Some part of me has always deeply disliked throwing food away. Even if it’s a food scrap, I still don’t like throwing it away.
Whether it’s the lessons learned from growing up without much money, my own frugality by choice as an adult or my simple aversion to wasting food, it makes me feel extremely wasteful when I put any food in the trash or the garbage disposal.
Over the years, however, I’ve found lots of ways to turn food scraps and food waste into things that are genuinely useful. Here are twelve things that I do just as a matter of routine that keep food scraps from going to waste.
1. Turn the remains of your rotisserie chicken into chicken stock.
Sarah and I went through a period where we were practically addicted to those whole rotisserie chickens you could buy at the grocery store. We’d buy one, take it home and literally sit there picking the meat off the bones as our dinner. We’d then toss what was left in the fridge, pick off some more for lunch the following day and then toss the carcass.
That, my friends, was a mistake.
It turns out that the carcass of a rotisserie chicken isn’t used up once you’ve picked most of the meat off of it. Instead, just stick that carcass into a bag and toss it in the freezer and wait until you have two or three of them.
Then, on a day where you’ll be home all day long, take the carcasses out of the freezer and put them all into a giant pot. Add water to the pot until the carcasses are submerged by about 3 inches and then add some peppercorns (or just ground black pepper) and some salt to taste. If you want, you can toss in some flavorful vegetables, like diced onions, diced peppers or garlic cloves, but you don’t have to — it just helps. Then, just cover the pot and simmer that mix all day.
If you have a big slow cooker, you can cook it in that when you’re not home or when you’re asleep, though you’ll probably only be able to do one carcass at a time.
Simmer it for 12 to 16 hours. That evening — or morning, if you do this in a slow cooker overnight — get out a strainer and strain the liquid in the pot. You’ll want to save the liquid; the other stuff will be just stripped bones and maybe a few vegetables boiled into oblivion and a few peppercorns. Toss them — they’re basically devoid of nutrition now.
The liquid? Now, that’s magic. It’s chicken stock, like what you can buy at the store, but better. It’s very flavorful and rich and can serve as the backbone of countless soups and any dish that uses chicken broth or chicken stock as an ingredient. You can easily freeze this stuff — in fact, you should freeze it if you’re not using it in the next few days.
2. Turn bread loaf heels into bread crumbs or croutons.
You buy a loaf of bread. You use up most of the slices, leaving the heels and maybe a slice or two in the bag. It starts to get dry and crusty and you just … don’t want to use it.
Do you toss it? Nope!
You can take a few slices of bread, including heels, and just dice them into cubes. Dredge the cubes through a bit of olive oil, spread them out on a baking sheet and sprinkle them with a bit of salt and/or garlic powder and/or black pepper, as per your tastes. Bake them at 375 F for about 10 minutes and you’ll have great croutons for your salads. These store really well in a sealed bag in your cupboard.
You might have a good use for breadcrumbs, too, depending on what things you like to cook, and old bread turns into wonderful breadcrumbs. If you live in a dry climate, just set the bread slices out and let them air dry for a couple of days. If you live in a humid climate, I suggest baking them at 300 F for about 5 minutes. Just spread the slices out on a baking sheet and let the baked bread cool to room temperature.
Tear the dry bread into small bits and then put them in a blender. Pulse them until you have crumbs of whatever size you want. The more you pulse, the finer the breadcrumbs will be. Then, spread out the breadcrumbs on a baking sheet and bake them at 300 F for about 10 minutes, pulling the pan out halfway through to toss the crumbs around. Again, these can be saved in a sealed container in the cupboard and will last for a long time.
3. Turn citrus peels into a cleaning booster.
There are a lot of things you can do with citrus peels. You can simply leave them in a dish out in the room to add a nice aroma to the air. You can dry them and grind them into tiny pieces to use in teas.
My favorite use, though, is to use them for cleaning. Not only does a bit of citrus peel in a cleaning solution make the solution clean better, it also leaves behind a very nice “clean” smell throughout your home.
All you need is a jug of white vinegar from the store with some of the vinegar removed. Simply use a quarter or more of the vinegar normally. Then, start adding citrus peels to the vinegar jug, closing it after you stuff peels in there, and just let them sit. Keep it closed when you’re not adding peels.
When you need some new cleaning agent, take an empty spray bottle, fill it about a third full with water, and then fill it up the rest of the way with your “citrus vinegar.” Shake it, then use that spray for every cleaning task you have around the home.
Not only will it clean incredibly well, the citrus will mask the immediate smell of the vinegar, and the smell of the vinegar will fade much faster than the citrus. An hour later, you’ll have a nice gentle citrus scent all over the place without the vinegar smell.
Not only does this seem to clean better than just vinegar and water alone — it smells a lot better, too. This has recently become my default home cleaning mix.
4. Use leftover pickle brine for an amazing flavor booster (and for other things).
Our family absolutely loves dill pickles. We can literally plow through two or three jars of them per week. My oldest son has even asked for jars of gourmet pickles as a gift.
Of course, when you’re done eating the pickles, you’re left with a jar of pickle brine. It can be tempting to just pour it down the drain and discard the jar, but there are several uses for it.
For one, you can just drink it. It’s actually a pretty healthy — though salty — drink and a good option after a workout, but that’s pretty intense flavor for most people.
Another use, something we often do, is to just add more cucumbers to the jar, stick them in the fridge, and wait. You may have to add just a bit more water to the jar or a pinch of additional salt. This can work well for two or three jars, but eventually the brine waters down.
My favorite use, though, is to just use a splash of really flavorful pickle brine as a flavor additive in all kinds of things: soups, casseroles and even things like hummus. You don’t need to add much — in fact, if you do, the pickle flavor gets overwhelming very quickly. However, just a splash of it — half a teaspoon or so — adds a bite to almost everything savory that you add it to.
5. Turn steak, roast bones and scraps into beef broth.
Much like the strategy described above with rotisserie chicken carcasses, you can take pretty much any beef bone, store it in the freezer, and once you have several you can turn it into delicious beef broth by simmering it all day in a slow cooker or large pot. Finished beef broth can be easily frozen and it has a ton of uses, from the backbone of delicious soups to a warm drink on a cold day.
The procedure is almost exactly the same as the chicken broth described earlier. Just enjoy items like steaks or roasts with the bone still in them, then when you’re done with it and about to throw it away, instead put the bone in the freezer in a sealed bag (leaving a little meat and cartilage on it is fine and even encouraged).
In several months, when you have quite a few bones in there, turn it into stock. If you have a slow cooker, you can just add the bones to the crock, along with a handful of peppercorns and salt, some chopped onions, chopped peppers and minced garlic if you’d like, and then fill up the crock with water until the bones are covered by 2 inches of water. Cover it, turn it on low and then leave it for 12 to 24 hours. Leaving it overnight is fine.
If you have a large cooking pot, you don’t need the slow cooker. When you first get up the next morning, add the bones to your pot along with a handful of peppercorns and salt (to taste) along with a diced onion and/or some diced bell peppers and/or some minced garlic. Again, add water to the pot until the bones are covered by a few inches of liquid, then heat it to a simmer and cover it. Let it simmer all day long.
In either case, when it’s done simmering, strain it, save the liquid and discard the chunks that you strained out of the way. You can strain it through an ordinary strainer if you don’t mind a bit of texture in your broth, or strain it through cheesecloth. The liquid is beef stock. It’s delicious just on its own and makes for an amazing backbone to all kinds of soups. You can freeze it and use it however you’d like.
6. Turn apple scraps into apple vinegar.
We always have a jar or a bottle of apple cider vinegar in the cupboard. It’s useful in a lot of different recipes and a couple of spoonfuls of it seems to help with heartburn — for me at least. I like using a bit of it as a salad dressing, too.
It’s also pretty easy to make, assuming that you also have raw honey around.
As you eat apples over time, save the scraps in a container in the freezer. Don’t save pieces you were directly eating – rather, cut the apple pieces you want to eat away from the core and save the core. You can also save apple peels in there if you peel the apples (I like eating the peels, but some people prefer peeled apple slices).
Once you have 10 or 15 cores (and perhaps some skins), get a big glass jar — a half-gallon or gallon jar will do — and fill it with filtered water. If your tap water has any chlorine in it, boil the water or the chlorine will cause this to fail, and then let it return to room temperature. Add a few teaspoons of raw honey to the jar — you can use sugar, but it never turns out as well as it does when honey is used — and stir it thoroughly. Cover the top with a piece of cloth and secure the cloth with a rubber band before sticking it in a dark, secluded place for a month. Peek at it every once in a while and stir it maybe once a week.
What you’ll have after a month is apple cider vinegar, which is still pretty raw but usable. At this point, strain out the apple pieces and save the liquid. It will still need to age for another month before it’s really good, but you can put it in a bottle at this point and keep it in the cupboard.
As I noted earlier, apple cider vinegar has a ton of different uses. It’s always good to have some on hand if you like preparing foods at home.
7. Use Parmesan cheese rinds for soup flavoring.
I like to grate Parmesan cheese myself when we use it. It tastes so flavorful when it’s freshly grated and the price isn’t bad at all, considering how much shredded cheese you can get out of a piece of Parmesan. I keep the gradually shrinking piece of Parmesan cheese in a little container in the fridge.
Eventually, though, you’re left with the rind, which isn’t as good if you grind it. But should you just toss it?
You can just take that remaining rind and toss the whole thing into a pot of soup. There are lots of soups that it’s good in, but I really like tossing it into minestrone. You can either make your own or buy a kit to make it easier, but in either case, toss in the rind when it starts to simmer and then pull it out right before serving the soup (you can toss it at that point).
The rind contributes a wonderful flavor to the soup. It’s even amazing in a soup made straight from a minestrone soup kit — just add the Parmesan rind right as it starts to boil and toss it right before serving.
8. Turn extra ginger root into ginger ale.
If I buy a chunk of ginger root for a recipe I usually try to use it up fairly quickly, but sometimes I just don’t get around to using it and I’m left with several inches of ginger root that’s going to dry out and not be all that great. In that case, what I like to do with it is turn it into homemade ginger ale. I usually make it in a large gallon-sized jar with the intent to drink it a few days after making it.
The full recipe is here, but it’s really not very hard to do. You just need a few inches of ginger root, some sugar, plenty of water and maybe a bit of lemon juice. You start by grating an inch of ginger and mixing it with two teaspoons of sugar and a cup of water in a jar, then stick it in the fridge. The next day, add another inch of shredded ginger and two more teaspoons of sugar, and stir it. The next day, do the same. Keep doing that until you notice it being really bubbly. You can keep adding ginger and sugar as long as you want. This is called a “ginger bug.”
When you want to make the homemade ginger ale, you start by making ginger tea. Boil together a few inches of grated ginger and about 2 cups of sugar with a gallon of water. Let it cool to room temperature and then strain it through cheesecloth. Then, add the liquid part of your ginger “bug” from the fridge, straining away the shredded ginger in it. From there, add all of that liquid to your gallon jar and put that jar in an out-of-the-way place for several days. Each day, crack open the top just enough to release any gas in there — you have to do that or else it will go bad. After about 10 days, you’ll have ginger ale, and it will be incredibly good.
I don’t usually buy ginger root for the sole purpose of making ale, but if I have a bunch of extra root from a recipe, this is far better than letting ginger root just go to waste in the fridge.
9. Turn old red wine into red wine vinegar.
This is so easy, and it’s such a good use of a partial bottle of red wine.
Just put a piece of cloth over the opening of the bottle, tie it in place with a rubber band, and leave it open on the table for a few weeks while covered with the cloth. The natural fermentation process will convert the red wine into vinegar for you, which you can keep in the fridge in a closed bottle and use for all kinds of things.
If you happened to leave a mostly full bottle of wine out on the table after a party, this is a great thing to do with it instead of dumping it. You’ll end up with red wine vinegar that you can use for all kinds of recipes. I like to make a vinaigrette by mixing it with some olive oil, for example, along with a bit of mustard and garlic for flavor.
10. Turn vegetable scraps into vegetable stock.
Much like the above description of turning beef bones and scraps into beef stock and a rotisserie chicken carcass into chicken stock, you can do the exact same thing with pretty much all vegetable scraps.
Do you have some leftover steamed vegetables? What about the ends off of an onion or the peel of a zucchini? It all works! Just put all of your vegetable scraps into a bag together in the freezer. When you have about a gallon of scraps, it’s time to make stock.
Put those scraps into your slow cooker along with a handful of peppercorns and some salt to taste, and then fill it with water until all of the scraps are covered. Turn it on low and let it simmer for 12 to 24 hours.
If you don’t have a slow cooker, you can do this in any pot, provided you have several hours at home. Just put all of the scraps in a pot, add a handful of peppercorns and a bit of salt to taste, then cover it in water until the vegetables are covered with an extra inch or two of water. Just simmer this all day long.
In either case, when it’s done, strain the water-vegetable mix and save the liquid. That’s vegetable stock, and it’s a good backbone for pretty much any soup under the sun. The fun part is that it’ll taste somewhat different depending on the exact vegetables in it, but it’ll always taste good.
11. Use old white wine (or old red wine, too) as cooking wine.
What if you left out a bottle of wine and you don’t want to make wine vinegar? It’s still a waste to just dump that wine. Instead, put a cap on the bottle and stick it in the fridge. It’s now “cooking wine,” and it will help with all kinds of dishes.
Are you cooking any sort of red meat or dark vegetables? Use a bit of the red wine right in the skillet or the pot along with it. A pot roast loves a bit of red wine with it. Beef stew relishes some red wine.
Are you cooking poultry or pork or fish or vegetables? White wine has a ton of uses.
Wine goes well in small quantities in almost any soup you might make, too. It just adds this little extra hint of flavor to almost anything you splash it into, and the alcohol will cook out of it right away.
12. Use any and all plant waste (and clean eggshells) as compost.
The last use for any plant materials (as well as clean eggshells) is to simply return them to the earth instead of to the trash can. You can do this with vegetables even after using them for stock. You can also do it with coffee grounds and clean, crunched-up eggshells.
All you have to do is get a small sealed bucket to keep under the sink. Toss any vegetable scraps or coffee grounds in there that you’re not going to use again and fill it up. When it’s full, just leave it there for a while. Stir it around occasionally and wait. Add a bit of water to it if it’s dry. If you see a bit of mold, don’t worry about it — just stir it around. When everything in there has turned a dark color and it looks like of like really rich soil, it’s done.
Take that compost and mix it into the soil of any plants you have nearby. Any potted plant you have will love a bit of that compost; just mix it into the top of the soil and water it regularly. If you have a tree in your yard, just put the compost around the base of it. If you’re planting a garden, mix it into the garden soil. If you have a friend who likes to garden, give them the compost and they’ll put it to work. It helps everything to grow.
Many things you might otherwise throw away have simple and wonderful uses.
The trick is to question everything. If you’re going to throw something away, ask yourself if there isn’t some other use for this. Can you turn that food item into something else with ease? Can you repurpose this item into something useful?
Not only does this keep you from adding to landfills, but it can keep you from buying things like campfire starters or apple cider vinegar or chicken stock, and you’ll probably have a better version on your own anyway.