Summer produce brings to mind plump, juicy tomatoes, perfectly round peaches and plums, and overflowing bundles of vibrant green herbs. But you know what's just as delicious as a picture-perfect peach? A slightly bruised or misshapen one, puréed into a smoothie, sliced into wedges and nestled into cake batter, or stewed into a sweet peach jam.
Supermarkets often reject "ugly" or "imperfect" produce because it doesn't meet their display standards. This could be anything from an eggplant with funny curves to an apple with scars to a bell pepper that's somewhere in between red and green. Although most of it is perfectly edible, these fruits and veggies (as well as unplanned-for surplus produce from farms) often end up in landfills.
"Innovative companies use it as animal feed or compost it, but that's more expensive than paying a trash company to throw it away," says Evan Lutz, CEO and founder of Hungry Harvest, a farm-to-doorstep produce delivery service founded on the belief that every fruit and vegetable — regardless of how it looks — deserves to be eaten.
Turning to the Experts
To learn how best to use up ugly or on-its-way-out produce, we gathered a list of tips and tricks from farmers, chefs, entrepreneurs, food writers, and, of course, our talented staff of expert home cooks.
Embracing "Ugly" Produce in Your Kitchen
Whether you come across imperfect produce in a subscription box or CSA, at the farmers market, or in your own garden, pause before tossing it aside — and consider the millions of people who don't have the luxury of being picky with their produce.
"Living in a low-income neighborhood and also being a farmer and seeing how food has been wasted, we don't throw away anything," says Karen Washington, co-founder of Rise and Root Farm in upstate New York and The Garden of Happiness, a community garden for the Bronx. "We need to get people to appreciate fruits and vegetables — just because they have a little nick, they are still healthy, they are still good, and they taste tremendous. When you haven't had access to good healthy food like people in my neighborhood, you don't care how it looks. You're trying to make ends meet."
In addition to physical imperfections, ugly produce also refers to food that's wilted or dying. Rather than at the market, we often come across this produce in our own kitchens, when we open up the produce drawer (or, as Lutz calls it, the produce coffin) and see the forgotten-about summer squash, or that wilting bunch of once-beautiful greens. Instead of getting discouraged, consider it an opportunity to create something new.
"Sometimes, it's about being less concerned with the original form of something and thinking of ways we can take it and introduce other rich flavors to it," says Ashley Christensen, a James Beard award-winning chef and cookbook author who has partnered with Hungry Harvest and advocates for fighting food waste in the kitchen.
Sara Forte, a cookbook author and blogger behind the popular food website Sprouted Kitchen, agrees: "I think the thing to keep in mind in using imperfect produce is to put it in a place where you're playing off its flavor, not texture," she says. "For example, a mushy tomato in a caprese salad is no good, but if it's roasted and puréed into soup, no one would know the difference."
25+ Ways to Stop Wasting Ugly, Bruised, & Dying Produce
1. Use overripe tomatoes to make a refreshing gazpacho, roasted tomato soup, or a tomato sauce for pasta.
Or follow Christensen's lead and make tomato water, which she pairs with white beans for a flavor-packed, tomato-scented seasonal dish. And don't be turned off when you encounter oddly shaped tomatoes. "People think something is wrong with [heirloom tomatoes], but this is what tomatoes should look like — not the red round things you see in the store," Washington says.
2. Throw not-so-pretty produce on the grill.
Mangoes, peaches, pineapples, and even apples are great on the grill, Lutz says. "You can't tell if it's an apple with a scar on it if you cut it up and put it on the grill. It doesn't affect the flavor."
3. Make your own vegetable bouillon.
Ellie Markovitch, founder of storycooking.com, has been resourceful with produce ever since she was a child, where she spent weekends on her grandparent's farm in Brazil. One of her favorite things to make is bouillon (a finely ground paste of vegetables, garlic, and herbs), which she keeps in the fridge for several weeks or in the freezer for half the year. "It's just wonderful [for making] a cup of broth with noodles!"
"If farmers can't pick berries fast enough when they are ripe and ready, we'll turn them into jam to top toast or swirl into baked goods," says Cara Mangini, executive chef and owner of Little Eater, a produce-inspired restaurant, food product company, and grocery and artisanal foods boutique in Columbus, Ohio.
Amy Halloran, a writer, teacher, and founder of a community meals program and food pantry in upstate New York (and our resident pancake expert), was recently gifted mushrooms that had absorbed too much water in the rain, and couldn't be sold by the farmer. "[The mushrooms] don't need any oil in the pan when you sauté them, just some salt," she says. "The moisture in the mushroom evaporates out and starts the cooking process. They tasted incredible." On the flip side, too-dry mushrooms can be used to flavor stock.
6. Combine odds and ends from the fridge into a sheet pan roast.
"Large, overgrown rutabagas, kohlrabi, and winter squashes that are too often cast away are peeled deeply to remove their tough exteriors and roasted into sweetness," Mangini says. "The roasted rutabaga is paired with carrots, pearl couscous, almonds, currants, and a coriander and honey-balsamic vinaigrette. It can also be puréed to use in desserts. The kohlrabi finds its way into a savory bread pudding with cheddar and greens. The roasted winter squash is whipped into purée for cookies, quick breads, and a holiday cheesecake."
7. Or turn them into a weeknight stir-fry.
"My girlfriend and I cook almost every night, and there are so many different ways you can make a stir-fry," says Lutz. At Kitchn, we like to follow this basic formula: veggies + stir-fry sauce + rice or noodles.
8. Sear bruised veggies in a hot cast iron skillet.
"I grabbed a bit of summer squash at the market today, and some of it looks a little spotty," Christensen says. "I'll char it in a cast iron pan, keep it medium-rare in the middle, and it will have a caramelized flavor."
9. Purée soft carrots into a creamy soup.
"I sauté them with some sweet potato, onion, celery, curry, and coconut milk and purée that into a super-easy soup with pita chips on top," Forte says.
Peaches, nectarines, and strawberries are also great in breads, and especially tasty in scones and muffins.
11. Use it as an excuse to get your kids into the kitchen.
Kitchn's Food Editor-at-Large, Christine Gallary, says she lets her daughter Sophie prep less-than-perfect fruits and veggies, because "I don't care if she chops things up irregularly or things get smushed."
12. Soak wilted greens in ice water to perk them up.
Our former Food Director, Hali Bey Ramdene, swears by this method (it's also the trick used by grocery stores to give lackluster leaves a boost!). Root vegetables that have lost moisture can also gain new life in a bath of cold water, according to Mangini.
13. Turn insect-nibbled greens into a simple salad.
"Slug-nibbled little gem lettuces still make a great salad," says Kate Farrar, co-founder of Perianth, a woman-run farm in the the Hudson Valley. "Although not aesthetically up to par to sell, this lettuce is crisp, flavorful, and perfectly delicious. We made a salad with a simple vinaigrette, low on the acidity, high on the oil, mustard, salt, pepper. Amazing."
14. If it's beyond the point of revival, give hot lettuce a try.
"Cooked lettuce is crazy delicious," says Kitchn's associate food editor Meghan Splawn. Try our lettuce salad with hot beef dressing.
15. Take advantage of whole broccoli or cauliflower — from stalks to florets.
Halloran trims brown spots from cauliflower florets and adds the veggie to mac and cheese, while Markovitch peels and grates the stems for salads, soups, and latkes.
16. Transform soft avocados into a salad dressing.
"We turn soft avocados into a bright and creamy dressing for a kale salad with pecorino, jalapeño-pickled raisins, and crushed corn nuts," Mangini says. To prevent avocados from browning, Lutz suggests brushing them with a thin layer of olive oil. We've also found success storing avocado with chopped onion.
17. Keep a hunk of Parmesan in the fridge to make any wilted vegetable better.
"Take a group of raw vegetables, char one, serve some raw, and hit them with a little lemon and olive oil and the tiniest bit of finely grated Parmesan. It adds a little briny, umami richness," Christensen shares.
18. Dehydrate wilted herbs, then turn them into herb blends or seasoned salts.
After a quiet day at the farmers market, Farrar found herself with a surplus of sun-wilted herbs. "These cannot be sold again in this state, but they've already been harvested," she says. "What a waste! Our answer was to do a large batch of drying when we got home. Either in a dehydrator, or laid out on parchment paper in a warm oven (170°F oven) for around 20 minutes (or until crisp)."
19. Or turn bruised herbs into pesto.
Mangini opts for basil for her pesto and aioli, but almost any herb or salad green will work.
20. Take bruised fruits and purée them into smoothies.
The concentrated flavor of overripe fruit makes smoothies even tastier. We're currently crushing on this creamy strawberry concoction.
21. View recipes as guidelines, not commandments.
"As a chef, my role is to make the most out of what is super beautiful and also what is 'ugly' because it's all delicious," says Matt Weingarten, chief culinary officer at Dig Inn, a vegetable-centric restaurant chain focused on reducing food waste. "We start our culinary development at the farm. Our rescued vegetable slaw speaks directly to the small misshapen and forgotten-about bin ends. It's a great way to make a slaw, with rutabaga and turnips and a couple of varieties of beets and some carrots and kohlrabi. The farmers send us whatever mixture they want or have, which is different from the way a lot of chefs roll. When writing and reading recipes, it's really helpful to picture in your mind what you're trying to create. The recipes are just kind of the addendum."
22. Use softened fruits as an excuse to make dessert.
We can't argue with this advice from Kitchn's Assistant Food Editor, Sheela Fiorenzo. We're talking crisps, cobblers, pies, and crumbles — this recipe for fruit crumble works for just about any type of fruit, from peaches to berries.
23. Or turn overripe fruit into Popsicles!
Juice or purée the fruit and pour it into Popsicle molds for a refreshing summer treat. No mold? Use an ice cube tray instead, then add the flavorful ice to lemonade or cocktails.
24. Throw imperfect vegetables into the food processor.
"We can take non-marketable food in quantity and use volunteers to help get that food into a condition to make beautiful vegetable salads," Halloran says. "Yesterday on our line we had a shredded carrot, turnip, fennel, and kale salad. We ran everything through the [food processor] … the cook made a nice mustardy vinaigrette and everybody loved it. If everybody had a good, easy-to-use food processor at home they could take advantage of less-than-lovely vegetables more often."
25. Use bruised apples for applesauce.
Kitchn's Associate Food Editor Kelli Foster says older apples that aren't great on their own are actually the perfect pick for applesauce, since the fruit gets cooked down so much. Then, do as Mangini does and use the applesauce in breakfast cookies.
26. Re-grow the produce from its bulb.
27. And if you can't repurpose it, dispose of it responsibly.
"If really, truly our produce is too far gone for us to repurpose, we feed it to our pigs!" Farrar says. "Pigs are natural foragers, and they have been fed food waste since they have been domesticated by humans. A bucket of compost brings a lot of joy to our pigs. If you don't have pigs, the next best thing is composting!"