Microwaves have become a mainstay in most kitchens, but they're really only good for a few tasks. Popcorn comes to mind, as does reheating tea that's no longer hot, or quickly softening butter for baking.
The microwave built its reputation on speed-heating and cooking, but it gives up a whole lot in the way of results. I'd argue there are much better ways to reheat almost every type of food, be it chicken, pasta, rice, pizza and even fried foods. If you like your wings crispy, your meat tender and your pad thai with some bounce, you might consider removing that next prepared meal or last night's dinner from the microwave and try these superior ways to reheat leftovers.
For more on microwaves, we sussed out why pasta sauce always explodes in the microwave and outlined the five things you should never put inside one.
Microwaves are just bad at reheating food
The microwave is the appliance most commonly employed to reheat leftovers, but I'd also contend that it's the worst. Aside from foods like soup, plain rice or mashed potatoes, anything that comes out of the microwave is almost certainly going to have a degree of rubberiness that it didn't have when it went in.
"But it's so much faster!" you say. Is it though? 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 definitely 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 superconvection ovens are the best, first step towards better leftovers. Plus, they'll save money on your energy bill over time.
Food type: Noodles, pasta and rice dishes
Best method: Nonstick skillet
This wide-ranging category of classic takeout cuisines includes Italian pasta dishes, Indian curries with rice, Thai, Vietnamese and Korean noodles and Chinese stir-fries. Really we're talking about any dish featuring a starch like rice or noodles with diced vegetables, protein and a sauce. The one thing they all have in common is that they're best reheated in a nonstick skillet or wok.
A microwave tends to overcook pasta and noodles and will likely turn your chicken, shrimp or sliced beef into rubber. Instead, just throw the whole thing 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. And 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.
Food type: Pizza and flatbread
Best method: Air fryer
There are a handful of reasons I love my air fryer, but none more notable than for reheating leftovers. Microwaves absolutely destroy pizza, so let's cross that one off. Even toaster ovens take far too long, in my experience, and end up drying the pizza out by the time it's heated through.
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 personally won't heat leftover pizza any other way, and I suggest you don't either. And if you didn't have enough reasons to spring for one, air fryers use way less energy than a big oven.
Food type: Fried chicken, french fries and other fried food
Best method: 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 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.
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.
Food type: Steak, pork chops, burgers and grilled chicken
Best method: Cast-iron 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 for no more than one 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.
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.
Food type: Braised, roasted or slow-cooked meat
Best method: Covered skillet with cooking liquid broth
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.
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