Can You Cook Frozen TV Dinners in a Solar Cooker?
Do a quick search on the Internet, and you will find that people do cook frozen dinners in their solar cookers. The dinners get hot enough to eat. A palatable temperature, however, is only part of what you are looking for from the solar cooker. The other part is safety. Your solar cooker must be able to get hot enough to kill harmful bacteria in the dinner. Some cookers can; some can't.
Frozen Dinner Trays
At first glance, frozen TV dinners look ideal for solar cooking. The ideal container for solar cooking is lightweight and dark colored. Most frozen dinner trays are just that. Most also have a oven-safe plastic wrap over the top of the dinner. That, too, is ideal for solar cooking.
The problem is that TV dinners differ one from another. Some are fully cooked, some are partially cooked, and some are uncooked. You can't always tell which is which simply by looking at the dinner. For example, a raw piece of chicken may be coated with a partially cooked breading. Food scientists develop the instructions on the package to insure that the recommended cooking time and temperature is adequate to ensure the safety of the particular food in the dinner. Cook the dinner too slowly or too little, and you could be facing a food contamination issue.
Solar Cooker Power
If your solar cooker gets hot enough to mimic a conventional oven, simply preheat it and follow the conventional oven instructions. If your cooker cooks more like a crock pot, you can use a crock pot test to determine if it has at least the minimum amount of power to cook a frozen dinner. Pour some water into a TV dinner tray until the water level reaches the typical level of the food in the tray. Freeze the tray. Lift the ice and tuck an oven-proof thermometer probe into the tray, under the ice. Put the ice in the solar cooker at the time of day you'd like to cook frozen dinners. Heat the tray for four hours, periodically reaiming the cooker toward the sun. At the end of four hours check the thermometer. If the temperature is under 140 degrees Fahrenheit, your cooker is too underpowered to cook a single TV dinner. To be safe, you have to be able to get your TV dinner above 140 degrees in less than four hours; 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit is the "danger zone" for food.
If you plan to cook more than one TV dinner at a time, you'll need to add a second (or third, or fourth) tray full of ice to your experiment. It's enough to put the thermometer under one of the blocks of ice, but you'll need to have more than one in the oven to simulate cooking conditions.
Safe Temperature for Frozen Dinners
Even if your cooker can reach 140 degrees in less than four hours, it still might be underpowered. To be safe, you need to get poultry to 165 degrees Fahrenheit before eating it. Beef needs to be cooked to 145 to 160 degrees and pork to 160 to 170 degrees. Everything else needs to be heated to at least 165 degrees. Always check a TV dinner in several places with an instant-read cooking thermometer before eating it. If it's not hot enough, it could make you sick.
If the instructions for your frozen dinner say to let the food rest for a few minutes after cooking, make sure to add the rest period to your solar cooking routine as well. Resting is partly about letting the juices permeate the food, but it's partly to let the heat permeate.
Solar Cooking Conditions
Remember, too, that unlike a conventional oven, a solar oven's efficiency varies with the weather. If your cooker passed your tests under ideal conditions, and you are now cooking a frozen dinner in partly cloudy or windy conditions, you may be unsafe. Using an oven thermometer with a food probe can help you keep an eye on the temperature of food as it is cooking.
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