Can You Compost Burnt Food?

So you were trying to impress your significant other with your cooking skills and may have ended up burning it to a crisp. Now you are panicking over the fact it smells like burnt food and what to do with it. The thought of tossing it into your compost bins crosses your mind, and you’re not sure if you should.

Well, you came to the right place! Let’s skip over the embarrassment of the fact you just burnt your food (because I am pretty positive you have already had all of the teasings you can handle about burning your food) and get right into whether you should compost it.

Basically, there are mixed answers on whether you should compost burnt food. It really depends on how it was cooked. For example, if you burnt it on a charcoal grill, you shouldn’t compost it.

However, it should be okay if you burnt it over a wood heat source. Anything you burn anywhere else, the jury is still out on that one. To be on the safe side, I’d toss it in the trash instead of the compost!

To mansplain this just a bit, burnt food or ashes should not contain any nitrogen. The lack of nitrogen will not burn the plants and can actually be really helpful in adding nutrients to the soil. If you were to burn something over charcoal, it might have chemical residue on the material, which may be harmful to plants.

Why Can’t You Put Cooked Food In Compost?

This is a bit of a grey area in the world of composting. It all depends on who you talk to. Researchers and experts are going to say do not compost cooked food; compost gurus are going to say it depends on what it is, and it might be okay.

Let’s start with why they say you shouldn’t. Cooked food requires a specific composting method that isn’t very well known. It can also attract pests such as bees, flies, rats, etc.

Cooked foods become odorous when they begin to compost, which is the cause of the pest attraction. Once pests learn the location of rotting food, they begin to frequent the area. If they can gain access to the composting bin, they begin to destroy the piles defeating the purpose of you even trying.

Foods like meats, dairy, and fats emit a putrid odor when they begin to break down. Plant scraps such as vegetables or corn stalks do not give off as much of an odor, but it still holds a smell that attracts pests to the compost piles.

Now, since all we have talked about is what they say you shouldn’t do, let’s jump into the grey areas of the answers. Non-researchers say it just depends on how the food is cooked. They aren’t too gung-ho about composting meat or dairy products, but that’s the big thing.

They fully support composting cooked vegetables, bread, beans, pasta, rice, eggs, freezer-burnt foods, etc. A few even say it’s also okay to compost sauces, soups, and casseroles. But I’ll let you decide since it’s your backyard.

What Food Scraps Should Not Be Composted?

Fish Scraps

So, there are a few materials that everyone suggests that are only composted in small amounts, like onion scraps, citrus peels, stale bread, or egg shells. However, just about all compost gurus agree on this list of things not to be composted.

1. Fish and Meat Scraps

If you have ever had the unpleasant task of throwing away old meat or seafood, you will understand rotting meat’s toe-curling, fetid smell. The smell is absolutely repulsive to us, but those smells actually are the scents of dinner to many wild critters such as raccoons, rats, skunks, and flies.

Even if you have a closed compost bin, avoid the consequences of putting meat, fish, or bones in your compost bin.

2. Dairy, Oils, Fats

As I am sure you have guessed by this point, dairy, oils, and fats are a no-no for the same reason that meats are a no-go. It’s the smell of them composting and the unwanted visitors it invites for a backyard get-together. This includes but is not limited to cheese, butter, avocado oil, sour cream, and yogurts.

If you have ever been a parent or caring for a little one who still drinks bottles, you may have experienced the pain of dealing with a spoiled milk bottle.. It tends to happen when they ‘accidentally’ drop it in the car, and it rolls into no-mans land. Then, the science experiment you didn’t know you were creating puts its smell with a vengeance, and you start to understand the smell of rotting milk..

3. Wood or Plants Treated with Pesticides or Preservatives

I have a sneaking suspicion this one makes sense without me mansplaining in.. Basically, you don’t want any chemicals returning to the soil because that is where the plants absorb all of their nutrients. It’d be like you intentionally poisoning your own garden.

This also applies to any wood that has been painted, stained, varnished, or pressure treated.

4. Black Walnut Tree Debris

So, this one is an odd one. Black walnut roots, twigs, and leaves contain a natural substance called juglone that stunts plant growth. There are some plants that are a bit more sensitive to this guy, like peppers, tomatoes, or potatoes.

Now, researchers have found that if there is enough time and heat, the juglone breaks down enough to lose its toxicity. To be on the safe side, though, I suggest just leaving it out.

5. Insect-Infested or Diseased Plants

It takes a hot compost pile to kill insects and disease pathogens safely. We are talking about a compost pile that reaches and maintains a temperature of 141 – 145 degrees F for at least several days. Most of our home compost piles never reach these kinds of temperatures.

6. Weeds Gone to Seed

I feel like this one makes sense.. If you toss weeds that have gone to seed into the compost, you are doing all of the hard work for the weeds. It’s a guaranteed way for the weed to be spread all over your lawn or garden.

7. Charcoal Ash

As we mentioned before, charcoal ash is tough on plants. Coal and charcoal contain a lot of sulfur, which is too acidic for most plants. It also is often infused or coated with chemicals that are harmful to plants.

Odd Things You Can Compost

Since we have gone over the things that you really shouldn’t compost, let’s talk about those weird, random things you can compost. These are typically found around the house too!

  • Hair and fur
  • Aquarium plants
  • Dryer lint
  • Used paper napkins and paper towels
  • Cardboard and paper plates
  • Wooden chopsticks and toothpicks
  • Old spices and herbs
  • Home brewing wastes
  • Coffee grounds
  • Unpopped or burned popcorn