Your food scraps deserve another shot. Here’s how to use peels, stems and more in your cooking.

If you dump your pickle juice and bean water, compost your kale stems, spit out your watermelon seeds and chuck your orange peels, you’re probably not alone.

But it’s time to give them a second look. These castoffs can be the secret ingredients adding flair, texture and substance to your meals, while also stretching your budget and reducing food waste and its environmental consequences. All while cutting grocery trips amid a global pandemic.

I love how cooking with “scraps” can lead to fun experiments and loads of meal variety. Kale salad tonight means a stem pesto in our future. Cracking open a can of chickpeas nudges me toward baking with the can’s liquid, which is an egg substitute. A bag of clementines has me thinking, “What can I do with these peels?”

The bottom line is this: There’s more food hiding in your food. Here’s a guide to ingredients you might be overlooking:

The leafy bits. Carrot greens, radish greens, beet greens, the leaves tucked into your bunch of celery. If they’re fresh and crisp, drop them into salad. If they’re wilting, think stir fry. If they’re a bit tough, dice and saute them, or spin them into pesto. But do use the greens atop carrots, turnips and the like quickly — the leaves fade fast and the root veggies below last longer without their leafy tops.

Pickle juice. Mix with some oil and herbs, and voila: salad dressing. Class it up with vodka and vermouth for a martini; or tequila, bitters, simple syrup and lime juice for a margarita. You might even chug it after a workout. Some athletes swear by the hydrating, cramp-fighting power of pickle juice. For your latest pandemic baking challenge, Google “pickle juice bread” and brine up a loaf.

Seeds. Just as you roast pumpkin seeds, consider roasting the slippery kernels from their melon and winter squash cousins. Food52 suggests soaking watermelon seeds in salty water, followed by 20 minutes in a 320-degree oven.

I also oven-dry papaya seeds, which go great on salads. They’re a little spicy, and after more than an hour at 200 degrees Fahrenheit, they resemble mild, crumbly peppercorns. Some people blend fresh seeds into salad dressings (though, full disclosure: the raw texture reminds me of large, unyielding raspberry seeds).

But before experimenting with a new seed, or any “scrappy” plant part, research any potentially dangerous chemicals. A couple apple seeds, for example, are unlikely to harm you, but contain small amounts of a compound that can become cyanide once ingested.

Mary Berry’s Orange Tea Bread uses candied peel. (Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

Fruit peels and rinds. All it takes is water, sugar and a stove to convert citrus peels to candy or marmalade. Freeze zested peels for future use. Certain cakes such as Mary Berry’s Orange Tea Bread and even such entrees as Shrimp With Spiced Candied Orange Crust require peel from multiple oranges.

While you’re roasting watermelon seeds, how about pickling the rinds? They can enhance a sandwich or a summery drink.

Other fruit scraps. It’s nearly impossible to get all the fruity flesh off the pits in mangoes and certain stone fruits, but no matter! Stash them in the freezer with other fruit scraps (pineapple cores, strawberry tops, lime husks). Once you have, say, a full gallon-size bag, dump them in a pot with some water. Boil, simmer, add sugar and choose your own adventure:

  • If lots of fruity pulp has loosened (scraping can help), remove the woody, fibrous parts and, with perhaps a bit more heat and a dash of cornstarch, you’re on your way to jam.
  • If the fruity stew is thinner, strain out the solids and enjoy a syrup for pancakes, cocktails or ice cream. Or, pour in vinegar for a shrub. Mix with seltzer for a fancy, waste-fighting soda. A splash of your favorite booze makes for a more adult experience.

Stems. Dice delicate herb stems for extra crunch in salads. Blanch, boil or chop tougher stems, such as kale or chard, for veggie bulk in your next meal. Alternatively, vinegar, salt and sugar can net you some nice and stalky refrigerator pickles.

I accumulate edible stems (from kale, mint, cilantro, chard, etc.) in the freezer and later pulverize them with roasted nuts, aged Italian cheese and olive oil for pesto. You can also blend stems with herbs, beans and oil (maybe oil salvaged from a can of smoky sardines?) for a nice dip, sauce or spread. Even the hard hearts and stalks of cauliflower can be boiled and then blended into whatever inspires you. The Internet offers several variations on chard stalk hummus, which skip chickpeas and use tahini, lemon juice, garlic and olive oil for a fluffy dip. And we can’t forget broccoli stalks, which, once you peel off the fibrous exteriors, are tender and delicious.

Woody stems — from rosemary, for example — aren’t good eating, but can be flavorful skewers or add complexity to broths or syrups. At your next socially distant patio gathering, garnish your lemonade with a rustic rosemary stem.

Chocolate, Red Bean and Rose Brownies use aquafaba. (Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

Bean water. Aquafaba, essentially the liquid left over from draining a can of chickpeas, is kind of magical. It whips up like egg whites, making vegan mousse, meringue and mayonnaise as accessible as an appointment with your hand mixer. However, mastering the liquid can be a little tricky, which is perhaps why the Facebook group Aquafaba (Vegan Meringue — Hits and Misses!) boasts nearly 100,000 members. For precise recipes, Washington Post Food and Dining Editor Joe Yonan notes in “Cool Beans” (Ten Speed Press 2020) that the water from canned chickpeas is more consistent than what you might drain off garbanzos soaked and cooked at home (which is excellent for storing them). When baking, about three tablespoons of the stuff is equivalent to a whole egg. Try it in Chocolate, Red Bean and Rose Brownies.

I use the water from any can of beans to thicken soups and sauces; I rarely bother draining it from cans of black beans.

Vegetable peels and scraps. Do you even need to peel it? Carrots and potatoes can just get scrubbed, and you can even leave the peel on beets, even after roasting. If you do want to take it off, how about roasted potato peels? A twist of cucumber peel plunked into a drink?

If you can’t use them immediately, stow clean peels and scraps such as pepper centers, corncobs, onion trim and beyond in the freezer until you have a full bag. Dump your iced veggie into a pot, cover with water, boil and simmer at least 30 minutes and you’ll have broth that my husband affectionately calls “garbage tea.” You can follow the whims of your scraps, or be deliberate; a broth made with mostly corncobs differs from one including trim from broccoli, cabbage and their relatives, whose flavors may overwhelm.

Add bones, too! Save bones with veggie scraps and they’ll enhance broth. Even shrimp shells contribute a little something. In pre-pandemic days, my husband and I would often pack bones with our restaurant leftovers. They’re valuable!

Any packing liquid. Aquafaba and pickle juice are pretty special, but virtually any liquid our food is packed in can be put to work. If your recipe calls for a small amount of broth and you have only the liquid from a can of corn, go for it (I often do this for masa harina recipes). I routinely pour the water from canned vegetables into my freezer bags of broth-making scraps. I drizzle sardine oil over salads, and a friend does the same with oil from jars of sun-dried tomatoes.

What secret ingredient have you found hiding in your food? Share in the comments below.

Rachael Jackson founded, which helps consumers evaluate “questionable-looking” food and provides recipes for reducing food waste.

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