Root-to-Stem Cooking: How to Maximize Your Produce and Minimize Waste

Root-to-stem cooking makes the most out of fruits and vegetables, and it’ll help you build more sustainable habits in the kitchen and in your diet.

Photo: Oriol Portell on Unsplash

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Plant-based foods are some of the best for your health – and they’re also better choices for a more sustainable diet. However, even if you’re already working to reduce your environmental impact by incorporating more plant-based foods into every meal, it’s possible to make your eating and cooking habits even more sustainable. You just need to limit your food waste as much as possible and give root-to-stem cooking a try.

According to the USDA, between 30 and 40 percent of the food available in the U.S. goes to waste. Whether it goes uneaten or simply gets tossed out, this means a huge portion of perfectly good food isn’t getting used. But it isn’t just food that’s being wasted. Food waste is interconnected with land, water, labor and energy waste too, meaning food that’s thrown away has an extensive ripple effect on the larger environment.

Fortunately, it’s easy to make a difference right at home. You can work to reduce your food waste by practicing root-to-stem cooking. It’s an easy way to make more from the fruits and vegetables you already have in your kitchen, and it helps you get even more value out of your favorite produce.

What is root-to-stem cooking?

Root-to-stem cooking is a plant-based spin-off of nose-to-tail cooking. Root-to-stem cooking is essentially the same practice, but it’s all about fruits and vegetables. It takes items that are traditionally tossed in the trash, like lemon rinds, broccoli and cauliflower stalks or beet and carrot tops, and incorporates them into recipes. Instead of preparing fruits and vegetables with trimmings left behind, you use all of the edible parts of your produce in your meals.

Using up more of your fruits and vegetables not only helps you eat more of these healthy foods, but it also contributes to the effort to reduce food waste. By working to limit your own food waste, you’ll make your cooking and eating habits more environmentally friendly and sustainable.

There’s another bonus to root-to-stem: it can help you save money. When you’re using every last edible scrap of your fresh fruits and veggies, you’re able to stretch them farther. That means you may find you aren’t over-buying, or buying produce as frequently, since you’re getting more from every serving.

Putting root-to-stem into practice

It’s easy to start practicing root-to-stem cooking. In fact, you can give it a try when you prepare dinner tonight. All you have to do in order to start cooking more sustainably is use up as much of every piece of produce as you possibly can. Aim to throw out very little – only the components you can’t eat, like seeds.

There are a few different ways to give root-to-stem a try. You can use all of the parts of your fruits and veggies when you’re whipping up meals, or you can separate them into different components and use those like different ingredients. In some cases, you can even swap in trimmings for other ingredients.

Here are 6 ways to put your produce to use, all the way from root to stem.

1. Create your own vegetable stock

One of easiest ways to use up ingredients like veggie stalks, tops, and even skins is by tossing them together into a vegetable stock. You don’t have to have the prettiest or most carefully prepared vegetables to make a flavorful, versatile stock – everything gets strained out when your broth is finished cooking. Carrot tops, cabbage and cauliflower cores and leeks and their leaves, for example, can all add flavor to a stock.

2. Turn stalks into rice

Riced veggies like cauliflower and broccoli are a popular alternative to traditional rice. Why not increase the amount of rice you can make from a head of one of these vegetables by ricing the stalks too? You can send broccoli stalks or cauliflower stalks through your food processor to turn them into homemade veggie rice, using the entire plant every time you create a dish.

3. Sauté stems

In addition to ricing your vegetables’ stems, you can also sauté them on their own. From broccoli stems to kale and Swiss chard stems, you can take veggie stems from tough to perfectly crunchy or tender. Just chop them up like you would to sauté any other produce, and you can season them with spices if you’d like. Another option is to sauté leaves and stems together for a side that’s both tender and a bit textured.

4. Leave potato skins in place

The next time you’re preparing potatoes in any form, leave the skin on. Potato skins are perfectly edible and quite tasty. It can add a bit of texture and plenty of nutrients. Research shows that potato skins are 40 to 50 percent dietary fiber, rich in vitamins like riboflavin, folic acid and vitamin B6. While many people treat potato skins like a peel or piece of waste, you’re tossing out a lot of great nutrients if you do this. Instead, leave the skins in place and reap all of the benefits.

5. Turn leaves into sauces, dressings and more

Leaves can be some of the trickiest pieces of vegetables to use up in root-to-stem cooking. However, the leaves of most veggies actually contain quite a bit of flavor – making them perfect for sauces, dressings and marinades. Carrot tops and leaves, for example, feature a strong, earthy flavor that works well in a pesto. Radish leaves can also be blended into a pesto. You can blend leaves with oils and vinegar to create your own vinaigrettes too.

6. Create herbs out of carrot tops

Carrot tops and greens are kind of bitter, and they can be hard to work with. However, when cooked, their flavor becomes more similar to herbs you know and love. You can turn carrot greens into herbs, using them in place of cilantro or parsley in many dishes. They’re versatile – you can blanch the greens and blend them into herb-based sauces. Or, you can chop them up and sprinkle them into salads, casseroles and more. Think of carrot tops like an herb that goes anywhere you need a bit of depth in flavor.

Quick tips to get more from your produce

Give root-to-stem cooking a try, and you’ll likely find it pretty easy to stick with. It does require a bit of creativity; you’ll start looking at fruits and vegetables in new ways, and you’ll have more material to work with. But getting used to using stems, roots, leaves and other less common parts of your produce means you’ll be trying out some new cooking techniques.

As you get started, keep these tips in mind to make using up every part of your produce easier:

  • Freeze tops and stems if you don’t plan on using them right away.
  • Nearly anything can be used in a stock or broth.
  • Just about any veggie part can be sautéed and seasoned.
  • Ripe fruits can easily be mixed into baked goods like muffins and loaves.

The more you work every part of fruits and vegetables into your recipes and cooking habits, the easier root-to-stem will become. Over time, minimizing your food waste – and potentially your grocery budget – can really have an impact too.