We'd never tell you to salvage moldy cheese or use oil that's gone rancid. But many foods that aren't as pristine as the day you bought them can be restored with a little help. Not only that, just because a pantry item is past its "best buy" date doesn't always mean it is time to throw it away. Read on to find out you can save money in the kitchen by throwing out less of the food you buy.
How to Refresh Stale Ingredients
These tricks give stale, limp, or hardened ingredients and leftovers a new lease on life.
Place limp stalks of celery cut side down in a tall, narrow container with at least 2 inches of water. Refrigerate until the stalks are crisp and sprightly, 6 to 12 hours. Trim and discard the bottom end of each stalk before using.
Place hardened, stale cookies on a plate and microwave for 10 seconds. It is important to eat the cookies while they are warm before they lose their softness.
Using quick pulses, process cold polenta in a food processor, adding a few tablespoons of warm water for every cup of cooked polenta, until the mixture is creamy. Transfer the polenta to a bowl, cover, and microwave until warm.
Stale Potato Chips
To restore crispness, spread 2 cups of stale potato or tortilla chips on a Pyrex pie plate and microwave for 1 minute. Place the hot chips on a double layer of paper towels and allow them to cool completely.
To soften dry, stale marshmallows, place them in an airtight container with a slice of bread for 24 hours. Once the marshmallows are soft, discard the bread and reseal the container.
Hardened Vanilla Beans
Return moisture to hardened vanilla beans by placing them in an airtight container overnight (or better yet, for two nights) with a slice of bread. The moisture from the bread should soften the bean enough to let you split it and scrape out the seeds.
Rock-Hard Brown Sugar
If you discover that your brown sugar has dried out and formed rock-hard clumps, you can use a coffee grinder to quickly break up what you need (up to ¼ cup at a time) so that you can proceed with your recipe. A grater is also a useful tool for this problem; running the block of sugar along the tool’s sharp holes quickly breaks it down into a measurable, usable state. To keep brown sugar soft indefinitely, store brown sugar in a sealed container with a terra cotta Brown Sugar Bear, which gets a brief soak in water before being added to the sugar.
Honey hardens and crystallizes over time, but you don’t need to throw it out when this happens. To bring honey back to its translucent, liquid state, use a pot of simmering water or a microwave. Put the opened jar of honey in a saucepan filled with about an inch of water and place over very low heat, stirring the honey often, until the crystals melt. Alternatively, heat the opened jar in the microwave on high power in 10-second increments, stirring intermittently, until it has liquified. Once cooled, use the honey or screw the lid back on for storage. The honey will eventually recrystallize, but it should flow freely for several weeks. If you’re looking for a more permanent solution, heat your honey with a small amount of light corn syrup (2 teaspoons per cup of honey).
How to Reuse Leftovers
Here are some of our favorite ways to repurpose scraps and leftovers.
Save your Parmesan rinds and do as the Italians do: Toss one into a soup or stew. It’s an age-old trick for adding savory depth. Stored in a zipper-lock freezer bag in the freezer, the rinds will keep indefinitely (no need to thaw them before using).
Unless you have used it to fry fish, don’t throw away your leftover fry oil. With breaded and battered foods, reuse oil as many as 3 or 4 times. With cleaner-frying items like potato chips, it’s fine to reuse oil at least a half dozen times—and likely far longer, especially if you’re replenishing it with fresh oil. Once the oil has cooled, we filter it through a strainer lined with two or three layers of cheesecloth or paper coffee filters. For short-term storage, store oils (leftover or new) in a cool, dark spot, since exposure to air and light makes oil turn rancid faster. But for long-term storage (beyond one month), the cooler the storage temperature the better—we recommend the freezer.
Cured Meat Scraps
Instead of tossing out scraps of cured meat such as dry sausage and prosciutto, place leftovers in a zipper-lock freezer bag and store them in the freezer. When making tomato sauce, soups, or stews, add the meat to the simmering pot for extra flavor.
Bread that is two to three days old is ideal for making bread crumbs: It has become quite firm but still retains some moisture. Pulse leftover slices in a food processor until crumbs are formed and then use them right away or freeze them in a zipper-lock freezer bag. (In recipes, ⅔ cup of finely processed frozen crumbs or 1 cup of coarsely processed frozen crumbs equals one large 1.5-ounce slice of sandwich bread.) Stale bread can also be a great thickener for soups and stews.
While some herb stems (like parsley) can taste bitter, cilantro is different. Sure, the leaves are tasty, but the stems also possess great flavor. Sweet, fresh, and potent, the flavor intensifies as you traveled down the stem but never becomes bitter. If a recipe calls for cilantro and a slightly crunchy texture isn’t an issue, use the stems as well as the leaves—you’ll get more for your money.
Instead of tossing out a jar of pickle juice after finishing the last spear, use the tangy liquid to make a new condiment. Add thinly sliced onions to the juice and let them marinate in the refrigerator for a few days. The drained pickled onions can be used as a topping for hot dogs and hamburgers or in salads. This method also works well with the spicy packing juice from pickled peppers.
Don't Throw Away These Pantry Items
Expired doesn’t always mean retired.
The “best by” date printed on some canned foods is not an “expiration” date. It refers strictly to the manufacturer’s recommendation for peak quality, not safety concerns. As long as cans look good and have been stored well (in a dry place between 40 and 70 degrees), their contents should remain safe to use indefinitely. Be sure to discard cans with a compromised seal or cans that are bulging or that spurt liquid when opened.
Nonstick vegetable oil spray likewise lasts past its “best by” date. We tested this by making two sheet cakes. For one, we sprayed the pan with a can of PAM that was a year past its “best by” date, and for the other, we used a new can of the same product. The results? Both cakes tasted exactly the same.
Fats are most likely to spoil when exposed to oxygen, which makes them turn rancid. But the fats in cans of vegetable oil spray are contained under pressure with a gas, preventing oxygen from coming in contact with the fat. As long as the can is still functional, the product should be in good shape. (The makers of PAM do not advise using products past their “best by” dates—but we feel comfortable using our slightly “vintage” spray.)
Wondering if cocoa spoils or loses its flavor over time as spices do, we made hot cocoa and chocolate butter cookies with six-year-old cocoa and a freshly opened box of the same product. Only about half the tasters noted a difference of duller flavor.
When we repeated the test using high- and low-fat cocoa powders one to two years past their expiration dates, tasters could not differentiate between the samples. The compounds that give cocoa powder its flavor are less volatile than those in ground spices, which lose much of their flavor and aroma after about a year. The more volatile the molecule, the more rapidly it evaporates and degrades.
Quality Equipment on the Cheap
You don’t always have to pay top dollar to get high-performing pots, pans, and knives. Here are some of our favorite best buys.
Cuisinart Chef’s Classic Enameled Cast Iron Covered Casserole
This Dutch oven costs less than a third of what Le Creuset does, but it boasts the same exceptionally broad cooking surface and low, straight sides. While it’s a little heavier, the looped handles are comfortable to hold.
Victorinox Fibrox 8-Inch Chef’s Knife
This chef’s knife is one of the cheapest we’ve ever tested. Nonetheless, it is also a longtime favorite among test cooks who fancy lighter knives. The grippy material, shape, and overall comfort of the handle drew testers’ praise.
T-fal Professional Non-Stick Fry Pan, 12.5 Inches
Thanks to five layers of nonstick coating, our top-rated induction-compatible model emerged from our slicing tests virtually unmarked. It cooks and releases food well, is light and comfortable, and has flared sides for easy access.
Nordic Ware Baker's Half Sheet
Everything prepared in this sturdy, warp-resistant sheet cooks appropriately and evenly. Best of all, this model is even cheaper than our old winning rimmed baking sheet.