Ask Casual Kitchen: What To Do With Excess Ingredients

Readers! As Casual Kitchen's readership continues to grow, I've been receiving more and more great questions via email, comments and Twitter. As always, I welcome your feedback, so please let me know what you think!
Regarding your Vegan Potato Peanut Curry recipe: In my local stores, you have to buy a gallon (not literally, but way more than 2 TBS) of tahini. What do you do with the rest? I would end up tossing it, so wouldn't that raise the per-serving cost?

I would appreciate a reply via e-mail. You see, I am interested in the answer & I found this recipe post in a "greatest hits" post so it is not very probable that I would find this post again to look for the answers. Thanks.

Let me first say if I succeed in reaching my goal of doubling Casual Kitchen's readership in 2011, I'm going to have a problem satisfying readers like this who expect privately emailed replies to their questions. :)

However, CK's fundamental purpose is to help readers, so I'll tackle this question in two ways: first regarding tahini specifically, and later by tackling a broader and more important question that lies behind the narrow discussion of tahini.

But back to tahini, and where to get it in smaller and more affordable sizes. First, consider looking outside your regular grocery store. Depending on the size of your community, you should be able to find a health or organic food store, a Trader Joe's or a Whole Foods store--all of which should carry tahini in a range of sizes.

Better yet, visit the various ethnic or middle eastern food stores in your community. There, you should be able to find tahini in smaller sizes--and at laughably cheaper prices. As we've discussed elsewhere here at CK, the standard food retailer usually considers tahini to be an aspirational good, which means that unless you look beyond these standard retailers, you will needlessly overpay.

Finally, tahini keeps for a long time. I mean a LONG time. Do not just toss the rest. Our current 400 gram jar expires in two years, and I fully expect to ignore that expiration date for another 6-12 months afterward. PS: If you're looking for other recipes using tahini, CK ran a post of seventeen amazing hummus recipes that I guarantee will meet all the tahini needs you'll ever have.

But this brings to mind a bigger and broader question that many home cooks regularly face: what do you do with expensive leftover ingredients that are sold in quantities far in excess of your needs for a specific recipe? Four thoughts:

1) Before shelling out for an expensive ingredient, read my post How To Tell If A Recipe Is Worth Cooking With Five Easy Questions. Maybe you shouldn't make the recipe in the first place. If a recipe has an obscure, expensive or hard-to-find ingredient, use that as a decision factor.

2) If you still really want to make that recipe, then look for three or four other recipes that use that same ingredient. Cook them over the following days or weeks. Again, use my Five Easy Questions test to help you make a selection.

3) Scale up those recipes to consume still more of the excess ingredient. Many recipes are incredibly scalable, thus making a double or triple batch involves minimal incremental work. This is one of the key tools CK readers can use to cook far more efficiently. If you find a good recipe that's highly scalable, be sure to keep it in your cooking rotation.

4) Last, many ingredients last far longer than the expiration date says they last. Don't just pitch the rest out, assuming you won't use it. For more on this, see my post When Do You Throw Out Food--and be sure to read that post's incredibly useful reader comments too.

Readers what other thoughts would you add?

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Sally said...

I would either not make the recipe or make it without that ingredient. Will it taste different? Yes, but that doesn't mean it would be inedible or less tasty. Just different.

Angie said...

Amazon's another good place to look for relatively obscure ingredients, if you don't mind planning ahead a little.

Also, this might not work in the case of tahini, but sometimes you can find a less obscure / less expensive / more useful ingredient to sub in-- try Googling around. It may not taste *exactly* the same, but it's usually close enough.

Diane said...

Tahini is a hard ingredient, but I agree it lasts for ages. Aside from hummus, which is what I mainly use mine for, it can be used to make a tahini/lemon dressing for salads or roasted vegies, or falaffel.

Julia said...

All great suggestions! I'd like to add two more to the mix..

I'm a big fan of freezing leftovers. If I open a can of coconut milk and only use half, I'll throw the rest in the freezer. Not everything freezes perfectly, but it's better than the alternative.

Also, to Sally and Angie's point, leaving out an ingredient is fine, but there can be creative substitutions -- like sesame oil or sesame seeds (I grind them in my coffee grinder). Not an exact match but better than omitting the flavor altogether.

Lo said...

Another trick to remember is that some ingredients can be stored in ways that will make them last longer. Can it be frozen? Canned? Combined with other ingredients that would make it more useful to you in your everyday cooking?

Also keep in mind that you're not in this alone! Why not split a container of tahini with your foodie friends?

Anonymous said...

I use it as a total excuse to find new recipes that use that ingredient, or to find ways to add it to things I already make. I like tahini in smoothies in the morning -- a little protein/fat so I'm not so ravenous later and not as overwhelming a flavor as peanut butter.

Joanne said...

So, perhaps it's the psychotic crazy person in me, but I would just make the tahini myself! It's basically just pureed sesame seeds mixed with a bit of sesame oil. And I bet you could even use olive oil or vegetable oil or whatever you have on hand. i'm all for making my own versions of things in smaller quantities if I'm not sure how or when I'm going to use them up!

Martha said...

I would use it in a big batch of granola! Just melt it with the liquids and omit any oil! Yummm!

I hate to throw out food.

Daniel said...

These are great, and really creative insights so far. Keep 'em coming!

Love the idea of sharing with friends or neighbors, that's a particularly good idea.

And I totally forgot our most obvious solution specifically for using up extra tahini: we use it "straight" as a simple dip or a spread for veggies. Delicious.


Matt @ Spoonmatters said...

This dilemma also pops up with spices. I used to follow recipes religiously, purchasing spices and sauces I did not stock, only to use them once and discard the rest a year later. Now I am more apt to leave out unusual ingredients (heck, I'm a picky eater anyway, so I may not miss that one unfamiliar flavor).

Worst case, I cook a dish that isn't quite as flavorful as expected, but it's still quite edible and satisfying nonetheless.

heron said...

Tahini keeps pretty much forever in the freezer. When I have a new jar of tahini, I mix it up thoroughly to combine the oil with the rest of the stuff. Then I transfer it into smallish containers and freeze it. The advantage to freezing is that the oil does not separate out again. And I have no qualms about thawing out a container of tahini, using what I need, and tossing the rest back into the freezer.

heron said...

Oh, and as for using up tahini - I have in the past made sesame cookies with tahini. They were delicious.

Barbara | VinoLuciStyle said...

I'll often revise a recipe if the prospect of finding an ingredient will take a half day search involving driving (time), gasoline (money, environment) and expense (there's that money thing again!). There are so many things I want to make...unless I'm entertaining the President...I don't usually go to that effort for one dish!

What I love about a local spice shop is that they will sell spices in small packets; so if I need an exotic spice I don't have to buy a full jar and can almost purchase according to the needs of a single recipe.

I do freeze a lot of foods and have found that the purchase of a vacuum packaging machine has more than paid for itself as foods keep much longer when I use it.

And then...there is the occasional dish where I pull stuff out of fridge whose time has come and make a dinner with those ingredients. Let's just say we have had some very unique quiches in this house!

Laura said...

I don't often use tahini, but I used to run into this problem with fresh cilantro (until I learned to puree it with onion and freeze it into cubes, since 99% of the time I use cilantro it's in a recipe with onions anyway). I followed tip #2 a lot: when you make something with an obscure ingredient, make all your dishes that week with the same ingredient until you use it up. There are a LOT of very different recipes with cilantro (and tahini!), so it won't be like eating leftovers.

For substitutions, I love - makes it really easy.