How to compost

Scavenger-proof containers make it easier to compost cooked foods.

Most general composting guidelines recommend against composting cooked foods. This may seem a little confusing – if something rots, it should be able to be composted, right? And it’s true, there are people out there composting anything and everything, from cooked foods to animal carcasses to “humanure.”

However, some items – including cooked foods – shouldn’t be composted unless you’re quite experienced. Cooked scraps, plate scrapings, meats, fats, and dairy present challenges that many “casual composters” won’t be prepared to handle, since these foods can:

  • Smell Bad: Meats, fats, and dairy in particular can give off putrid odors as they break down. Plant scraps, on the other hand, tend not to cause as much of a stink.
  • Attract Pests: Rats, bees, biting flies, bears, and other pesky scavengers are attracted to the smell, which can lead to a whole new set of problems!
  • Turn to Mush: Cooked foods easily putrefy and turn mushy and gross, which is not only unpleasant but interferes with proper aeration of the pile.
  • Go Anaerobic: Decomposing meats can produce anaerobic bacteria, which is the archenemy of a normal, aerobic compost pile. These bacteria can interfere with the composting process and cause problems with odors and acidity.
  • Need High Heat: In order to kill harmful bacteria and break down proteins and fats, your compost pile needs to heat up properly, which requires attention and maintenance.

If you’re in the habit of simply tossing stuff into a compost pile to see what happens, you’re better off avoiding cooked foods. However, if you’re an experienced composter, go ahead and give it a try – if it’s made of (or comes from) living things, it’s possible to compost it if you keep the following in mind.

How to Compost Cooked Foods

  • Cooked Vegetables: The “no cooked foods” rule is a general guideline because many of us add fat, butter, or meat products to our cooked veggies. Pure steamed veggies – with no oils or sauces – should compost just fine, especially if they’re well mixed into the pile. Don’t forget the cooking liquid, too!
  • Cooked Starches and Grains: If you’re composting cooked veggies with no problem, consider adding cooked rice, pasta, and bread to the pile. Some gardeners believe that these foods attract scavengers more readily than their uncooked counterparts, but every yard is different.
  • Meats, Fats, Oils, and Dairy: If you are successfully composting other cooked foods in a hot, well-aerated compost pile, you’re ready to give meat a try! Be sure to pre-cook raw meat scraps to kill salmonella and other dangerous bacteria. For best results, chop or puree meat scraps to help them mix in and break down.
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Tips for Successful Composting

Composting cooked foods requires that you be a little more attentive to your compost pile. To keep it scavenger-free and to make sure it’s hot enough to kill disease pathogens, follow these tips:

  • Keep It Hot: Use a thermometer to make sure your pile reaches at least 140°-160° F for a week or more. Turn your compost regularly to keep the temperature up.
  • Bury It: Cover cooked foods with a few shovelfuls of dirt, leaves, or sawdust in your compost pile to keep smells down and discourage pests.
  • Enclose It: If scavengers are a problem, use a critter-proof enclosed system such as a tumbling composter or wormery.
  • Go Anaerobic: Anaerobic fermenting systems, such as Bokashi bins, use special bacteria in an airtight container. These types of composting systems can quickly and effectively break down meat and dairy scraps, although the resulting compost is more acidic than regular (aerobic) compost.

Further Information

The Container

compost-container.jpgBasically, you can use one of many different types of composters. You can make your own box out of 2×4 pieces, you can create one with a standard garbage can with a lid (all you have to do is drill some holes in it), or you can buy a pre-made composter. You can even just throw it all in a big pile!

Where to Put It

where-to-put-compost-pile.jpgWhoever said that compost attracts vermin is wrong. If you do it right, it doesn’t smell, nor does it attract pests. So don’t worry about that. Put it somewhere that you can get to all year long. If you want it in the back corner of your yard, go ahead. Make sure that the spot you pick gets around six hours of sunlight a day.

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What Goes In

what-goes-in-compost.jpgHere’s the part that makes the magic: you have to get the ratio right. You want to have about 50-50 green to brown ingredients go into the pile. Start off with some mature compost as a starter, or soil if you don’t have compost, and add in equal parts “green” and equal parts “brown.” You might need to add some water. To compost correctly, you have to get the ratio of ingredients just right.

Green Items

Green items include pretty much all fresh organic waste. This means grass clippings, vegetable or fruit kitchen scraps, flowers or weeds you pull from your garden, chicken, horse, or rabbit manure (as well as bedding), table scraps, and coffee grounds. You can also add water, plants, and algae from fresh-water aquariums. These all produce nitrogen when they break down.

Brown Items

Brown items produce carbon when they break down. These include:

  • Paper scraps (shred them to allow them to break down faster)
  • Corn cobs or stalks
  • Dryer lint from cotton or otherwise natural fibers
  • Sawdust
  • Wood chips and wood ash (only use small amounts)
  • Straw, dry leaves and pine needles (use only small amounts)
  • Shrub prunings
  • Old potting soil
  • Hair and fingernail clippings

Neutral Items

You can also compost egg shells, of course. Crush these for the best results. They are neutral when they break down.

What Not To Compost

what-not-to-compost.jpgYes, there are rules about what you can’t put into your compost bin or pile. Basically, don’t put any animal products in there (bone, meat, or fat). Other things to keep out include:

  • Oily food scraps
  • Butter, fat, or grease of any kind
  • Carnivorous pet feces
  • Used cat litter
  • Plastic or metal
  • Dairy products
  • Weeds with seeds
  • Plants with diseases.

How To Compost

how-to-compost.jpgThe best way to go about creating a great compost pile is to do it in layers. Mix your brown and green stuff together and put it in. After you have about a foot thick of that mixture, add an inch or so of soil or compost. Moisten as needed; keep your pile damp but not soggy. If you make it too wet, it will get stinky. Moisten your compost, but not so much that it gets stinky!

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Let all of that sit for a few days and check the temperature. When it’s hot, you’ll turn the pile using a shovel or pitchfork (or roll it if it’s that type of composter). Air is the final ingredient needed for the perfect compost recipe. Turn the pile every time it gets to around 160 degrees F. This method, of course, requires that you have all of your ingredients all ready to go at once, but it will only take you about three weeks to have usable compost. If you prefer the slower, less-work method, you can do that too!

Slow Method

If you want to have an ongoing compost bin that you can just throw your scraps into, you can do that, too. It will take a lot longer to make compost (up to a year) but it requires far less work. When the bin is full, or half-full, turn it and let it sit until it reaches 160 degrees F. Follow the instructions as above for turning.

If you have two or three composters, you can have them all at different stages. Fill one up and start the process going to create the compost and start a new bin for new scraps. Once you have compost ready from your first bin, transfer some into the second bin to help as a starter and put the rest into your garden or sprinkle on your lawn. You can even give it away or sell it — any gardener worth their salt would love to get their hands on some compost!

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