Insights

5 Unexpected Uses for Everyday Food Scraps

You’ll probably never meet bigger proponents of reducing food waste, composting, and cooking “nose-to-tail” (or root-to-stem) than chefs. Not only do they cook every day, but they’re extremely close to a complicated food system that consists of many moving parts, ranging from working with a variety of farming practices and responsible sourcing, practicing smart recipe costing, managing supply and meeting demand, to staying fresh—aka asking themselves, “what new thing can I do with this ingredient I’ve used for the umpteenth time?”

We’re sure you’ve read somewhere, maybe even at Plated, that you can save the countless scraps from everyday cooking and put them to good use, like a big batch of stock. But do you know how, or why? Are you searching for a few new ideas for the same ol’ scraps? Look no further:

Herb Stems

Picking herbs before cutting or cooking them keeps tougher stems out of your dish, but there’s still a lot of concentrated flavor locked inside that you shouldn’t leave behind! Herbs like cilantro, parsley, basil, and dill have more tender stems (as compared to, say, the woodier stems of thyme, rosemary, sage). If you treat them right, they’ll bring a milder, aromatic flavor to a variety of dishes.

Mince cilantro stems to cook down with a tomato-based curry. Top fillets of salmon or cod with whole dill stems before baking. Toss roughly chopped basil stems into your homemade pesto if you’re using a food processor—the blades will do a fine job of finishing the chopping. Finely mince parsley stems to blend into softened, unsalted butter with a little minced shallot if you like, then refrigerate to create compound butter, perfect for dolloping over seared steaks, spreading on toast, or melting for scrambled eggs.

Parmesan Rind

This might be the oldest trick in the Italian cookbook: Save the hard end of your Parmesan wedge for making soup! It’s got tons of that creamy, salty flavor but won’t totally disintegrate into a gooey mess during a long simmer, so it can be easily removed just before plating. We like plopping it into vegetable soup—with a little shaved Parmesan on top of the final bowl, of course.

And if you don’t go through enough bulk Parmesan on your own but still want to try this technique, check your local cheese counter or specialty grocer to see if they’ll sell you just the rinds.

Pasta Cooking Water

Any successful recipe starts with mise en place—everything in its right place. For pasta, that definitely includes a big pot of water set to boil while you prep your other ingredients. That same boiling water, seasoned generously with salt, can actually serve a dual purpose: Use it to first blanch or partially cook vegetables (think broccoli florets for veggie-forward carbonara, or cubed butternut squash for hearty Thai peanut noodles). Instead of draining the parboiled veggies, pull them out with a slotted spoon or tongs, then bring the water back to a boil before cooking the pasta.

That’s not all! Before you drain those cooked noodles, set aside at least 1 cup of the pasta cooking water (using a glass measuring cup is super convenient), then drain. Once your sauce is ready and the pasta has been tossed in, add a little of the reserved pasta cooking water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the sauce is super silky and clings to every noodle. The starches that are released when the pasta boils helps everything stick together, and adds some of that seasoned flavor to make everything taste like it just belongs together.

Stale Bread or Bread Heels

We often use day-old bread or the unwanted ends of loaves to make homemade breadcrumbs, but that’s not all it’s good for. Enter Panzanella, an Italian bread salad combining chunks of bread (sometimes toasted, usually soaked in water until soft and then wrung out) with onion, tomato, basil, olive oil, and vinegar. We like our bread toasted, so that its texture holds up even as it soaks in the flavorful dressing and hangs out with other wet ingredients. We tend to use baguette or ciabatta—airy and light inside, but with a hearty, chewy crust.

RECIPE INSTRUCTIONS:

For toasting on stovetop, halve the roll or loaf crosswise, then cut those halves to fit the width of your nonstick pan. Drizzle 1/2 tablespoon olive oil over cut sides and arrange cut-side down in the pan over medium-high heat. Toast until lightly golden and warmed through, 2–3 minutes per side. Transfer to a cutting board to let cool slightly, then cut into 1-inch cubes before tossing with dressing, veggies, and herbs.

For toasting in a 425ºF oven, cut bread into 1-inch cubes, toss on a baking sheet with 1 tablespoon olive oil, .25 teaspoon salt and pepper as desired, then arrange in a single layer and bake until light golden and crisp, about 5 minutes. You can transfer the hot croutons into your dressing immediately to give it a chance to really soak everything up.

Rendered Bacon Fat

You might be familiar with the ol’ breakfast bacon trick: Fry the bacon, then scramble eggs directly in the fat that’s rendered into the pan. Genius! It should come as no surprise, then, that you can use that rendered bacon fat (or the fat from other similar cured pork products, like pancetta) to infuse other foods with that glorious porky flavor. It tends to have a higher smoke point than other fats, meaning it can withstand higher cooking temperatures, or cooking for longer periods of time, without smoking or burning. Simply transfer your cooked bacon to a paper towel-lined plate to drain, then keep the fat over medium heat to keep cooking—being sure to thoroughly dry any additional ingredients to avoid a messy and painful splatter.

Use the fat as a base for gravy, sautéing aromatics and herbs before adding flour to toast and thicken (fun fact: that flour-fat mixture is called a roux). Cook onions (even better if they’re red!) until perfectly browned and caramelized to draw out their natural sugars. Save the fat to wilt spinach or other greens—ideal for folding into cheesy pasta dishes, or piling onto grilled cheese sandwiches.

We like to think it actually saves on fat, since you don’t need to add oil or butter (though that’s totally acceptable, too), as well as seasoning, because bacon is most often cured with salt. Don’t forget: Starting your bacon in a cold pan makes for a crispier, less greasy consistency, as the fat has more time to “render,” or, melt away. If you’re stuck with more fat than you can cook with, let it cool and pour into a resealable heat-safe container before stashing in the freezer. Then, scrape off a little at a time to melt and you can add that delicious bacon flavor to anything and everything!

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