I think I speak for many when I say that we’ve explored new ways of cooking during this last year. While we may not all be official chefs quite yet, being resourceful and efficient with food has been on my mind. Grocery budgets have significantly increased, and though our dining out and take-out budgets may have gone down, we’re still throwing away a ton of food.
In fact, according to the National Resources Defense Council, nearly 40% of the food in the US is thrown away. Most of it originates from directly in our own homes. And, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly 24% of our landfill weight is composed of food. This results in the production of methane, an extremely dangerous green house gas when it breaks down in the landfills.
Growing up in an immigrant Taiwanese family, my parents always made something out of nothing. They found the extensive potential in our seasonal vegetable garden and extended the life of the basic groceries they bought. Nothing was thrown out or composted until it had lived at least two lives. It wasn’t until I was a young adult, making my way through the world as an independent, that I was completely shocked by the amount of food that people perceived as trash. Our convenience-driven society has handicapped our kitchen creativity and limited our ability to see beyond the face value of our groceries.
If you’re also shocked at the amount of food wasted each year, try learning to cook with leftover scraps. Here are a few of my go-to scrap-saving techniques to help extend those groceries a little further and reduce your carbon footprint.
Veggie scraps and meat bones
Vegetable stock or meat stock is one of the simplest ways to cook with leftover scraps. Save all your chicken, beef, pork, fish, etc. bones, along with onion and garlic skins, carrot peels, celery tops and bottoms, herb stems, and veggie scraps. Not only do you eliminate a layer of consumer packaging, you also capture all those amazing nutrients in the stock. These include nutrients like collagen (hello, Vital Proteins) and calcium, without spending the money on supplements.
The flavor-infused vinegar from pickles will last much further than its initial pickling. Pickle juice can be used to cook with leftover scraps by pickling more veggies or brining chicken or pork. It can also be added to deviled eggs, made into a vinaigrette dressing, or flavor a potato or pasta salad. And when Sunday brunch rolles around, add some pickle juice to the Bloody Mary bar for an extra kick.
But don’t stop at pickle juice; olive juice, jalapeno juice, or even pepperoncini juice can have the same uses!
The zest of a lemon, lime or orange is a tasty and concentrated addition to any dish. Citrus peels can be candied or dried as a grazing board addition or cocktail garnish. Juiced lemons and limes can be simply added to a jar of vinegar and make a basic organic cleaning solution, or put down the garbage disposal for a great refresh of the kitchen sink.
Once your milk goes a little sour, you don’t have to throw it away. In fact, slightly soured milk has similar qualities to buttermilk, which makes excellent biscuits, quick breads, pancakes, waffles, and all sorts of baked goodies. Soured milk also works as an adhesive for breadcrumbs for any fried foods, as well as for a fried chicken brine. Or, add a little more vinegar or lemon juice, heat the milk over the stove, and you have ricotta cheese!
Of course, don’t toss the whey (the leftover liquid from cheese making). It’ll still work great in all your baked goods as well!
Good to the last drop
Have you ever struggled to use that last bit of mustard or jelly in a jar? Pour in a little vinegar (any kind works), give it a good shake, and you have yourself the start to a great salad dressing! For ketchup, the same works for the start to a homemade barbeque sauce or meat marinade.
Stale chips and bread
Place stale potato or tortilla chips on a baking sheet, and toast in oven or toaster oven to re-crisp them! Stale bread can be easily cut up to make croutons or breadcrumbs. If the bread has gone hard, wrap it in a damp paper towel and steam it in the microwave for 10-15 seconds to rehydrate the bread.
We’ve all had those mornings after a big dinner party where we find half bottles of wine that have been left out or open all night. Don’t pour out the wine! You can easily cook with any wine that is past its prime as well as make a wine-based dressing. Or, use it to marinate chicken or other meats in a marinade.
Used cooking oil
Oil used for frying or even bacon grease can be easily jarred and reused for future cooking use. Cool the oil, strain through cheesecloth to get rid of food bits, and store in a glass jar in a dark cupboard. To clean the oil, add a ¼ cup of water with a tablespoon of cornstarch for each cup of oil. Add the mixture to the oil, then heat up the oil (not to boiling). The cornstarch will stick to the remaining food bits to make it easy to strain. The oil can be used up to three times for other food preparation uses.