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Cooking Techniques

How to Cook, Lesson 9: Reheating and Recycling Leftovers

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It rarely happens that the food cooked for a meal is exactly enough. Sometimes, there’s a bit too little that leaves everyone wanting more. And there are times when there’s too much.

Farmer's Pie

Leftovers are a constant reality. And their storage can create a build-up. One container here and another one container there… in a week, the fridge starts getting cluttered. Unless you deal with leftovers, pretty soon, the clutter becomes unmanageable.

But what’s the big deal about leftovers anyway? Isn’t the smart thing to simply reheat and reserve them?

Not always.

There are two kinds of leftovers. Wanted and unwanted.

Reheat “wanted” food

If it’s a question of excess and the dish is something that everyone in the family likes, then, go ahead and reheat. Ad infinitum if that’s what it takes to finish all of it.

Be careful, however, about reheating. If you want the dish to retain as much of its original texture and flavor, there are a few tricks worth remembering.

Reheating soups

If it’s just plain broth, go ahead and reheat in a pot.

But what if the soup has pieces of seafood, meat or vegetables, or all of them? The thing is, reheat such soups over high heat and some of the ingredients will turn soggy before the rest is heated through. Reheat slowly over low heat and everything will be soggy before the desired temperature is reached.

What’s the trick?

Strain the solids first and set aside. Pour the liquid into a pot and heat over high heat. When the liquid boils, dump in the solids and stir gently but thoroughly. By the time the liquid boils again, the solids will be heated through but they won’t be soggy because of the short amount of time they were subjected to the heat.

Reheating stews

Stews are just as notoriously tricky to reheat as soups. There’s very little liquid and too long in the heat can dry out the stew. Add water and you dilute the flavors.

Chicken Stew
Scarborough Fair Chicken Stew

What to do?

Reheat the stew in the steamer. The moist environment will prevent drying out. The uniform heat will ensure that everything gets reheated evenly without need for stirring which can break up the cooked ingredients.

If you own a slow cooker, it’s a pretty nifty tool for reheating meat stews too.

Reheating fried food

I know a lot of cooks who reheat fried chicken by dropping the cold pieces in hot oil. That’s the perfect recipe for extra-greasy chicken especially if the chicken, when originally cooked, was dredged in flour or bread crumbs, or dipped in batter.

So, how to reheat fried food without packing on extra grease and making sure that the surface doesn’t burn before the inside is heated through?

Two options:

First, reheat in a preheated oven.

Fried spring rolls

Second, reheat in a preheated oil-free heavy frying pan (cast iron does a good job).

Whichever option you choose, if you want to recapture as much of the crispy exterior as is physically possible, spray the cold food lightly with oil while reheating.

Recycle “unwanted” food

But what if the leftovers have become too cloying already? Even a good dish can bore anyone if eaten too often at not-too-long intervals.

Worse, what if there are leftovers because the original dish wasn’t all that good?

When simple reheating is a convenient but a lazy and ineffective solution, take a different direction. Recycle instead. Give the unwanted food a new look, new textures and new flavors.

Here are a few examples to give you some ideas.

Christmas can mean overabundance of ham. See how to make ham and pasta soup and ham and cheese omelet.

If lechon (whole roasted pig) was the centerpiece of a recent party, know that cooking it into paksiw na lechon (sweet-sour stew) is not the only option. You can pull the pork apart and fry the shredded meat until crisp.

Got leftover turkey or duck? Make turkey, duck and potato bake, spring rolls or farmer’s pie.

Got too much sauce from a stew? Toss cooked pasta in it!

Want to get an idea just how many times I’ve recycled leftovers? See the cooking with leftovers archive.