There must be some sort of vestigial instinct in us, an evolutionary need to prepare for the long winter ahead, that makes us want to cook and bake more come Fall. For me, once the cooler weather sets in, it’s a joy to be in the kitchen cooking stews and casseroles and hearty pasta dishes.
What’s not a joy, though, is seeing how much food gets wasted while I’m prepping — from unused pieces of vegetables to scraps of meat and the remainder of a bunch of herbs, when only a tablespoon was needed in the recipe.
This Fall, I’m vowing to minimize food waste while I’m cooking, by getting more skillful about how I handle ingredients and by having a game plan for the remnants. After all, when food is thrown in the trash, it creates methane, a greenhouse gas, as it decomposes in the landfill. And anyway, you paid good money for that food: Why not use it to full advantage?
1. Cut with care: When I was in culinary school, I was shocked with how much food was wasted: We’d cut off (and discard) the rounded sides of carrots and potatoes so that we could practice making perfectly cubic diced vegetables. Now that no one cares if my chopped veggies aren’t uniformly sized, I am careful to use every possible edible bit of a vegetable: I cut just the very tip and end off carrots (my friend Ellie doesn’t even peel them!), and when I’m slicing tomatoes, I trim around the stem and snack on those scraps as I’m cooking. Strawberries are another common victim of over-trimming — like tomatoes, you get a lot more fruit by cutting around the stem rather than cutting off the whole top. If you pay attention, you’ll find that you can get more edible parts from foods like fruits, vegetables and chickens than you may have realized.
2. Make stock or soup. Leftover scraps from vegetables, chicken carcasses, or beef or pork bones can all be used to make a stock or soup. To make broth or stock, just simmer them in water for 1 hour or more, until the liquid is infused with flavor. Then remove the solids and strain through a fine sieve or cheesecloth. Soups, stock or broth freeze beautifully in a plastic food container or even a zip-top freezer bag (make sure to put it upright in the freezer until it’s frozen solid). Simply Recipes has my favorite stock-making instructions, using both raw chicken parts and cooked chicken bones.
3. Freeze leftover ingredients. How many times have you had to buy a big bunch of parsley for a recipe that only called for a tablespoon? Herbs have a short lifespan before they wilt, but storing herbs right helps them last a bit longer in the short-term, and you can make them last a lot longer by making herb infusions and pesto. To make them last even longer, you can easily preserve herbs in the freezer. Chop them up and portion them into ice cube trays. Topped with water, they will freeze into little cubes (about 1 tablespoon each) that are perfect for dropping into a soup or sauce. The freezer is also a good storage place for excess liquids like buttermilk, broth or coconut milk.
4. Follow the recipe. My mom, an avid sewer, always says, “Measure twice, cut once.” If you measure carefully, you’re less likely to make a mistake and, potentially, waste fabric. The same holds true for cooking and baking — if you are following a recipe, read the instructions before you start, carefully measure the ingredients, and pay attention while you’re cooking. If you measure, you might find that you need less than you would’ve used if you’d been “eyeballing” the quantities, and by making sure you’re preparing the food properly, you’ll spare yourself the possibility of ruining a recipe and having to throw it out and start all over again.
5. Compost. The best way to keep food out of your trash, and ultimately, the landfill, is to compost everything that you can. Even if you’re able to cut down on food waste from all the other tips above, you’re still likely to end up with plenty of food scraps. By learning how to compost, you’ll be able to give new use to food scraps like fruit and vegetable rinds and cores, moldy bread, coffee grounds, cooked or uncooked grains, and eggshells. Be sure to find a reliable list of what kitchen scraps you can and cannot compost. You’ll be rewarded in a few months with super-rich compost that you can add to your garden.