I don’t quite understand when people say they don’t like leftovers. I mean, there is a lot of bad advice out there. Dick’s Drive-In Restaurants, for instance, took to Facebook recently telling people to stock up: “Buy ’em by the bag and put them in your freezer for later. When you’re ready, leave your cheeseburger in its wrapper and microwave the burger upside down (trust us) for approximately 1 min.” Dick's burgers are an intense nostalgia food for me. Out of morbid curiosity, I tried it: Do not do this.
But saying you don’t like leftovers is akin to saying you don’t like restaurant food. What you’re eating in a restaurant is probably somewhere between 25 and 50 percent leftovers—in as much as they’re foods that were prepared earlier and reheated or recombined. The dressing on your salad? Made three days ago. The puree under your fish? Cooked yesterday. And the emmer in that grain bowl got cooked this morning (if you’re lucky), and by the way the soup is from Tuesday. And yet, somehow, it’s still good.
Given that you’re ordering lots of takeout now, and given that restaurant portions and your appetite are not always in harmony, you may find yourself with inordinate amounts of leftovers. Here are some tips on reviving them.
Saucy things rule.
Nearly anything that’s close to liquid in form makes an exceptional leftover. Curries of all sorts, soups and stews, mapo tofu—whatever. Just keep the saucy part separate from your starches and reheat gently in a saucepan. Maybe add a little water to adjust the consistency.
Stay away from the microwave.
Microwaves are the corrupt appendages of a capitalist machine that favors efficiency over pleasure. I do not know if they give us cancer (but I wouldn’t doubt it). I do know that they ruin food. You can microwave soup. Pretty much everything else will come out of that humming light box worse for wear. Instead: Fire up your stove or oven.
Keep things separate.
If you know you’ll have a lot of food and might have leftovers, ask the restaurant to not assemble the food. A Thai curry will seep into your rice and change it forever. But if you get those separate, they’ll be nearly as good tomorrow. This also allows you to reheat things so you don’t get the strange situation of the rice being way colder than the curry.
This rule holds true elsewhere. Know you’ll eat only half of that nice burger? Ask the restaurant to keep the sauces, ketchup, and pickles on the side. Slice it, apply the sauce to the part you’ll eat. Reserve the rest for tomorrow. Reheat the bun in the oven, or toast it in a little butter in a pan. Reheat the patty in the oven, gently.
You’re reheating, not recooking.
This is not a firm fact, but generally, you only want to warm something back up gently. If you recook it, the texture will change.
Some things will never be the same.
Lettuce cannot be revived once it wilts. I’m sorry. If it’s part of another thing, like a burrito, you’re best to take it out before storage. But most things can be saved. Including what one of my coworkers tells me is the Everest of takeout leftovers:
How to Save Your French Fries
French fries get cooked 2–3 times in restaurants. You cut them, wash them, blanch them in oil, cool them, then fry them. Some places will fry them again. While reheating french fries a second time the next day isn’t exactly the same thing, it falls under similar rules. I experimented with an order of fries from Dick’s—which aren't great fries to begin with, limp as they are (I think I made them better). Here’s what worked best.
- Stick a cast-iron skillet in the oven and heat to 375.
- When the oven and skillet are hot, add a decent but not excessive amount of neutral, high heat oil (canola, avocado, grapeseed, etc.). There should be a thin layer across the pan’s bottom. Add your old limp weird fries. Stir or shake them around a bit. Put the pan back in the oven.
- How long you cook depends on the thickness of the fries. The batch from Dick’s took maybe 3–4 minutes. I stirred them a couple times.
- When the fries are crisp and heated through, pour into a bowl. They might want a touch more salt.