8 Tips for Reviving Leftovers

leftovers polenta and peas

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Some of my most popular search terms for the blog have been things like “how to reheat grits” and “what to do with leftover risotto.” I know some people absolutely despise leftovers, and others (my husband, for one) just completely forget that they exist.

I, on the other hand, come from a family where leftovers were eaten with relish. I recall mildly heated arguments about who got the last of the Thanksgiving turkey or the Easter cheesy potatoes, several days after the holiday itself. My sister has been known to eat cold pizza for breakfast. Dad always makes sure to save a slice of meatloaf for a sandwich the next day. As a result, I look forward to leftovers and don’t mind putting in the work to make a larger meal every once in a while, provided I can reap the benefits for several days in the form of leftovers.

The trouble is that leftovers often don’t taste quite the same the next day. In some cases this is a great thing. Lasagna melds; curries and chili get spicier; pasta salad absorbs dressing. In other cases, though, they become something else entirely. Polenta and grits firm up; risotto loses its creaminess; breads and baked goods begin to go stale. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

So, how do you deal with leftovers and revive them from the brink of inedibility? Often the best choice is to turn them into something else entirely–but that’s a topic for a different post. Here, I want to share my tips for reheating different types of food to help you get them close to their original state.

That said, the first step to great leftovers is storing them properly. (Click to skip to tips.) Baked goods like breads, cakes and most cookies are usually fine on the counter for a few days as long as they’re covered. Almost everything can go in a lidded plastic container or zip-top bag. Crusty bread does best in paper, though, if you want a crisp crust. The exception to this would be things that can melt, like chocolate-covered truffles, and things that need to be refrigerated like cheesecakes.

The fridge is fine for prepared food you’ll be eating in the next couple of days. Just portion it into reusable plastic or glass storage containers with lids. I recommend keeping sauces and other toppings separate from things like noodles and rice, to stop them from soaking it all up in the fridge. (Unless you’re making lasagna!)

For longer storage, the freezer is your best friend. If you’re the cook in a small household like I am, divide completed soups, stews, stir-fries and other dishes into single servings and freeze them in reusable plastic containers. Or, better yet, dish them into freezer-safe zip-top bags (quart-sized works great), seal and freeze flat. This makes it super easy to grab something for your lunch box or have a “choose your own” dinner night by shopping in your freezer!

The freezer is also a great place for snacks and meal components. Cut breads, cakes and other baked goods into serving-sized pieces and freeze in zip-top bags (this is great for that baguette that’s about to go stale, or that overly tempting pan of brownies). Portion out tablespoons of tomato paste, pesto and chiles in adobo sauce on a sheet of waxed or parchment paper, freeze until solid, and transfer to a bag or container. Wrap raw meats tightly in butcher’s or parchment paper and place inside a freezer bag for long-term storage.

Also, consider not making everything in advance. Delicate ingredients like seafood don’t reheat well, but it’s fast enough to cook up some more frozen shrimp to top your reheated grits. In my first example, I added frozen peas to leftover polenta and fried a fresh egg to go on top:

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Tips for Reviving Leftovers

  1. Grits and polenta. Cut the grits or polenta into cubes with a knife or just chop it up with a spoon in a microwave-safe bowl. Add 2-3 tablespoons of milk or water per serving. Microwave for about a minute, then stir, smashing the cubes against the side of the bowl to break them up. Repeat until hot and creamy.
  2. Pizza.
    • If refrigerated, microwave (yes, microwave!) the slice for just 30 seconds or so until it starts to feel a bit warm. This step ensures that the pizza warms up a bit so you won’t burn it in the oven waiting for it heat through. Then, put the pizza in a toaster oven or under a broiler until the cheese becomes melty and bubbly again.
    • If frozen, place the pizza on a baking sheet in a cold oven. Turn the oven to 375F. Once the oven hits that temperature, cook the pizza another 5 minutes or so until the cheese is hot and bubbly. Broil if necessary for a minute or two at the end.
  3. Rice, quinoa, barley and other plain grains. Place in a microwave safe bowl with a lid (like a glass casserole dish) with a splash of water, just a tablespoon or so, to steam it. Microwave 2-3 minutes until hot and fluff with a fork.
  4. Macaroni and cheese. Your mac & cheese will never be as creamy as it was originally, but you can help it along by adding a splash of milk before you microwave it. Stir every minute or so until hot.
  5. Cooked meat, like burgers, pork chops or steak. Heat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat until very hot. Add your meat and cook for a minute or two on each side just until hot. This works best with thin pieces of meat; you may want to cut up or shred larger cuts first.
  6. Oatmeal, porridge and other hot cereal. Add a splash of water or milk and microwave 1-2 minutes, stirring occasionally, until hot.
  7. Soups, stews and sauces. Add to a saucepan, cover and heat over medium-low until the liquid reaches a gentle simmer. Alternatively, reheat uncovered in the microwave, stirring frequently to avoid cold spots.
  8. Baked goods, like bread and muffins.
    • If frozen, defrost on the countertop in a sealed zip-top bag or in the microwave wrapped in a paper towel. Place in a toaster oven or oven and heat between 350 and 400F until hot. Use a lower temperature for soft things like muffins, and a higher temperature for crusty things like baguettes.
    • If at room temperature, splash with a touch of water and then put in the oven or toaster oven. Heat between 350 and 400F, again using the lower temperature for softer baked goods and the higher temperature for crusty bread.

What are your best tips for reviving leftovers? Comment below!

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