7 Beloved Foods That Started as Trash

Many dishes around the world were actually invented to use up food that would have otherwise gone to waste.

hands putting food waste into trash can
Photo: Getty Images

Food waste is a pervasive problem around the world, with the USDA estimating that it's the fate of 30 to 40 percent of all food produced in the U.S. More and more, innovative companies are taking this issue to task, as businesses like Wtrmln Wtr, Cocomiette, Reveal, and White Moustache repurpose "ugly" watermelons, stale bread, avocado pits, and whey, respectively, to mitigate waste.

Yet, it turns out that we as a society have been doing this for generations. In fact, many beloved dishes around the world were created to use up food byproducts or leftovers. Here are some of our favorites.

1. Burrata

Creamy burrata is a trendy menu item these days, but decadent burrata was actually invented to use up mozzarella's byproducts. The ultra-creamy cheese got its start on the outskirts of Andria in southern Italy in the 1920s, historian Riccardo Campanile told the BBC. Cheesemakers took shreds of leftover mozzarella and cream from fresh milk and stuffed them into casings made from fresh mozzarella, which they blew like balloons into thin, dumpling-like skin.

2. Arancini

According to Italian cooking queen Lidia Bastianich, "there's no such thing as leftover risotto." Indeed, risotto reheated turns mushy and bland — better to form it into balls and fry it! Indeed, Italian rice croquettes "might be an anti-waste recipe," Paris-based private chef Elio Genualdo says.

The croquettes take different forms in different regions of the boot. Sicilian arancini are so named for their resemblance to oranges, given the saffron-spiked rice traditionally used to make them. In Rome, meanwhile, the fritters are called supplì, ostensibly because French soldiers, upon discovering their cheesy center, called them surpris or surprise. The dish is also referred to as supplì al telefono or telephone supplì for a cheese pull as long as a telephone cord.

3. Fried Rice

In Chinese households, fried rice often uses up leftover white rice. For Lucy Chen, executive chef of Bao Family, "it is easier to do with leftover rice, because it has dried out a bit and the grains tend to stick to each other less."

"I find cooking with warm (this can be leftover rice microwaved shortly) or fresh hot rice is much better than with cold rice, because it doesn't cool down the pan drastically when it goes in," she says. "Less cook time means less mixing and mashing of the rice, and development of flavors and textures is rapid and high heat, which is what Chinese wok cuisine is all about."

Fried rice is also a great way to use up other leftovers: bits and pieces of veg and meat can be repurposed into a delicious meal. "I love how a tiny bit of rice expands to generous volumes when you add egg and other ingredients," Chen says. "A tiny bit of leftovers can turn into a full meal very easily."

4. Migas

A brunch favorite, migas actually got their start as a way to use up leftover tortillas, a story supported by their very name: migas means crumbs in Spanish. Cynthia Pérez, co-owner of Las Manitas Avenue Café in Austin, told the New York Times that the dish was invented by "thrifty poor people" looking to use up stale tortilla bits, which are fried and then scrambled with eggs, spices, and any add-ins you like.

5. Croutons

Croutons got their start as one of a plethora of ways to use up leftover bread. Likely consumed in France as early as the Middle Ages, the word crouton first appeared in 1596. Croutons can be seasoned with anything from herbs to spices to garlic, and be fried or toasted in butter or oil. While croutons most frequently appear in salads in the U.S., in France, they are far more often served as a crunchy topping for soup.

6. French Toast

French toast's origin story is evident in its native name: pain perdu or lost bread. Made with stale bread from the day before, French toast involves adding moisture by way of a simple, sweet custard before baking or frying until golden brown and crispy.

The very first example of this process likely goes back to Ancient Rome; a fifth century B.C. recipe called pan dulcis is very similar to French toast as we know it today.

In France, pain perdu refers to both the sweet, pan-fried French toast we know and love and to baked bread puddings, savory or sweet. In English, we borrow the Italian word strata, meaning layer, for the former.

7. Almond Croissants

Rich, decadent almond croissants got their start at bakeries that hoped to use up unsold pastries from the day before. And in modern Paris, that often remains the case, says Anthony Courteille, owner of Parisian bakery Sain.

"It's either croissants from the day before or croissants that are a little messed up," he says. "Because when you make everything by hand, there will be some that aren't as pretty as others, or that are smaller, or just — the ugly ones, you know? The irregular ones."

These croissant misfits, he explains, are opened and filled with almond paste and syrup before being closed, topped with even more almond paste and slivered almonds, and rebaked. The same can be done with chocolate croissants — pains au chocolat in French — for an even more decadent final result.


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