Hint: Forget the microwave. It's overrated.
I grew up in a house without a microwave. This meant that I had to make do with other, less technologically-advanced methods to reheat leftovers. While it seemed annoying when I was a teenager, this taught me something crucial, that there are better ways of reheating certain foods than simply stabbing a few buttons and eating whatever hot mess emerges.
At a time when many people are cooking more than ever before, and thus coping with larger quantities of leftovers than they may have dealt with in the past, knowing how to reheat these foods properly has become more relevant. The Washington Post ran an informative piece on “how to safely reheat leftovers without ruining them,” and I'd like to elaborate on that – namely, to convince you that your microwave is overrated and there's a far better tool at your disposal.
It is the humble cast iron frying pan, which I sincerely hope you own, because it is one of the most useful items a person can have in their kitchen. A microwave is good for some things (I'll mention those later), but really, all you need is a cast iron frying pan to ensure you have the tastiest leftovers. The reason for this is because leftovers are usually a disappointing, lesser version of their original selves, but a cast iron pan manages to revive them. It restores much of their flavor and excitement through its searing heat and browning capabilities. This may overly sound dramatic, but bear with me here.
Consider potatoes, cold from the fridge. Tossed in a microwave, they emerge mealy, gluey, dry, and generally flavorless, no matter how delectable they were the night before when mashed with butter and herbs, or roasted with olive oil and garlic. Put them in a hot cast iron pan with a few infusion of oil and butter and seasonings, and you've got a new dish altogether, with crispy edges that you'll be picking at before you've even served them, a veritable flavor explosion.
The same goes for leftover meats and vegetables. The cold fridge dulls their flavor and the microwave does little to revive it, mostly drying them out. But add those roasted veggies, steak slices, and sausages to a hot oiled pan, and they gain richly browned sides that make them newly delicious. It even balances out the disappointment of having to eat overcooked meat or greens.
Then there's rice, which turns mushy when reheated on the stove and never tastes as good as freshly cooked when it's put in the microwave. The only way to restore rice to its previous perfection is to make fried rice. Add a chopped onion and oil to your trusty cast iron pan, cook for a few minutes, then add cold rice with some sesame oil, fish sauce substitute or tamari, and oyster sauce. It's a great quick lunch. You can expand with vegetables and tofu or leftover meats.
We can't forget about pizza! A cast iron pan with a lid on top is the single greatest way to reheat cold pizza because it crisps up the bottom, melts the cheese on top, and heats the whole piece through. It's a million times better than the limp, damp slices that emerge from the microwave.
And if you happen to have pasta leftovers (although, seriously, who does?), these can also be reheated in the pan with 1-2 tablespoons of water added. It won't take long, though, because you don't want to overcook it. The benefit is that any residual sauce is less likely to separate than it would in the microwave, although you should be aware that tomato-based sauces can eat away at a cast iron pan's coating if left sitting.
Cold Asian noodle stir-fries are delicious tossed in a hot pan, which also gives you the option to build them up again. Pre-fry some extra vegetables or tofu cubes, then add the noodles with some flavorful liquid (chili paste, oyster sauce, tamari, or a dash of stock) to rehydrate.
If you have beans, toss them in a hot pan with onion and spices and voilà, refried beans. Serve in tortillas with scrambled eggs for a breakfast wrap or with avocado, pickled onions, and rice for a tasty meal.
Dumplings, pierogi, Russian Mennonite vareniky (cheese-filled boiled pastries that my family eats occasionally)… all of these are divine reheated with butter in the cast iron pan, or with some water added to loosen any residual sauce.
A microwave is good for some things – for example, foods with a shape or structure you don't want to lose (i.e. lasagna or cabbage rolls); leftover fish because it minimizes the smell and takes only a few seconds to warm slightly, making it perfect to top a grain salad; small portions of soup, dal or other liquidy foods you want to eat in a hurry; or when you don't want to dirty any extra dishes and are willing to compromise on flavor for that reason (cringe!).
And there is one thing a microwave does far better than a cast iron pan: it reheats my lukewarm coffee multiple times a day. As an adult, I now own a microwave that gets used 95 percent of time for that very purpose, and I am eternally grateful for it. I will always own a microwave for this reason alone, unless I change from my French press to a heated carafe someday, but I don't have any plan to do so.
I'm not trying to bash the microwave – nothing beats its defrosting capabilities – but I want to expand your culinary horizons by explaining just how wonderful a cast iron pan can be. Not only does it reheat, it also improves – and isn't that any home cook's dream come true?
Hint: Forget the microwave. It's overrated.