15 Creative Uses for Food Scraps

Last week I rewatched Anthony Bourdain’s documentary Wasted! The Story of Food Waste in Berkeley on the big screen and spoke on a panel after the film. Anyone who eats should see it. (You can read my review of it here.) The chefs in the film came up with such creative dishes from food that would otherwise have gone to waste. I think you’ll find the film very inspiring, rather than depressing.

So, since watching that again, I’ve had food waste on the brain. As I compiled this list of cooking with scraps, I realize how much my cooking has changed since I took on the challenge of eliminating my waste. Cooking with every last little bit makes cooking more fun and creative—and less expensive! As someone said in the film, “There really is no downside.”

1. Various vegetable scraps

I can’t remember the last time I bought vegetable broth. I likely bought some in 2011, before we went plastic free. Back then, I would buy a Tetra Pak of broth (makes me cringe now) because it had fewer dubious ingredients (in the food at least, not sure what leached into the broth from the packaging…), use the cup or two my recipe called for, store the rest in the fridge, wait until it went bad (or until I thought I had gone bad when it may have been perfectly edible) and threw it out. Yikes.

Vegetable broth was one of the items we had to find replacements for when we kicked the plastic. Even before we reduced our plastic, we cooked a lot of food from scratch and that only increased. When you cook this way, you accumulate lots of vegetable scraps—little bits of celery, the ends of onions, tomato cores, bell pepper bits, corn cobs and on and on. We started saving these bits to make broth.

Because it can take a while to accumulate enough of these bits to make broth, I store them in the freezer until I have amassed a large enough pile for broth. I them simmer them in water for about 20 minutes. Here’s the full post on vegetable scrap broth.

Homemade broth made from vegetable scraps

2. Leek tops

The green parts of leeks can easily constitute more than a third of the leek! Instead of tossing them, chop them into bite-size pieces and cook to render them tender. I often toss them in stir fry. You can also add them to soups, stews, sauces, frittata, quiche and many other dishes. Or simply use them instead of an onion in your favorite recipe.

Chopped leek tops and a broccoli for a stir fry

3. Kale stems

Some varieties of kale have an awful lot of stem on them. You can chop these hard stems up very finely and cook them. Add them to soup or sneak them into sauces. Your family will never know.

4. Potato skins

I buy organic potatoes. I avoid eating the skins of non-organic spuds (or any other type of produce). Sauté your skins in oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. They taste fantastic. The skins will keep in the refrigerator after peeling but I find they have the best consistency if you fry them soon after peeling the potatoes. Click here for a full blog post on fried potato skins.

5. Wilting carrots, zucchini or parsnips

Shred these up for quick bread, muffins or pancakes or add them to soup. I use shredded vegetables to make fritters. Here is the recipe for those.

6. Fermented pickle brine

Pickles you find in the center aisles of grocery stores have been pasteurized. The ideas below apply to fermented pickles with live cultures, such as homemade or a brand like Bubbie’s, which you’ll find in the refrigerator section of the grocery store.

After you gobble up your cucumbers, save the brine. You can do several things with it:

  • Drink it. My boss drinks a gut shot every day to help maintain a healthy gut. She buys this drink—fermented pickle or sauerkraut juice—at the farmers’ market but you’ll get it free as a byproduct of your dill pickles.
  • Use the brine to add some flavor to soup (the microbes die when heated but the brine tastes good).
  • Liven up bland food. A while ago, I made a large amount of very tasteless hummus. I had cooked too many beans for the small amount of olive oil I had on hand, so I used leftover brine to thin out the very bland hummus and to add some much-needed flavor. So good! A bit of brine would also taste delicious in potato salad.
  • Brine meat or poultry. This blog post from Kraut Source explains how marinating meat in fermented brine before barbecuing it helps reduce the number of carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which form when grilling meat over high heat.
  • Reserve a few tablespoons of the brine to kickstart the next batch of pickles or a batch of sauerkraut.

7. Watermelon rinds

You could use your fermented brine from number 6 for these. Peel the skin of the rinds and stuff them in the jar. Or start these from scratch. Simply peel and cut up the rind into bite-size pieces, stuff into a jar, add salt, water and spices if desired (try dill and garlic) and let the jar sit for a few days. The naturally occurring bacteria on the watermelon will ferment the rinds into tangy “pickles.” When you like the flavor, move the rinds to the refrigerator. Click here for the full post on watermelon rind pickles.

8. Fruit scraps

I use fruit scraps to make scrap vinegar. I make apple scrap vinegar more than any other type but scraps from other fruit, such as pears or pineapples, will also work. To make this, fill a jar with the scraps, add a spoonful of sugar, pour water just to cover, secure a lid or cloth, stir daily, wait and strain. The naturally occurring bacteria on the fruit will transform the fruity water to slightly alcoholic, then vinegary. At that point strain the vinegar and use it. Here is the full post on scrap vinegar.

This batch of apple scrap vinegar turned out so well!

9. Citrus peels

These have so many uses. Make candied citrus peels or marmalade, blend with black tea and spices for chai, dry out the zest, or soak in vinegar to make a household cleaner. Click here for more ideas to rescue citrus peels.

Dried lemon zest

10. Spent vanilla beans

I am often able to buy vanilla beans in bulk (the stores often change their offerings) and when I can get it, I make homemade vanilla extract. It’s incredibly easy. Stuff three split vanilla beans into a jar and fill with one cup of vodka, bourbon, brandy, rum or single-malt whiskey, shake the jar every once in a while, wait a couple of months and enjoy. You can either make a second infusion with the beans—I use less alcohol at that point with the less-potent beans—or you can stuff the beans into a jar of granulated sugar. Wait for at least a couple of weeks and you will have vanilla infused sugar. Here is a the post on making vanilla extract.

11. Bones

If you eat meat, save the bones. Put them in a slow cooker, cover with water and cook on low for 24 hours to render really good bone broth. Add a splash of vinegar to help draw the minerals from the bones. When the bones are very soft, if you have dog, purée the bones in a bit of the broth for a doggy treat. Dogs go wild for this! Click here for the bone broth recipe. Click here for the doggy treat recipe.

Sasha loves puréed bones

12. Parmesan rinds

Save cheese rinds and throw them into soup to add lots of flavor. You can store them in a jar in the refrigerator or freezer until you want to use them. Mine don’t ever seem to go bad.

13. Whey from cheese making

With whole milk and either cultured buttermilk, lemon juice or vinegar, you can easily make ricotta cheese. It does render a shockingly large amount of whey however—which is very illuminating and may make you think twice about eating lots of cheese and yogurt, as a lot of this whey goes to waste in food processing plants. But it doesn’t have to go to waste in your kitchen. Use it in place of water when you make pizza dough or other baked goods.

14. Bread

We never waste bread. If we have stale bread on hand, we make French toast, bread pudding, croutons or bread crumbs. Since I bake only sourdough bread—which stays fresh for a very long time—we rarely have stale bread on hand. But if we do, we always find a use for it.

15. Ginger bug scraps

Bugs in my scraps? Huh? A ginger bug is a starter you make from ginger, sugar and water. A mature bug teems with good bacteria and yeast and you use the liquid in it to make fermented drinks like ginger beer and other natural sodas.

But if you keep a ginger bug (they are like pets), you must feed it fresh ginger and sugar regularly. Before you know it, you will have accumulated a pile of ginger. Don’t toss this! These ginger bits alone can ferment a drink such as sweetened hibiscus tea and transform it into bubbly goodness. I use about one tablespoon of ginger per 16-ounce bottle of sweetened tea.

Here is the post on making a ginger bug. And here is another on making hibiscus soda. In the recipe, just substitute the ginger bits for the liquid ginger bug to use up your scraps.

Hibiscus soda made with the ginger bits leftover from a ginger bug

Stay tuned to ZWC for another food scrap-related post on…avocado pits.

I have been saving avocado pits to dye some gorgeous yarn I bought on a visit to Black Rock Ranch in Stinson Beach back in February. My yarn came from happy, well-treated, Santa Cruz Island Sheep, a breed which The Livestock Conservancy has listed as “critically endangered.”

I finally made a washcloth out of this beautiful yarn. It was a joy to knit with. I will dye the washcloth soon. Blog post and simple pattern to come.

5 Replies to “15 Creative Uses for Food Scraps”

  1. I love the tip with Parmesan rinds! Cannot wait to try.
    On another note, may years ago, a friend told me that he would never throw away pepper (paprika) seeds but would use it along with the ‘normal’ part of the veg. I have been doing the same since and cannot stop wondering who told us to waste this part in the first place? Well, maybe it’s only wasted in my country (Poland)?

  2. Great tips, we do many of these around here. My freezer veg bag was overflowing last week so I made a couple batches of stock just yesterday – great for soups and stews in the cold weather at the moment (I’m in Australia). I’m planning a little series on food waste on my blog this month – can I link to this post?
    Cheers,
    Laura

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Laura, absolutely you can link to it. Thank you! Enjoy your soup 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  3. Brilliant post. Have lots of things to try now.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you! I’m glad you found some good ideas in the post 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

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