From rubbery chicken to soggy paninis, reheated food never seems to taste as good the next day. But your leftovers don't need to be a total loss.
Often, the problem is your reheating strategy — and with a few tiny tweaks, you can still savor your second-day scraps like they're hot off the stove.
We consulted with NYC-based chef and registered dietitian Abbie Gellman, RD, to learn the top tricks and tips for reheating your favorite foods to retain their first-day freshness.
How to Reheat Leftovers Safely
"Generally, the rule of thumb is to reheat leftovers how you originally made them," Gellman tells LIVESTRONG.com. In other words, warming up roasted chicken in the oven or soup on the stovetop is the best way to retain your food's original flavor and texture.
But when you don't have the time or the means to reheat using the same cooking method, say on your lunchbreak at work, you'll likely lean on the microwave.
"The microwave is usually fine for reheating soup, stew and braised foods," Gellman says. Just be sure to distribute your food evenly on a microwave-safe plate and cover it with a vented lid or damp paper towel. The steam will keep your food moist, ensure it's cooked thoroughly and help kill any harmful bacteria, per the USDA.
Since some microwaves have hot spots, so use a food thermometer to check your food's temperature in several places to ensure uniform cooking. You'll know your leftovers are ready to serve when they reach 165 degrees.
What about frozen food scraps? If you forgot to defrost your leftovers, you can still reheat them directly from the freezer without thawing, per the USDA. Keep in mind, though, that frozen foods will take longer to rewarm.
Lastly, Gellman says that some foods (think: egg-based dishes like frittatas) don't hold up well the day after, so you should serve and enjoy them straight from the stove or oven.
1. How to Reheat Meat
For the best quality and taste, Gellman suggests sticking with the same method to reheat chicken and other meats that you used to cook them in the first place, i.e. in the oven or on the stovetop.
But when you're short on time, reheating meat in the microwave is a viable option. Just add a little liquid and cover your meat when rewarming to retain moisture. Additionally, slicing up a larger piece of meat into smaller cuts will help it heat up evenly.
2. How to Reheat Fish
Fish is a fickle leftover. Depending on how it was originally prepared, its texture can easily turn soggy or dry when reheated. This is especially true when you try to nuke seafood in the microwave.
Since turntables in microwaves are notorious for hot spots, you'll likely overcook fish this way (not to mention leave a lasting fishy odor).
To preserve your fish's freshness and flavor (and save your kitchen from stubborn unsavory smells), Gellman recommends reheating on the stovetop or in a toaster oven. The toaster oven technique makes breaded and fried fish particularly palatable since it helps keep the crisp factor of the initial dish in play.
Either way, keep the heat low and slowly warm the fish until just heated through to prevent drying.
3. How to Reheat Soups, Sauces and Gravies
Reheating sauces, soups and gravies is a cinch. Simply bring them to a rolling boil on the stovetop, per the USDA. Alternatively, liquid foods also fair well in the microwave, Gellman says.
Transfer your soup or sauce into a large microwave-safe container with room at the top (bear in mind, liquids can boil over and make a mess), then cover it with a lid, plastic wrap or a damp paper towel, careful to leave a small opening to vent steam.
Stir every few seconds to ensure uniform heating until the center of the liquid reaches 165 degrees.
4. How to Reheat Pasta
When it comes to reheating leftovers, pasta can be tricky. Your perfect al dente dish can quickly turn into a side of sad, soggy spaghetti, or, conversely, a less-than-pleasing plate of crunchy campanelle.
The key to successfully warming up pasta is technique. For starters, add a little liquid to your pasta to keep it from drying out. A good rule of thumb: The liquid should match the base of (or at least complement) your original sauce.
Use water for pasta tossed with tomato sauce (or undressed noodles), milk or cream for cream-based pasta dishes like fettucine alfredo and plant-based oils for vegan varieties like cashew nut sauce.
Then spread out your noodles evenly on a microwave-safe dish, top with a vented lid, plastic wrap or a damp paper towel and stir frequently while reheating.
While Gellman says the microwave is also sufficient for rewarming pasta-based casserole dishes like baked ziti, the oven may be the optimal option for evenly reheating heartier, heavier foods like multi-layered lasagna.
In this case, top your lasagna with a little sauce to retain moisture, cover with aluminum foil and bake from 350 to 400 degrees for 20 to 40 minutes (depending on the serving size).
5. How to Reheat Vegetables
If your veggies were originally boiled, steamed or sautéed, zapping them in the microwave is a practical and convenient reheating method, Gellman says. Indeed, any veg that does not need to stay crunchy (like a baked potato) can be nuked.
Conversely, if you're reheating a roasted vegetable and you want to preserve its crispiness, then the oven or toaster oven — on a low temperature setting (350 degrees tops) — is your best bet.
6. How to Reheat Rice and Other Grains
The main issue with reheating grains in the microwave is dryness. To ensure your plump, fluffy rice doesn't devolve into a dish of dried out, hard, crunchy grains, add a splash of water and cover with a damp paper towel to bring back some moisture.
Also, make sure to spread your rice in an even layer on your plate to help it heat evenly.
7. How to Reheat Fried and Breaded Foods
Ever attempted to reheat onion rings or egg rolls only to find the once crispy morsels in a mound of mush? From chicken tenders to french fries, breaded and fried foods (or any food that you want to stay crunchy) may pose a reheating challenge, Gellman says.
These types of bites do best in the dry heat of an oven or toaster oven where they can re-crisp. Same goes for pizza, panini, sandwiches, crusty bread or baked goods — basically anything with bread that runs the risk of going soggy, Gellman says.
To prevent your breaded and fried food from drying out, cover it with foil and warm on a low temperature setting (350 degrees max).