We're all ordering in a lot more than we used to (after all, it's a great way to keep independent restaurants open for good). And naturally, more delivery and takeout means more leftovers crowding our fridge. We have good intentions when it comes to leftovers. We plan to crack into that doggy bag but it molders at the back of the fridge. We make a recipe with egg yolks and vow to use the whites. Leftovers often become food waste, but they are easy to repurpose with a little planning and technique. We talked with three James Beard Award–winning authors for their top tips and tricks to guarantee no leftovers get left behind.
Reheat the Same Way It Was Cooked
When J. Kenji López-Alt, author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, is thinking about leftovers, he starts with how best to reheat them. “The real problem with reheating leftovers is that you lose texture,” he says. While that isn’t completely unavoidable, López-Alt suggests reheating the way the food food was originally cooked. Pan-seared chicken breast? Put it back in the pan. Something from the oven? Cover it with foil and bake. While he’s generally not a fan of the microwave for reheating, he finds it’s actually a good choice for things that were originally boiled and mashed.
With restaurant food, you might not know the original cooking method. López-Alt has a hack for this. “Almost anything can be reheated in a skillet with a little bit of oil. Even things like mashed potatoes—you fry them in the skillet and they get a little brown crust on them. Or leftover pasta—cook it in a skillet with a little bit of oil until it's crispy,” he says. “As pasta sits it absorbs more water and loses a lot of its original texture, but you can get something that's different but also delicious by frying it.” He suggests trying this technique with sliced leftover lasagna.
Practice, Practice, Practice
“Repurposing food is a skill that you have to practice,” says López-Alt. “The better you are at cooking and the more you understand technique, the more you’ll be able to adapt leftovers and figure out new and interesting ways to eat them.” A couple of his go-to’s? Leaving vegetables or thinly sliced meats cold and adding vinaigrette à la a Thai-style salad, or adding eggs to leftover vegetables (start by frying in the skillet, then add the eggs and bake).
Do as Your Grandparents Did
Andrew Coe and Jane Ziegelman literally wrote the book on Depression-era food. Their Beard Award–winning tome, A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, explores a time known for creative (and sometimes relentless) ways to reuse leftovers. “Newspapers and cookbooks offered lots of tips on how to use leftovers in order to feed your family and protect your budget,” says Coe.
“I think the two main strategies were ‘conceal’ and ‘blend,’” he explains. “The main way of concealing was to cover in sauce, either tomato, cheese, or the era's favorite, white sauce. The blending usually meant adding fillers such as mashed potatoes or bread crumbs and converting leftovers into vegetable or meat loaves, casseroles, fritters, hashes, savory pies, etc. They would also use seasonings such as curry to convert leftovers into new dishes, but this was less common.”
Think About Leftovers from the Start
For Andrea Nguyen, author of The Pho Cookbook, leftover planning often begins as she’s cooking the original dish. She has several options for what she calls her “Viet default approach” depending on what she's working with. “When I have leftover roast chicken, steak, pan-fried tofu or grilled veggies, it's likely to be reincarnated as part of one of these dishes,” she says. One straightforward route is making a banh mi: “Having the ubiquitous daikon and carrot pickle in the fridge is key.” Adding leftovers to rice paper rolls is another option—just make sure the ingredients are thin and malleable enough to be rolled up without busting through the rice paper, And of course, there’s always fried rice or porridge: “I soak leftover rice in broth for an overnight porridge that's cooked up the next morning and then garnished with whatever leftovers I have lingering in the fridge.” Get the recipes (featured in Nguyen's Vietnamese Food Any Day) for fried rice and porridge here.
But Nguyen’s strategies extend beyond Viet dishes. “You’ll also find my leftovers in tacos, in my husband’s lunchbox, and atop pizza.”
Regardless of whether you have leftovers from your own kitchen or a restaurant, the best thing you can do is use them up—in the most delicious way possible.
Start making the most of your leftovers by ordering from your local restaurants. Learn more about supporting independent restaurants through our Open for Good campaign.
Cara Strickland is an award-winning writer and former food critic. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Salon, Southwest, Time Out, Atlas Obscura, JSTOR Daily, the Rumpus, and others. Connect with her further at carastrickland.com.