“Closed-loop cooking” is a phrase that is gaining more traction in the culinary spheres, and it is essentially another way to say “zero-waste cooking.” While many of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents knew how to use every part of an animal and reduce waste due to Depression-era frugality, the desire to eliminate waste and use the entirety of a grocery trip or garden harvest has resurfaced in the American kitchen, for many new reasons.
While there are obvious economic advantages to using more and buying less, there are other benefits, too. Practicing closed-loop cooking can reduce our environmental impact, and it allows us more pleasure as we enjoy more parts of plants and food that is losing freshness in new ways. Keeping a circular kitchen also connects us to the greater cycle of life we are part of, plugging us into the food system and even deepening our spiritual connection with the world around us.
There are many ways to practice closed-loop cooking, and it can seem overwhelming at first. We can begin by being aware: stopping as we reach to throw out that stale bread or carrot tops, and then thinking of all the ways we can use our second-tier food for new purposes. Here are six ways to get started.
Create a Stock Bag
It might feel like making soup stock is for the professional home chef, but it’s easy enough for anyone to do. Save all your vegetable ends and trimmings — carrot stubs, mushroom stems, onion peels, and other scraps — and if you’re a meat eater, throw in poultry carcasses, fish heads, and beef bones. Avoid saving starchy, sulfurous, or bland vegetables — think about the flavor each piece will contribute.
Keep all the scraps in a large plastic bag in the freezer, and when it’s full, dump the contents into a large pot and add just enough cold water to cover everything. Then add salt and herbs to season, bring it to a boil, and reduce to medium heat to simmer for a minimum of an hour. Keep in mind that the longer you let it cook, the stronger the flavor will be, so it’s best to block off several hours.
When your stock is cooked to your preference, strain it, let it cool, and then store it in the freezer for when you’re ready to make soup.
Use Peels and Rinds for Flavor
Hang on to citrus peels and cheese rinds, because you can use these to add flavor to other recipes. Throw lemon, lime, and orange peels into anything from pasta to cocktails, or infuse various drinks and syrups for a zing of flavor.
You can also use hard cheese rinds, such as Parmesan, Pecorino, or even some cheddar, to flavor tomato sauces, soup broths (throw it into that stock bag!), olive oil, and risotto.
Plant and Replant
Instead of throwing away the ends of your veggies and the cores of your fruits, start them on a new cycle of life! You can replant heads and roots of leafy greens, such as celery and lettuce; roots of bulbs like onions and fennel; carrot tops, scraps of ginger roots, apple and citrus seeds, and even avocado pits.
Research the replant instructions for each of your scraps. Many will require simply cleaning the part you want to replant, place it in a pot or jar with water or potting soil, or find a spot in your garden. Soon you’ll have a whole new plant.
Freeze, Dehydrate, Pickle, Jam
If you have the time, there are plenty of ways to preserve food to make it last longer. Even if you don’t, there are some quick options to saving that produce that is difficult to use fast enough.
Canning, while taking a bit more time and effort, allows a deeper flavor that lasts longer, but quick pickling works too: Pack sliced vegetables (cucumbers, onions, beets) into a wide-mouth jar. Simmer equal parts vinegar and water, mix in salt and sugar, and fill jars, allowing them to seal and cool before refrigerating. Easy!
There are plenty of quick refrigerator versions of making jam, too, which is a great way to use summer fruits and berries. Finally, you can dehydrate fruits, vegetables, meats, and herbs using an oven or dehydrator.
Multi-Purpose Your Ingredients
So now we know that you can use those “unusable” parts of plants to flavor other recipes, but there are many other ways to repurpose the leftovers. In some cases, you can find ways to cook something new, like using stale bread for bread pudding, leftover coffee for marinade, and roasting squash seeds for a healthy snack.
You can also recycle foods for non-culinary purposes. Eggshells and coffee grounds make great plant fertilizer, and extra coffee can be fed to acid-loving plants. Corn cobs can be dried and cut to use as wood chips for grilling, banana peels can be used to treat bug bites, and citrus peels are a great addition to homemade household cleaners and potpourri. Get creative.
There are two ways that food can return to the earth: as garbage and as compost. When food scraps are thrown into the trash, they end up in landfills where they release methane, a toxic gas that traps heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Food that becomes compost, however, breaks down into nutrient-rich organic material that actually enhances soil quality, which in turn enhances the quality of the plants grown in that soil.
While composting may seem like a tricky practice, it’s actually quite simple: Save produce scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, and tea bags in a bag in your freezer or refrigerator. Add these to a large container outdoors, and alternate layers of food scraps with dry carbon-rich material, like twigs, leaves, and newspapers. (You’ll want about three times more of the carbon-rich material than food scraps to allow for aeration.) Stir the mix every week or so, and when it’s fully decomposed, that compost is ready for the garden.
There’s no perfect recipe for becoming a closed-loop cook. Don’t feel like you need to get to zero waste overnight! Simply pick one action to practice and begin. After that becomes a habit, then move on to another step, and then another. Change occurs by slowly building new habits. Remember, closed-loop cooking is ultimately a chance to get creative.
Amanda Nicklausis a writer and aspiring urban homesteader based in Minneapolis. She spends her free time trying new recipes, going to farmers markets, and writing about everything she learns. Read all of Amanda’s MOTHER EARTH NEWSposts here.
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