Frugal Friday: What Farm Grandmas and Chefs Do (And You Should To)

When I was in culinary school, we learned how to filet salmon. Even if you are amazingly good (and we weren’t), when you cut the filet off a whole fish there is a little layer of salmon left against the bones. My instructor showed us students how to use a spoon to scrape the carcass clean of the remaining flesh. The scraped off salmon was perfect for use in salmon cakes or chowder or seafood sausage.

One of the students, under his breath, complained about this extra step. He said something like, “This is ridiculous. Why not just use the filets we just cut?”

My normally very mild manner instructor swiveled towards him and reproved: “My restaurant made money!” It was the closest thing to yelling I’d ever seen from her, and I learned more about restaurant profitability in hearing that one line than I did in months of formal hospitality management and food costing classes.

Waste Not, Want Not.

Professional chefs know this, and so did old time farm grandmas. The grandmas running the farm kitchen never let anything go to waste because their ability to feed the family might come down to their creative frugality in the kitchen.

When your paycheck or next week’s hunger level depends on how efficiently you utilize your food, you do not waste. You re-make, you reuse, you reinvent. Leftovers become new specials, roasts become sandwiches, mashed potatoes become soup.

In a world of easy convenience foods, it’s easy to think the extra step, the step of thrift, is a waste of time. It’s not. It is the difference between a profitable kitchen and an unprofitable one, or if you are running a householders kitchen, between spending money and saving it (a different form of profitability) is that extra step, and often it doesn’t take much time at all.

Here’s a few things that chefs and grandmas know:

It Starts And Ends In The Kitchen – First things first – you gotta cook. This is a topic deserving of its own blog post (or several), so let me be cursory here: the whole productive house thing hinges upon a productive kitchen. Nothing else even comes close. Want to save money? Want to utilize your garden bonanza? Want to eat healthier? Want to have a say in the additives going into your body? Want to be a badass punk domestic radical homemaker? It all starts with knives and fire: you gotta cook.

Spatulas – when you think the container of mayo or olive oil or dijon is empty, you can usually eek out a few more servings with a cheap flexible spatula (I like silicone for its high-heat properties). I buy my olive oil in 2 liter plastic containers. When the bottle’s empty, I cut the bottom off the bottle with a serrated knife and scrape out the remaining oil. I can often get a quarter-cup of oil out of an “empty” container.

Bread – The ends of bread, or the stuff that gets too hard to eat with soup or make into a sandwich can become breadcrumbs, croutons, bread pudding and a million other things. Throwing away the ends of a loaf and buying breadcrumbs or boxed croutons which taste like cardboard is the height of silliness.

Stock #1 – More things can go into stock than you’d think. I save all the usual trimming in freezer bags until I’ve built up a good backlog for stock making: carrot peels, tomato ends, onion skins and parsley stems; bones from both raw and cooked chickens, fish, lamb and beef; shrimp and crab shells. I also love throwing rinds from hard cheeses like parmesan into a veg stock to give it more richness.

Remoulage (Stock #2) – A good first stock should have a nice thick layer of fat on top. If you refrigerate it should be so full of gelatin that it hardens like jello. Once you’ve extracted all the flavor from your bones and veggies trimmings and poured off a rich first stock, you can pour more cold water over the spent bones and make a second stock, called a remoulage by snooty chef types. A remoulage is a light bodied, pale stock that is good for cooking rice or using instead of water in your savory recipes. In this way you get double value out of your stock.

Inventory – Chefs know what is in their freezer and their pantry. Grandmas knew what was in the larder for winter. Keep a running list of what you buy (side of beef, three bags of chicken potstickers from Costco, whatever) and you’ll be able to take advantage of bulk pricing without losing half your purchases into the gullet of the freezer monster. Bonus points for dating and FIFOing your inventory.

Cooking Fats – My grandma had an old coffee can that she kept by the stove. She poured off the bacon fat into the coffee can and used it for cooking. If you cook with animal fats – lard, schmaltz, tallow, bacon drippings – you know that nothing else compares. That’s why I save the rendered fat when I roast a chicken or prime rib or leg of lamb. Let’s not even start praising duck fat, I’d be here all day. I use these rendered fats to saute veggies or eggs and the flavor is fantastic. You want to keep a negabuck-profitable kitchen? Get some use out of the fat from the animals you eat. It’ll cut down on the oil and butter you buy.

What tips do you have to keep your kitchen negabuck profitable and productive?

In honor of No Spend Month, every Friday in July I’m breaking out of my normal milieu of garden talk and musing on money topics. Since values-driven spending (or not spending) is a big part of what we’re all about here, I don’t think it’s that big of a stretch, do you?


  1. Pamina says

    Yes, all great ways to save. For stock, I also like to save celery tops and corn cobs … the corn cobs are especially good. And, to save on fish cost, I learned from my Japanese grandmother to buy the salmon bones (cheap) and simmer them in sake, soy, and mirin until all the meat came off the bones. Delicious served with rice!

  2. says

    Great post! I've had to teach my husband how to scrap a jar with a spatula. I kept finding jars in the sink that had several more uses left in them, by my standards. :)

  3. Anonymous says

    I ended up with almost 2 cups of sweet relish vinegar left after pickling, I didn't want to do another batch of relish so I chopped up 3 large cucumbers, sliced an onion and put in a couple of carrots from the garden. Instant refrigerator pickles. I also use the big stems from swiss chard as a substitute for celery, I grow it and rarely buy celery. Gayle

  4. says

    Salmon jowls have a LOT of meat in them! Use them. Bake or fry.. and/or can. It's a dark omega oil rich piece of the fish. When I can the meat, I add a drop or two of liquid smoke. Good for fish cakes or fritters, but also for chowder and gumbo, or for smoked fish dip… all from something most folks throw away.

    Bones…After butchering, or after baking a turkey or goose, etc… Throw the bones in the pressure cooker with some water and pick the bones clean. Shredded "beef" type result, or shredded "chicken" type – multiple uses for all. Again, can or freeze, including the marrow rich broth.

  5. says

    Such great ideas! I rarely cook, partly because by the time I come home from work I'm too tired. In the winter I'm more likely to make ahead casseroles but in summer I don't want to heat up the house so I tend to grab a sandwich or a bowl of cereal. Any suggestions for quick easy hot weather meals that can be made ahead?

  6. Anonymous says

    I cooked a crockpot of beans outside my back door (set up on a 3-step ladder). Then, I cleaned up an old microwave cart (tossed in the garage), and put it outside my back door. I put my roaster on it and baked a loaf of bread on parchment paper on the roasting rack. I hate using the indoor oven in the summer, and now I can cook outside and keep the HEAT outside. It saves on air conditioning.

    Thanks for the great post.


    • Barbara Macey says

      And, it starves your neighbors!
      If I make a chuck roast in the Nesco Roaster it is always outside on the screened porch because not being a meat eater I don’t like to smell up the house. With the Green Egg Monster I can cook everything outside–makes me a happy camper.
      By the way, we lost power for several days one winter; at the time we used an electric stove, now gas, anyway we were hungry the middle of the first of the 9 days of no power & I made coffee & pork chops on the gas grill. A neighbor said he had never felt so stupid as when he tracked us down; he immediately went home & cooked all day I think! You do need a camping (metal) coffee pot–we bought ours new at The Habitat for Humanity Store for $1.50. We still use it, & enjoy our gas stove, wood stove for heat, & good food. We have a crowd of neighbors when & if the power goes–they don’t like the mess the wood stove makes but sure enjoy the warmth.

  7. says

    Fantastic post! I'm amazed to learn how much olive oil you can get from scraping the "empty" bottle. I'm red-faced to say that I scrape condiment bottles all the time, but never thought to scrape the olive oil bottle!

    My latest strategy for avoiding waste has been freezing fruit. We've been freezing grapes when they're still fresh, and they've made for the most wonderful, refreshing snack this summer, and the grapes last ages longer. And I've been freezing bananas if they start to brown, and I've been able to use them in smoothies, breads, or just blending them up with some cocoa for chocolate banana ice cream. It's really cut down on my fruit loss!

    • sarah says

      the problem with freezing fruit is that it really just means we eat MORE fruit because it’s always around, and then buy even MORE fruit because hey, there’s room in the freezer :)

    • Catherine Carpio says

      We also love frozen grapes. I usually freeze a single layer in an aluminum cake pan, lay a sheet of sandwich paper over top and tell everyone there are tiny grape popsicles! Only had to make icecream once this summer. Even a few are so refreshing.

  8. Anonymous says

    I use my salmon trimmings for crab bait. A pound of salmon scraps is magically transformed into several pounds of Dungeness crab. A fair bargain.

  9. Karen says

    you can also throw your egg shells in your stock. i keep a jar in the freezer, and anytime i use eggs (pasture raised of course) i crush the shells down into the jar. when i make stock, i dump the jar into the stock pot. it adds calcium and other minerals.

  10. Carol Cannon says

    I get more great ideas from this site…… Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? I’m 61 years old, disabled living on a very limited income. I have been a frugal cook my whole life. I believe in the “COOK ONCE, EAT 3 (or 4) TIMES.” But for over 40 years I have been throwing out the ends of onions, celery, carrots, peppers… I learned from this site to throw them into a container in the freezer and when it’s full make veggie stock…. It’s awesome! Better than anything you can buy in the store. Being on a tight budget this has really helped. Right now I’m trying my hand at dehydrating veggies for stocking my pantry. Thanks guys for all the good info. {:0)

  11. greg says

    Never done the 2nd boiling of bones for stock but i make so much i seldom would need a batch of lighter stock just use same stock for rice, soup etc. I like 2 freeze 2 or 3 ice cube trays every time i make stock then put in ziplock for when u just need a tbl spoon or 2 of stock in the saute pan. Been making fruit scrap vinegar thanks to Sandor have had good luck with strawberry, pear, tomato, grape and my fav so far apple cider, i usualy have enough peals and cores to make gallons of the stuff if i wanted in the fall.also freeze zucchini water when i have a recipe to salt it first to get water out. So far just tossing it in stock or using instead of veg stock in saute pan. Its a very cool shade of green thoufh need to make a coctail or some kind of gelle with it i think

  12. Katie says

    A few years ago I had to get REALLY creative when it came to saving money. After some research I realized there was all sorts of stuff you could freeze! I ended up freezing fresh herbs by putting a teaspoon in each ice slot in an ice cube tray and filling with water until just covering the herbs. I also froze milk just before it spoiled (keeping an eye out for the clearance milk jugs at the store) by putting a tablespoon in each ice cube tray and transferring them into a labeled plastic bag in the freezer. They aren’t very good to drink but they’re great for baking and cooking! Also treating lettuce leaves like they were fresh cut flowers and putting them in a vase or cup of water keeps them fresh for twice as long. Just change the water out daily and use it to water your potted plants!

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