Zero waste baking: 10 tips for less trash
It’s baking season. Christmas in my family turns us into a small cookie factory, and usually we’re baking a great deal of cookies and baked goods that are only for this time of year. The reality is that I am a cookie person, and I was raised by two cookie people; try as I might to kick my sugar habit, baked goods pop up all year round.
Like with anything we do, baking can be made greener. The good news is that most necessities for conventional baking like all-purpose flour, sugar, eggs, milk, salt, and leaveners (yeast, baking soda) can be found package free (milk in returnable containers), in recyclable-paper based packaging (flour, sugar, eggs, salt, some leaveners) or recyclable glass (yeast). The fact that these products are accessible to us in a low waste way is a great head start. If you’re lucky enough to have a bulk store to buy by weight, you may also find things like cocoa powder, chocolate chips or powdered sugar package-free, but in my area of New York, those products can cost up to twice as much package free and simply aren’t a viable option if you’re on a budget and/or need a large quantity of these products.
Regardless of how your raw ingredients come packaged, there’s a lot to be done in the baking process to reduce our waste.
Use the oven intentionally
Ask yourself: on the hottest day in August, are you going to fire up your oven to bake cookies at 3 pm? Probably not; it’s too hot to use the oven. If you have air conditioning, heat from your oven battles the cool temperature you’re trying to maintain. If you don’t have air conditioning, the house might become more uncomfortably hot. In the morning, however, even on hot days it is typically cooler than later in the day. Consider baking early in the morning or late in the evening when the weather isn’t hot so that you can let the heat out and not waste energy making your air conditioning work harder.
Likewise, if it’s cold outside, don’t waste the heat from your hot oven. Once the oven is off, I always crack it so that the heat can escape and help warm the house. The energy used in our homes can be used consciously. For example, if starting a new recipe to bake at 350 degrees, I don’t turn the oven on first even though most recipes instruct me to do so; most newer ovens these days don’t take long to reach that temperature, so if you’re puzzling over a recipe, looking for ingredients, or chasing down your kids, the oven will be hot long before you’re ready. Wait to turn your oven on until you’re actually near ready to use it. On the subject, don’t waste a hot oven; if you have cast iron that you use regularly, take the opportunity to re-season your pans.
On to the topic of visible waste, there are some kitchen products (big surprise here) that we’ve been sold and that we don’t actually need-don’t even get me started on separate cleaning products for every surface of the kitchen. If you’ve ever made muffins or cupcakes, the recipe will tell you to “pre-heat the oven and grease two dozen cupcake liners”. As to the point of using a cupcake or muffin liner when you have to grease them anyway is beyond me. Instead, just grease your muffin pans; unless you’re an expert baker, you probably spill batter on the pans anyway and have to wash them after. Save some money and some paper resources by skipping the muffin tin liners.
Parchment paper is 100% reusable. Some of the brown, folded-to-shape parchment paper we baked cookies on when I was a child was probably as old as I was. Back then, the budget wasn’t roomy enough for reckless discarding of parchment paper. Even after a lot of use, parchment paper still makes baked goods easily removable from baking sheets. The paper gets very hot in the oven to keep it clean and you won’t have to cut pieces to size every time you bake.
It might be the zero waste in me, but I roll my eyes when I see recipes recommend lining a dish with aluminum foil before filling it with food. The aluminum foil rarely, if ever, remains unbroken after the food is removed from the pan, meaning your pan needs to be washed anyway. If you’re in the habit of using foil to line pans before cooking, it’s time to break the habit. Foil is recyclable in some places, but definitely not if it has baked on lasagna.
As for using foil to encourage browning on meat and discourage burning on pie crusts, I’ll have to first recommend you reconsider a vegetarian dish, which eliminates the need for foil to try and make animal skin crunchy because let’s be honest, vegetables are already crunchy on their own, sans foil. For pies, I’ve never had a pie crust go wrong due to avoiding foil. If you’re certain your pie crust will be ruined without foil, consider carefully cutting the foil and saving it for the next time you make a pie.
As with parchment paper, tinfoil is reusable. It breaks more easily than parchment paper, but it can be reused if folded, put away and kept clean, which also can increase the likelihood it’s recycled. And if you tend to send guests home with foil packets of leftovers or package them in foil for yourself, consider a container meant to be reused. My family eats sandwich meat from the grocery store that comes in plastic tubs like Tupperware; we clean and save these so that we can freely send food home with our visitors, and it also honors the resources that went into making such sturdy packaging.
Did you see this one coming? Vegans eat and bake, too and there are even accidentally vegan recipes all over that have lower environmental impact than buttery confections. For example, our old Betty Crocker has an accidentally vegan gingerbread recipe. The much loved Depression Era three-hole-wonder cake recipe from my grandmother is free of eggs, milk and butter while being totally delicious. I love the Minimalist Baker for vegan baked goods.
As for using vegan baking substitutes in baked goods, the success depends on the substitute, the recipe, and the position of Saturn. Lately, I find that vegan substitutes go perfectly in baked goods like muffins, but in the past I had much more success in scones, cookies, and more simply using swaps to make it vegan.
Bake from scratch
Now if you’re this far in, you can hardly be surprised I’m suggesting you bake from scratch. Baking from scratch means you don’t have to navigate packaged cookie dough, plastic tubs of frosting, cake mixes in plastic packets or worry about ingredients like palm oil sneaking into everything you buy. As an alternative to this, I personally think the jars of cookie/cake mixes you can find at some stores are a good second choice if you have need for the reusable glass jar the ingredients can be found in.
Like with material goods, taking care of baked goods properly prolongs their life. Rather than gallon ziplock bags, paper plates, and plastic wrap, try reusable storage for your baked goods. Many baking dishes have tops, and even if they don’t, once a containers has cooled you can cover with bees wax wrap or even a ceramic plate or platter that fits over top. Cookie tins and cake domes are also nice, air-tight containers to keep goods from going stale. Cookie tins can be found in almost any thrift store and while cake plates and domes aren’t as easy to find, I see cake carriers, that also close tightly and protect frosting, frequently at thrift stores. Storing properly can reduce use of disposable products and prolong the lives of baked goods.
Many good doughs, from breads to cookies, need to rest in the fridge. Leave them uncovered, they develop a crust. Use plastic wrap, and the zero waster in your life will develop a salty attitude. While your precious goods rest, consider covering the bowl with a dish towel, bees wax wrap, or a ceramic plate. If you really want to prevent using more electricity to cool your dough/keep it cool and it’s winter, try putting your dough in the garage or on the porch where it’s good and cold. If you’re from a cold part of the world, you’ve probably had to use the hostile winter weather as a fridge at some point or another anyway. Just be sure to put it in a place that pets or children won’t find the cookie dough and eat it.
If you like decorating cookies or writing names on cakes, this might be the perfect zero waste baking tip for you: reuse other bags for piping frosting. When I decorated gingerbread houses this year, I used old bread bags and the bag from the powdered sugar used in the frosting for piping the frosting, simply cutting off the corner to make a tip. Many plastic bags are not recyclable and most are difficult to reuse, so give life to one of these disposable products intended for the landfill.
Baking with fruit
Unless fruit is in season, choose preserved fruit for your baked goods. If a fruit, especially something delicate like berries or cherries, out of season in your area, it is probably traveling from far away and not gong to be nearly as good as the in-season version you would get locally. Try frozen or canned fruits for your pies and the like when baking. Cans have a slight advantage in this arena and is is greener the longer you have it around because canning and freezing have similar environmental impacts at the beginning, but the longer frozen fruit must be kept in the freezer, the more energy is needed to keep the food safe for consumption, while canned foods don’t need more resources to remain safe for consumption after they are initially preserved. Canned goods also support recyclable materials because steel from cans is highly recyclable, often recycled, and does not degrade over time as it is recycled like plastic. And if you’re baking a pie, use vegetable shortening for your crust instead of lard, because nobody wants to eat lard and the plant based option is greener.
So, happy baking! Be sure to lick the spoon because, hey, washing that down the drain isn’t very respectful of the resources in that brownie batter.