goal is, we try to help people in the US save energy, be better prepared for emergencies, and then we use a portion of the proceeds for that to do things like subsidizing villager Sun Ovens for orphanages around the world.

Jennifer: Wow, i love that, that is just such a great example for the rest of us, and thank you, thank you for your work that you do overseas, that speaks volumes about what kind of company you are, and what kind of person you are so thank you for that. I want to ask you, do you need any special pots and pans to put in the Sun Oven? If you were to purchase a Sun Oven do you have to go out and buy a bunch of different things (because it’s a special size) to fit into the sun oven?

Paul Munsen: Well, any kind of pot or pan that’s oven safe can be used in the Sun Oven, so as long as it’s oven safe it can be used. Now, there are two ways to cook in a Sun Oven. Let’s say you were going to make a three-pound chicken. If you put a three-pound chicken in a pot, and you put it in a pre-heated Sun Oven, and you re-align it every thirty minutes, you could cook a three-pound chicken in about an hour and a half. Or you could take a frozen chicken and put it in the sun oven in the morning, just set it facing south, leave for the day and come back at supper and you have a cooked roast. If you’re gonna slow cook, then using something like a dutch oven makes a lot of sense, because if you know it’s gonna be sunny in the morning, if you have a dutch oven inside a well insulated Sun Oven, then as long as it’s gotten hot, the retained heat from the dutch oven inside the well-insulated sun oven will allow your food to finish cooking if, in the middle of the day, it starts to get overcast. But a dutch oven takes an hour and a half longer to come up to temperature than something like an enamelware pot will. So enamelware is the most efficient way to cook in a sun oven because it’s thin and it’s dark and allows then for you to be able to cook as quickly as possible. But you can use Corningware or Pyrex, you can use pretty much any cookware that’s oven safe in the Sun Oven. The only thing you want to be cautious of is if you use a shiny pot, like a stainless steel pot, that reflects light out of the sun oven, and will slow down your cooking. You can still use it, but just take a dark dish towel, cover over the top of the shininess so it doesn’t reflect out of the oven, and then you can get away with using that.

Jennifer: I know that in mine i usually think, if it will fit in a toaster oven, it will fit in a Sun Oven, so do you find that to be true?

Paul Munsen: Yes, that’s kind of a good rule of thumb. Keep in mind, the whole chamber is a usable cooking area. There’s a leveling tray that’s inside the Sun Oven, a leveling rack, and that can be removed, and then you can use a much larger pot or pan if you choose to. There are three quart enamelware pots, that have been sold with the Sun Oven for many years, and they’re stackable so you can cook two different things at the same time, but you could be cooking in those two things and then take two quart sized mason jars, and put them next to it and cook your side dishes at the same time so you can cook four things at the same time if you choose to.

Jennifer: That’s one really cool thing about the Sun Oven is that you can stack different dishes in there and you can cook, like, a whole meal at one time, so i love that aspect of it. Can you talk a little bit about how you pasteurize drinking water? Because that’s not something that you think about when you think of the Sun Oven, and that’s very interesting.

Paul Munsen: Sure, water pasteurizes when you bring it to a temperature above 150 degrees Fahrenheit for six minutes, and pasteurization of water kills the same biological contaminants that you would by boiling water. At most altitudes water boils at about 212 degrees, but it takes as much energy to bring water to 200 degrees to 212. The last twelve degrees take as much energy as bringing it from the ambient temperature up to 200, so consequently when you only have to bring water to 150 for six minutes, it’s more than twice as fast. One of the advantages of boiling water, of course, is the bubbles, you see the bubbles and know the water is boiled. But there’s a little device that’s available for the Sun Oven that’s called WAPI, or a water pasteurization indicator, and that just floats on the top of a pot or pan or a canning jar. It has a plastic tube in it with a green wax, and when the wax melts and goes to the bottom of the tube you know the water is pasteurized and you can take that WAPI water pasteurization indicator out and the wax will re-harden in less than two minutes. You just flip the tube over and you can use it hundreds of times. Some people like to put a piece of cheesecloth with their Sun Oven, that way if they gathered water from a stream or their roof they could pour it through the cheesecloth, and that would take any solid impurities in it and then they could kill the biological contaminants in the water by boiling it or pasteurizing it in the sun oven.

Jennifer: That is just so interesting to me because, like I said, you just don’t think of pasteurization of water with the Sun Oven. If somebody has a Sun Oven and they have a recipe that they love is there a way to convert it or do you just use it as is?

Paul Munsen: Pretty much use it as is. You don’t really have to do a lot of special things. The only thing that’s a little bit different if you’re doing something you would normally cook on a stovetop in an open pot, like boiling something like rice or vegetables, you use 25% less water because everything you do cook in the Sun Oven (except bakery goods) you do need to cook in a pot or a pan with a lid on it to trap moisture inside of it. So because you’re trapping moisture inside the pot, you just use less water. If you use too much water it will just cook a little bit longer and it’s not going to hurt anything because nothing burns when you cook in the Sun Oven and nothing dries out so it’s about the most forgiving method of cooking you’ll ever find.

Jennifer: I love that, nothing burns, that’s my kind of cooking! Can you tell us a little bit about the different packages because I know you have Sun Ovens and you offer different packages when someone purchases one?

Paul Munsen: The most common package that we offer, and most people get when they buy a Sun Oven, we call it the dehydrating and preparedness package. That comes with a sort of dehydrating kit that has three racks which with the original rack level gives you four layers. Then you can dry or dehydrate. Also, you can use it for things like flat breads or cookies or quiches and things like that so you can do multiple levels at the same time. It comes with a roll of parchment paper. The package also comes with a set of bread pans, it comes with a set of stackable pots that are designed to fit in the Sun Oven so you can cook two different things at the same time. It comes with the water pasteurization indicator and it comes with a computer CD that has a number of different… well it has over six hundred recipes and a really state of the art software that’s called Cook’n. What’s nice about it is if the recipe is for four people and you want to cook for seven you just change the number of servings and it automatically adjusts the ingredients. So that package which is called the dehydrating and preparedness package is the most common thing because pretty much everything you need to cook and dehydrating and either heat or pasteurize water is all contained in one package.

Jennifer: That is awesome! Before I let you go I want to ask you again, because this is so important – and that is your role in actually making the Sun Oven because it’s an American company and I wanted to make sure that people understood that there’s really not a middle man and so I wanted you to elaborate on that just a little bit.

Paul Munsen: Yes, we make the Sun Ovens. We have a small manufacturing plant in Elburn, Illinois about forty miles west of Chicago, and the Sun Ovens are made in the U.S. Every single part of the Sun Oven, except the thermometer. is made in the U.S. Quite frankly, I feel somewhat hypocritical telling people I want to help them prepare for emergencies and then importing things from China so we make everything here in the U.S. We are very proud of that and very committed to keeping it that way. The thermometer does come from China and that’s only because there isn’t a U.S. manufacturer that makes a thermometer that will work in the Sun Oven.

Jennifer: I think that is so important! Thank you so much for being here! It’s a pleasure talking to you. Like I said, this is one of my very favorite things to cook with. I think there’s something that brings you back to nature even if you go just in your own backyard and you’re cooking with the sun because… it almost feels like cheating because you’re using the energy that is always there. I mean it’s not cheating, it’s a great thing to do, but it’s so easy. And like I said, there’s almost something mystical about it that brings you back to nature because you have to pay attention to the rhythm of the earth, right? So I mean I know that sounds corny but it’s true. So anyway, thank you so much for being here and explaining all of these things because I know that if somebody has never heard of the Sun Oven they’re like “what do you do with a Sun Oven, I don’t understand…” so thank you so much for being here.

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