Whether you’re living without a microwave by choice or by circumstance, you might be wondering how to heat up food to enjoy warm, steamy meals. Here are the most effective techniques to warm up your food without sacrificing taste, texture, or time.
As soon as I lost Internet, I realized the rolling blackouts in Northern California had started. The news advised us to avoid opening the fridge if possible. With the electricity out, using the microwave was out of the question. At least, my friend’s place where we were staying had a gas stove, which meant we could cook and reheat food.
In the past 3 years, we’ve landed in many situations where we didn’t have access to a microwave. In addition to California’s blackouts (according to NPR, blackouts may routinely happen over the next decade), my in-laws’ log cabin home doesn’t have a microwave. Living out of hotel rooms and Airbnbs promised unreliable access to microwaves. Camping offers electricity-free living. And our current place still doesn’t have a microwave (though, I plan to rectify this).
As a habitual mini batch cooker, I’ve had to develop techniques for reheating leftovers without a microwave. Because I work my software day job, I don’t have time to cook every meal from scratch or waste a lot of time reheating during lunch breaks. Today, I’m sharing the most effective techniques I’ve tried for reheating food.
1: Cook it again on the stove
Most foods that you previously cooked on the stove can be reheated easily over the stove. This includes vegetables (like a chicken broccoli stir fry), sauces (like pasta sauce), stews, and curries.
Directions: Put the food in a sauce pan and cook it over low to medium heat. Usually, it takes less than 5 minutes for me to reheat my lunch (YMMV depending on how powerful your stove is). Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t burn. It’s ready once it is warm enough for your tastes.
NOTE: This technique is best for foods that are relatively wet like soups. If you have dry foods to reheat like pancakes, you may want to try one of the methods below.
TIP: Leave the food in its original pan for lazy easy reheating. This is super helpful when you’re working from home and need to eat lunch quickly.
2: Steam it
Steaming is excellent for reheating frozen foods, foods that stick together, and meat that can easily dry out (like chicken breast) because it’s a gentle cooking method that uses moisture (it’s known as a “moist-heat” or “wet” cooking method) to reheat the food.
Directions: Use a steamer basket. If you don’t have one, use a metal colander in a large soup pot and cover with a lid (this is my current technique).
If you don’t have a colander or a large enough soup pot, you can place a plate on an inverted bowl that acts like a makeshift stand. See the picture below where I used a heatproof bowl as a stand. Make sure the water doesn’t completely evaporate and that it doesn’t touch the plate. Steam until your food is hot enough. If it’s frozen food, follow the package instructions.
3: Boil it
For foods that were previously boiled (like boiled broccoli or beans), boiling is the fastest way to reheat. I recently purchased ramen that recommended first boiling the noodles and then reheating the sauce packet by submerging it in boiling water.
Directions: Boil water in a sauce pan. Add your foods for reheating. Boil until the food is heated through, usually within 2-3 minutes (depending on volume and how cold the food was).
WARNING: Avoid boiling foods that have sauces and flavorings as the water will wash away the flavorings. Also avoid boiling cooked carbohydrate-rich foods (like pasta and rice). They might become mushy with too much boiling (unless you’re aiming to make porridge).
4: Add boiling water
Some foods can heat up simply by sitting in boiling water. I love this technique because it’s gentle, doesn’t require cooking on a stove (I use a kettle to boil the water), and doesn’t require supervision. Try this reheat technique when you’re camping or at a hotel with access to a hot water dispenser.
Adding boiling water is a great way to reheat soft-boiled eggs, hotdogs, small amounts of green vegetables (like green beans), and tofu (this five-spice tofu recipe is a good example).
Directions: Boil water in a kettle or over the stove. Place the food you want to reheat in a heatproof container like a mug, Pyrex measuring cup, or a small sauce pan. Pour boiling water over it. Wait for at least 5 minutes for the food to warm up.
5: Use a water bath
Last week, I wanted to reheat my oatmeal breakfast. Because there was about a cup and a half, it seemed like too little to reheat in a saucepan on the stove. I created a water bath, which worked better than I expected.
A water bath is the gentlest method. However, it takes the longest. So it’s best to reserve it for small quantities of foods or foods that are very delicate (like scrambled eggs).
Directions: Place the food in a heat-resistance container. I used a glass jar. Sit the glass jar in a pot of simmering water. Continually stir the food until it is heated through.
6: Pan fry it
Many foods would benefit from pan frying to warm it up. This is an ideal “dry heat” cooking technique for fried foods (chicken nuggets), foods with a lot of oil or fat (pizza, burritos, fruit pie — yes, my father-in-law has pan fried a slice of cherry pie to heat it up), and foods that would get soggy if you reheated by boiling or steaming (rice, quinoa, pasta).
One of our previous flatmates loved to pan fry homemade mac and cheese that she previously froze. Heating it up gave the mac and cheese a flavorful crust on the outside. This is also why pan frying is an excellent way to reheat leftover pizza because the crust gets crispy again thanks to pan frying.
Directions: Add the food to a non-stick pan over low to medium heat. If the food isn’t particularly oily, add 1/2 teaspoon of oil or butter to ensure it doesn’t stick. These instructions for reheating crêpes offers a step-by-step guide.
NOTE: Pan frying is a great technique for reheating food that transforms the food into a new dish. For example, you can reheat boiled dumplings by pan frying them to transform them into potstickers.
7: Bake it in the oven
Baking in the oven or a toaster oven is a well-known way to reheat frozen pizza, casseroles, and meals. It’s also a great way to reheat a large volume of food without drying it out.
For example, the day after Thanksgiving, my in-laws usually have a second Thanksgiving dinner with leftovers. Even if they had a microwave, we’d still use the oven to reheat the leftover turkey because there’s so much meat that it would take a very long time to zap all of it in the microwave. Plus, the oven allows you to spread the meat out in a single layer and seal it to avoid drying it out. This is the best result for reheating leftover turkey.
Directions: Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Bake your frozen meal according to the package instructions. If you’re reheating leftovers, add the leftovers to a baking try and bake for about 20 minutes until heated through.
NOTE: If reheating turkey, remove the remaining meat from the bird. Place the meat in a single layer. Add a few drops of water to the baking tray (no more than 1/2 teaspoon — you don’t want to soak it). Seal the baking tray with foil. Bake at 350ºF for about 15 minutes. Check the turkey every 5 minutes after the first 15 minutes has passed to make sure the turkey doesn’t dry out. Remove and serve when the meat is warmed.
8: Use the broiler
Not to be mistaken with boil it, the broiler offers very hot “dry heat”. This is a quick way to reheat dry or fried foods (fries, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, pancakes). You could even use it for reheating pizza.
Directions: Turn the broiler on to low and place your food on a baking tray. Broil it for 2-3 minutes. It’s ready when you’re happy with the warmth. You can broil on high as well but you’ll need to watch the food like a hawk to make sure you don’t burn it.
WARNING: Broilers get super hot. This means your food could burn in less than 5 minutes under a broiler turned to high. Switch on the oven light and watch your food as it heats up. Be super careful when you take the food out because it’s very easy to brush against the broiler and burn your hand. Always use oven mitts.
9: Waffle maker, sandwich press, iron and ironing board…
If you have electricity and a heavy surface that gets hot, you can reheat a lot of flat foods. Waffle irons and panini presses aren’t only great for reheating bread, sandwiches, burritos, pancakes, and cookies. You could reheat fish, chicken breast, and other flattish foods that don’t have a lot of sauce or juices.
My friend Lucy shared a picture of quarantined people using a hair straightener to toast a slice of bread. You could use an iron and ironing board to make a grilled cheese sandwich.
Directions: Heat the waffle iron or panini press. Add your sandwich between the hot plates and press. “Grill” the food until it is warmed up.
10: Use a warmer temperature environment
I used to microwave cold watermelon slices that came from the fridge because I have sensitive teeth. Since going without a microwave, I’ve been “warming up” fruits and vegetables by taking them from the fridge and leaving them on the kitchen counter. I use the “free” ambient air to bring my foods to room temperature.
For meat and other frozen food where food safety is a concern, I place the food in the fridge to defrost. Yes, it requires more planning ahead compared to a microwave that can do quick defrosts within minutes. But if you set a calendar reminder or do it the night before, it works fine.
If you’re in a hurry and can’t be flexible with your meal plan, you can submerge the food in cold water to speed up thawing.
Directions: Leave your food on the counter overnight. Or leave your food in the fridge overnight to thaw.
11: Combine multiple techniques
The techniques I outlined above work well together. For the fastest reheating, it can make sense to chain the techniques together.
For example, I usually take my lunch out in the mornings to bring the food to room temperature. Then I pan fry or boil my lunch to reheat it just before eating. Having the food already at room temperature speeds up the reheating process significantly.
Another more surprising example of combining techniques is using hot food to reheat cold food. If I’m eating a curry with rice, for instance, I boil the curry because it’s easy to warm up using the boiling technique. I don’t bother heating up the rice. Instead, I mix the piping hot curry with the cold rice. This warms up the rice, cools the curry, and requires less work while still delivering a warm meal.
The main trick to reheating foods is knowing how something was originally cooked.
Can you use the same cooking method to reheat the food? For example, steak is typically cooked with dry heat, such as grilling or pan frying. You’ll want to use another dry heat method to reheat it to retain the crust and flavor.
If you’re not sure how a dish was cooked, find a recipe that teaches you how to make it. Follow the same cooking technique to reheat it.
Think about the texture of the food and how dry it is. If you want to retain the texture, a gentler heat (steam or water bath) is better. However, if you want the food to remain dry, avoiding a wet/moist-heat method (no poaching, steaming, or boiling). Try pan frying or baking it.
If you have specific questions on how to reheat a particular food, leave your question in the comments.
READ NEXT: How to freeze and reheat crêpes so they taste freshly made