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Here Are the Best Ways to Reheat All of Your Leftovers

Hint: Don't use the microwave.

David Watsky Senior Editor / Home and Kitchen
David lives in Brooklyn where he's spent more than a decade covering all things edible, including meal kit services, food subscriptions, kitchen tools and cooking tips. Before, during and after earning his BA from Northeastern, he toiled in nearly every aspect of the food business, including as a line cook in Rhode Island where he once made a steak sandwich for Lamar Odom. Right now he's likely somewhere stress-testing a blender or the best way to cook bacon. Anything with sesame is his all-time favorite food this week.
Expertise Kitchen tools | Appliances | Food science | Subscriptions | Meal kits
David Watsky
5 min read
spread of chinese takeout dishes

Different types of leftover foods benefit from different methods of reheating.

Getty Images

Leftovers might not be for everyone, but I love to have an extra serving from last night's delicious dinner for lunch the following day. Whether I cooked or ordered the food, leftovers feel like a free meal.

Reheating leftovers correctly to get the best taste is critical to enjoying them. First off, forget the microwave; there are much better ways of reheating your chicken, pizza, stir fry or even fried foods without nuking them into a rubbery mess. 

Read more: Making a Whole Chicken in the Air Fryer Is the Best Cooking Hack I've Found all Year

Whatever you do, don't toss those leftovers. They may never achieve full first-time glory, but with the proper protocol, you can reheat food so it tastes similar to fresh. 

If you're looking for the best way to reheat Chinese food, braised beef or deep-dish pizza, here's what you need to do. These are the best methods for reheating leftovers so they taste like they did the first time, every time. 

Microwaves are bad at reheating most kinds of food

The microwave is the appliance most commonly employed to reheat leftovers and it may be the fastest, but I'd also contend that it's the worst. Mostly anything that comes out of the microwave is almost certainly going to have a degree of rubberiness, dryness or mushiness that it didn't have when it went in.

microwaves in a pile

Move away from the microwave and toward better leftovers.

Molly Price/CNET

"It's so much faster!" you say, but is it? Most of the methods outlined below take less than two or three minutes. Plus, microwaves are prone to messy explosions. If you have to clean your microwave after reheating food, it's not a time-saver. 

The air fryer cooks almost as fast as a microwave and, in my opinion, much better. Adding an air fryer to your kitchen may feel like an upfront cost, but these budget-friendly super convection ovens are the best first step towards better leftovers. Plus, they'll save money on your energy bill over time

Is there any food you should reheat in the microwave?

poached egg on plate.

The microwave is a great place to poach an egg, if you do it carefully. 

David Watsky/CNET

Although most dense foods shrivel up or dry out in a microwave, some softer foods handle the microwave heat better. Items such as soup (covered), sauce, plain rice or mashed potatoes won't lose too much oomph if you nuke them. The microwave is also a great place to quickly soften butter or make popcorn, or to warm up water, baby formula and other liquids. It's even one of my favorite ways to poach an egg, so the microwave is by no means a useless appliance.

Noodles, pasta and rice dishes

Best way to reheat: Nonstick skillet

This wide-ranging category of classic takeout includes Italian pasta dishes; Indian curries with rice; Thai, Vietnamese and Korean noodles; and Chinese stir-fries. We're talking about any dish featuring starch such as rice or noodles with diced vegetables, meat or plant-based protein and a sauce. The one thing they all have in common is that they're best reheated in a nonstick skillet or wok. 

stir fry in skillet

A quick spin in a nonstick skillet is the best way to reheat pasta, noodles and rice dishes. 

Kilito Chan/Getty

While you can probably get away with nuking simple fried rice, a microwave tends to overcook pasta and noodles and will likely turn your chicken, shrimp or sliced beef into rubber. Instead, just throw it all in a nonstick skillet on medium heat. Toss intermittently and in a few minutes, you'll have something nearly as good as when it first showed up at your table or door the night before. Nonstick pans typically take all of 15 seconds to rinse clean. 

For rice dishes, consider a stainless-steel, carbon-steel or cast-iron skillet to get crispy rice.

Pizza and flatbread

Best way to reheat: Air fryer

There are a handful of reasons I love my air fryer, but none more notable than for reheating leftovers. Microwaves destroy pizza, so let's cross that one off. A toaster and convection oven does better, but still takes too long to heat through and ends up drying the pizza out by the time it's heated.

cold pizza slice

Why so sad, cold pizza?

David Watsky/CNET

The quick blast of an air fryer's superconvection will reheat your pizza to crispy perfection in about two minutes at 400 degrees F, depending on how large and thick it is. Be sure to use the basket or grate or else the hot, flat bottom of the air fryer basket could burn the bottom of your slice. I won't heat leftover pizza any other way. If you didn't have enough reasons to spring for one, air fryers use way less energy than a big oven.

reheated pizza in front of air fryer

Two minutes in the air fryer. Now, that's more like it.

David Watsky/CNET

Fried chicken, french fries and other fried food

Best way to reheat: Air fryer

Leftover fried foods have historically been one of the most difficult to bring back to life. Enter the air fryer, which can revive fried chicken, fried dumplings, mozzarella sticks and even french fries like nothing else in the kitchen. Similar to pizza, it'll take only a few minutes to heat through and you should have a crispy outer shell just like when the fried food was initially cooked. 

For thicker pieces of chicken, use a lower temperature of around 325 to 350 degrees F for three minutes or so to ensure you don't burn the outside before the center has time to warm through.

french fries on plate

If you thought it was impossible to revive leftover fried foods such as chicken and crinkle fries, think again.

Ry Crist/CNET

Side note: Beyond reheating fried chicken, a good air fryer also makes delicious "fried" chicken and other foods with far less oil than traditional methods.

Steak, pork chops, burgers and grilled chicken

Best way to reheat: Cast-iron or nonstick skillet

Cuts of meat, including steak and pork chops, are another food that can be tough to resuscitate. Fear not, because there is a way. While reheating grilled steak or fish in an air fryer or oven isn't impossible, you're likely to dry the meat out. Instead, I suggest re-searing it quickly in a covered hot cast-iron skillet or nonstick pan for no more than a minute on each side. The hot surface of the skillet should give life back to the crust. Keeping it covered will help warm it through before the pan heat has time to overcook it. For delicate fish, you might want to use a nonstick skillet to keep the flesh from sticking or falling apart.

pork chop in cast iron pan

Often, the way food was cooked is also the best way to reheat it. For steaks, pork and burgers, be sure to cover the skillet so the meat heats through faster.

David Watsky/CNET

Fair warning: These types of reheated foods will never be quite as good as when you first pulled them from the grill, pan or plancha, but this method should leave them more than edible. 

Braised, roasted or slow-cooked meat

braised beef in skillet

A covered skillet with a splash of stock is the best way to reheat leftover braised food.


Best way to reheat: Covered skillet with a splash of liquid

Braised dishes such as chicken in wine sauce or short ribs should be reheated in a way that mimics how they were cooked. Just heat them gently for a few minutes in a covered nonstick or stainless steel pan with an ounce or two of water or chicken stock. The hot liquid will warm and revive the braised or slow-roasted meat, giving it back its juicy tenderness. 

For more tasty tips, see how to find cheap wine at the grocery store and how to cook a perfect whole chicken in the air fryer.