How to Use Ingredients You Might Normally Toss

Here’s what to do with everything from cheese rinds and cilantro stems to meat trimmings and pickle juice.

Published Apr. 21, 2020.

That saying about necessity being the mother of invention has never been more applicable. I and almost everyone I know (and certainly everyone I follow on Instagram) are cooking resourcefully, and in turn, creatively. We’re rethinking the way we look at and cook from our pantries, our refrigerators and freezers, and especially, our scraps. That carrot top you would have composted? Those bits of trim you usually toss from a whole chicken? They aren’t trash. They’re ingredients that can and should be cooked regularly (not just when we’re being crafty and trying to be less wasteful in the kitchen). Need some inspiration? Here’s a list of “ingredients” you might have in your kitchen that are waiting to become something flavorful, comforting, warming, savory, or just plain new. 

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Cheese Rinds

Save your Parmesan rinds and toss one into soup, stew, tomato sauce, or risotto. 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).

Meat Trimmings

Don’t toss the bits of fat and skin that you trim from roasts, stew meat, and whole birds; render their fat and use it as a more savory alternative to butter and oil for roasting potatoes, sautéing greens, frying eggs, and toasting rice for pilaf. (When heated, the fatty acids in unrefined animal fat oxidize to form new flavor compounds that make food taste more complex.) Store rendered fat in an airtight container in the freezer.

Frying Oil

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, 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.

Squash Scraps

For superior vegetable soups, we call on a technique that is more typically reserved for making stock: using the seeds, peels, cores, and other trimmings to add deep flavor. It’s economical and reduces food waste, and it also builds deep flavor. You can see how we do it in our recipes for Butternut Squash Soup and Sweet Potato Soup.

Cured Meat Nubs and Ends

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.

Stale Bread

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.

Cilantro Stems

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 travel 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.

Shrimp Shells

You’ve already taken the time to peel the shrimp, so put those shells to work by making your own shrimp stock. Simmer 4 ounces shrimp shells (harvested from 1½ pounds shrimp) in 1½ cups of water for 5 minutes. (Shrimp flavor compounds are volatile, so a short simmer delivers the best results.) Use stock for seafood soups, stews, fideos, and risottos.

Beet, Radish, and Turnip Greens

These greens have tons of flavor so give them a good rinse, then sauté or braise as you would Swiss chard or mustard greens.

Cabbage and Cauliflower Cores

Slice or chop the cores and cook them along with the leaves or florets in relatively long-cooked dishes such as soups and stews.

Carrot Tops

Treat feathery carrot tops like an herb: finely chop them as a garnish or blend them into pesto with an equal amount of basil. Add the fibrous stems to stock for a light vegetal flavor.

Sprouted Garlic

Has your garlic gone green? No fear, the garlic, and the sprout, are still usable, you just need to assess what type of garlic flavor your dish requires. For more information on your options, check out our testing notes and detailed instructions.

Pickle Brines

Instead of tossing out a jar of pickle juice after finishing the last spear, use the tangy liquid to make a new condiment: pickled onions. 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.

You can also:

  • Pour the brine from a jar of dill pickles over warm potatoes before making potato salad.
  • Add a dash of Pepperoncini juice to Bloody Marys.
  • Spice up steamed vegetables, grilled chicken or fish, with a drizzle of brine from pickled jalapeños, or add peppadew brine to pan sauces.

Just remember, the vinegar in pickle brine is slightly diluted by water pulled from the vegetables, so don’t substitute it one-for-one for vinegar or lemon juice. Because some brines are very salty, withhold any additional salt in the dish and season to taste at the end.

Odds and Ends

Keep an assortment of meat and vegetable scraps (try different combinations) in the freezer in a zipper-lock bag and make stock or soup. Those near-empty jars of dried herbs and spices kicking around in the cupboard? Mix up some blends to rub on pork or chicken. Same goes for those half-full bags of rigatoni, penne, and bow tie pasta shapes—make a pasta salad medley. 

Check out these other cooking resources and recipe recommendations:


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