Just yesterday, I posted a discussion about some of the challenges of old foods. I mostly lamented how, when you find foods that are too old to still use, you have to throw them out, which is effectively money down the drain.
Yet, quite often, when you do discover old food, it’s still edible and perfectly safe to eat. It’s just that the texture has changed in an unfamiliar or unappealing way.
Thus, the trick of using “old” food is to use it in a way where the change in texture is no longer a problem or, in some cases, is even beneficial.
Here are 18 of my favorite strategies for using “old” food. I might not want to eat these items in their current state, but I’ll happily use them and eat them in an altered state. Since there are simply more ideas than I could ever fit into a single post, I may turn this into a series of posts over time if readers find value in it!
Bread goes bad. It’s not meant to last forever. Sometimes, when you leave it in a closed environment with moisture, mold will develop. On the other hand, if you leave it in a dry open environment, the bread will usually dry out, seriously damaging the texture of the bread. You don’t really want to use it on sandwiches or anything like that when it’s all dried out like that.
So, what can you do with dried bread?
Make breadcrumbs. Just take bread that’s already dried out and toss it in the oven a bit longer to make it really dry. I usually put a bunch of slices on a baking sheet and toss them in the oven at about 350 F for a few minutes until it’s extra dry. At that point, it’s very crispy.
Then, I’ll break the very dry and brittle bread into small pieces in a blender and pulse them until they’re broken down into small crumbs – delicious little breadcrumbs.
So, what can you do with breadcrumbs? You can do countless things. You can use them with eggs to make a breading for fish, chicken, or pork. You can fry them in a bit of olive oil to make a great salad topping. You can mix them with ground beef to make wonderful meatballs or meatloaf. They also pop up as an ingredient in infinite recipes.
Just store your breadcrumbs in a sealed container in the pantry and use them whenever you have a purpose for them.
Make a breakfast casserole. One of the best ways to “cover up” the dry nature of old bread is to simply coat it with something – in this case, some eggs. Just turn that old bread into the basis for a breakfast casserole.
Take some pieces of dry bread and dip them into beaten eggs and layer the bottom of an 8″ by 8″ or a 9″ by 13″ pan that’s lightly oiled or greased. I usually use six eggs for a smaller pan and a dozen for a larger pan. Add some toppings above the bread – cooked bacon or sausage, perhaps, or onions and green peppers that are chopped – and pour the remaining eggs on top. Sprinkle some cheese on top and bake at 350 F until the eggs are cooked through.
This makes for a splendid breakfast and one that you can fully prepare the night before and allow to sit in the fridge overnight before baking in the morning.
Make French toast. Since you’re already dipping the dry bread into eggs anyway, why not do the same thing and make it into a sweet dish rather than a savory one?
Just dip the stale bread into eggs with a bit of sugar mixed in and leave the bread in there for a few seconds to let the egg soak into the bread, making it almost mushy. Then, toss it in a skillet over medium heat with just a bit of butter, cook until one side is slightly browned, then flip it and cook until the other side is slightly browned. Remove it from the heat, add some maple syrup on top, and enjoy an amazing sweet breakfast. Or dinner.
We’ve all seen bananas go from bright yellow to yellow with a few darker spots to a mostly brown super-soft mess that you really don’t want to peel and eat. Yet those brown bananas are incredibly delicious, as many of the flavors and sugars are unlocked as the bananas break down. While the texture of a browning banana might keep you away from merely peeling and eating it, it can still provide a great ingredient for something else.
Make a smoothie. Just add some of those overripe bananas to the blender – peel them so that the banana pulp goes straight in – along with some cold milk and perhaps a bit of honey and you’re going to have a tremendous banana-flavored smoothie. Just puree it until it’s all smooth, pour it into a cup, and enjoy.
On that basic backbone, you can add all kinds of things. Add in some chocolate. Add in some strawberries. Add in some plain yogurt. Add in greens if you’d like. Almost anything works on a backbone of overripe but ultra-flavorful bananas.
Make banana bread. Banana bread is a delicious use of overripe bananas, as it takes advantage of their exposed sweetness to create a sweet bread that is to die for.
Personally, I like to use this recipe from AllRecipes, as it’s simple to follow and produces a very easy and very moist and tasty banana bread loaf, one that is wonderful to eat warmed up with just a bit of butter on it. Sublime!
Make banana pancakes. This is another great way to use up old bananas. Just cut the old bananas into small pieces, then make an ordinary batch of pancakes and toss the banana pieces right into the batter.
What happens here is that the bananas, in their super softened state, send out a lot of their sweetness and flavor into the batter, making the pancakes sweet and filling them with the wonderful flavor of bananas through and through. I sometimes add chocolate chips to the batter as well for an extra treat.
We often make lightly seasoned steamed vegetables as a side dish for our meals. It’s an incredibly cheap side dish, often costing less than a quarter per person at our dinner table, and it’s a great way to get vegetables into our diet. However, we usually have some left over vegetables – they’re already cooked, but they’re only lightly seasoned so they’re still pretty flexible. We usually toss these leftovers in the freezer just to hold onto them for now.
At the same time, we’re often flooded with vegetables from our garden during the summer. While we sometimes give away some of our excess and we store some of them for the winter by freezing or canning them, we still sometimes run into the issue of vegetables that don’t get used before they’re on the verge of no longer being good.
What can we do with these things?
Make vegetable stock. This one’s about as easy as can be. Take all of your leftover vegetables – almost any combination will do – and put enough of them in a slow cooker so that it’s about 2/3 full, then add enough water so that the pot is now 3/4 full, leaving perhaps an inch or two of water above the top of the vegetables. I usually add some salt here to taste along with some ground black pepper (or even some straight-up peppercorns), along with some herbs (another way to use old foods – dump in lots of your aged herbs). Turn it on low and let it simmer all night or all day, whatever works well for you. Then, strain that mix right into a container of some type – the liquid is what you’re going to want to save here.
That liquid is vegetable stock, and it can be used as the backbone for almost any soup you might make or any stew you might make or any casserole you might make. Basically, if a savory meal uses water, you can substitute in the vegetable stock and it’ll taste better. You can easily freeze the vegetable stock until you’re ready to use it. You can also toss meat scraps and bones into the stock as it’s cooking to make beef, chicken, pork, or seafood stock, depending on what you have. Those types of stocks are a bit more restrictive in their use, but they can certainly be a home run in the right dish.
Make vegetable soup. This is actually really similar to making stock, except I worry more about making sure the vegetables themselves match in terms of flavor, I don’t cook it for nearly as long (as I don’t want the vegetables turning to mush), and I don’t strain it at the end.
This is something that we make a lot of in the fall, as the days are getting colder, the vegetables in our garden are starting to slow down a little bit, and school is back in session which makes our schedules much tighter than before. You can just add the vegetables, some vegetable stock (if you have it), and appropriate seasonings to a slow cooker and let it simmer all day for a great evening meal.
Make compost. What do I do with vegetables and fruits that are too far gone? What do I do with the vegetable pieces that are strained out of the stock? Simple. I make compost.
We have a big compost bin in our backyard to which we add all of our fruit and vegetable scraps. If it’s dry, we water it. Every once in a while, we turn it over with a shovel. Each fall, we stop adding stuff to it for a month and then spread it on the garden just before winter. Each spring, we do the same, really encouraging it to get going on the first few warm days and then spreading it all over the garden right around planting time.
That stuff makes for garden gold. It helps everything grow incredibly well in that coming season, turning an ordinary garden into a thriving jungle of plants. This is basically how we can get basket after basket of tomatoes each year off of just a few plants and how we often have more carrots and pumpkins than we know what to do with. Compost really is the secret.
My family loves tacos and burritos – Americanized versions of Mexican dishes, in other words. We’ll take tortillas, fill them up with what we have on hand, add some flavorings, and enjoy them immensely.
Of course, at the end of the day, sometimes we find ourselves with some leftover tortillas and no plans to use them. We’ll have an open bag of tortillas with six or seven left over in there and we know that they’re in danger of drying out and becoming unusable.
So, here’s what we do to solve that problem.
Make tortilla chips. Just coat some tortillas with a bit of olive oil on both sides, cut them into eight roughly equal wedges, sprinkle some salt on both sides, and bake them in the oven at 375 F until they’re crunchy – I usually just trust the taste test by grabbing one and trying it out.
These usually turn out to be far better than the tortilla chips sold in stores. They tend to be amazing when dipped in salsa or even eaten completely plain. I make these with both flour tortillas and corn tortillas and they’re both delicious. You can even experiment by splashing a hint of lime juice on them before baking or sprinkling on a bit of chili powder.
Make simple quesadillas. Another great use for old tortillas is to simply lay them out flat, brush some olive oil on them, put some ingredients in the middle – cheese, onions, cooked hamburger, diced cooked chicken, salsa, whatever works – and put another brushed tortilla on top, then put that sandwich in a hot skillet for a few minutes, flipping it halfway through, until there are brown marks on both sides of the sandwich and the insides are warm, then serve it.
It’s a very cheap meal, and since you tend to want your tortilla crispy in this type of meal, a slightly aged tortilla won’t make any difference at all. We have these often when we have leftover tortillas.
Make tortilla pie. If you have a bunch of dry leftover tortillas, simply make a tortilla pie out of them. We often sarcastically call this “Tex-Mex lasagna.”
It’s easy. Just brush the insides of a 9″ by 13″ pan with olive oil, then take a few tortillas, spread refried beans on one side, and layer the bottom of the pan with them. Add a thin layer of cheese, a thin layer of vegetables (salsa is good here, as are diced tomatoes and onions), and maybe another thin layer of cooked beans if you’d like (I like black beans). Then repeat all the layers, starting with the tortillas. Do this three times, then cover the top with a bit more cheese and bake it all for 30 minutes at 350 F, then let it rest on the table for 10 minutes or so before serving.
This makes for a great little casserole that is often a wonderful way to use up older items. In late summer, we’re often throwing tons of our leftover tomatoes into dishes like this one.
Sarah and I love to drink a glass of wine with our meals most evenings. We’re not too picky about it, as long as it tastes good with the food, and we tend to prefer wines from local vineyards.
Neither Sarah nor I are big drinkers, though, and we often find ourselves with a portion of that wine bottle left over at the end of the evening. When that happens, we don’t want to let it go to waste, but it’s usually not great to drink, either. What can we do with it?
Make a beef-oriented dish with red wine. One of our favorite uses for leftover red wine was to simply use it in a slow cooker meal that involved beef. We’d often make a pot roast or a stew and simply use our leftover red wine as part of the liquid in the recipe. This always adds a wonderful accompanying flavor to any delicious roast or beef stew.
This basically works with any roast or stew recipe you might find, whether it’s one for the slow cooker or one that you prepare that very evening.
Make shepherd’s pie with either kind of wine. Another dish that uses wine quite well is shepherd’s pie. Either kind of wine works well in this dish, depending on the exact vegetables and ingredients in the meal.
For example, if you’re making a shepherd’s pie mostly full of darker root vegetables and with ground beef as a key ingredient, red wine works well. If your shepherd’s pie involves many lighter vegetables, a white wine works well as an ingredient. Just use those wines as part of the stew that you cook under the potatoes – it’s one of those meals that you basically can’t mess up because it’s just a matter of throwing ingredients together.
Make a fish or poultry dish with white wine. If you’re cooking fish or poultry, using some leftover white wine in the recipe can add a wonderful flavor to the broth. Putting some white wine directly into dishes like chicken noodle soup or chicken and dumplings makes for an excellent meal.
One of my favorite things to do is to make a seafood stew with tons of leftover white wine in it. I’ll put in fish, shrimp, and whatever else I have easy access to (with my father being a semi-retired fisherman, I often have fish easily available).
What about those dried herbs that have sat around for a bit too long and just aren’t as flavorful as they used to be? The trick with those herbs is to use them in places where the dish won’t mind having a lot of little flecks of herbs in it, either because they’ve been cooked away or they’ve been removed somehow.
Here are three ways I love to use stale herbs and still get great value out of them.
Make any kind of stock for future dishes. Stale herbs are used in abundance when I make stock. What happens here is that, because the stock cooks all day, the little dried pieces break down and essentially vanish into the broth. If any larger pieces manage to survive, they’re strained out.
It’s easy to make stock, as mentioned above. Just take lots of vegetable scraps and, optionally, scraps of a particular type of meat and just let it all cook together all day long with a lot of water and some salt to taste. Dump in lots of your spare old herbs, too.
Make a seasoning mix or rub. If you have an abundance of a few particular seasonings that go well with specific dishes or meats, combine them to make a seasoning mix or a rub that you can easily use in recipes.
I find that combining older herbs directly with salt tends to preserve the remaining flavor and amplify it a little bit, so the mixes I make with older herbs tend to use plenty of salt. That way, I don’t have to add any additional salt to the actual meals I make with those mixes.
Make a flavorful salad dressing. Just take some olive oil and mix your leftover herbs directly into the oil. I’ll often take this mix and let it sit in the refrigerator for quite a while, letting the flavors remaining in the herbs soak out into the oil. I don’t hesitate to use a lot of herbs here as it usually mixes wonderfully with the salad and you don’t even notice it.
Herbs soaked in oil tend to let out all of their remaining flavors into the oil over time, so old herbs can still have a lot of value if you use them this way.
If you’re smart, almost any old food that’s still edible can be used in some sort of useful culinary manner in your kitchen. It’s simply a matter of figuring out how to maximize the good elements that still remain while minimizing the bad elements.
Good luck in your future kitchen experiments!