6 Mistakes Too Many People Make With Their Leftovers

late night refrigerator
Cole Saladino/Thrillist
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

For too many of us, leftovers are those things breeding colonies of previously undiscovered microbe civilizations in the backs of our refrigerators. At the other end of the spectrum, Sunday brunch buffets at the restaurant you like are built out of leftovers from the previous week.

In the middle is the average person's fridge: a hodgepodge of packed lunches, midnight snacks, good intentions, and rancid mysteries that occupy more of our life than we’d like. But it doesn't have to be that way. At all.

We talked with experts on the topic, consulted exalted tomes, and applied advice we’ve received over decades to line up how you can (probably) juice up your leftovers mojo. Here's what everyone does wrong with leftovers… and, more importantly, what you should do to maximize their potential.

You're being way too lazy when reheating them

We see you, standing there with your leftovers in the microwave waiting for the beep. It’s how most of us cook our leftovers, and most of us are very, very wrong. Yes, reheating food in the microwave works. But it can also completely destroy texture, flavor, and joy.

Dave Heide knows a couple of things about leftovers. He owns three restaurants -- Liliana’sCharlie’s, and a pay-what-you-can joint called Little John's -- in Madison, Wisconsin (as of now, the three restaurants' dining rooms are closing at 5 pm in light of COVID-19). Little John’s is a nonprofit restaurant that uses leftovers and reduced food waste to make its business model possible. Point is, this guy knows how to make his leftovers taste fresh. Take, for example, pizza.

“Microwaved pizza comes out soggy and gross, but if you warm it in the oven, it’s crispy again. Sometimes it’s even better than the night before,” Heide advises. Others recommend reheating it on a skillet to restore life to the fading crust.

Either way, how you cook it makes a huge difference.

But it's not just pizza. A little love and creativity goes a long way in reheating -- and sometimes transforming -- leftovers. To show the power of proper leftover cooking, Daniel Gritzer, the culinary director at Serious Eats, describes risotto al salto, which is where you smash up leftover risotto and grill it on a skillet. The result is a delicious, crispy, golden-brown pancake of goodness.

But as a general rule, leftovers are best when reheated via the same method they were cooked. Soups reheat in a pot on the stove top. A panini goes in the toaster oven. Meats and seafood get the low-and-slow treatment in the oven. Fried rice or chow mein get tossed in a wok or pan. It's pretty basic, but it's also pretty amazing how easy it is to forget when you're being lazy.

You're not being creative with your leftovers

That stuff left over from meals you’ve cooked, waiting in your fridge, isn’t actually pronounced “leftovers.” It’s pronounced “ingredients.” With that simple change of mindset, you can find all manner of changes in how you use your certified pre-owned food.

As a food blogger at theMom100, Katie Workman loves getting double-duty out of the meals she cooks. “I am a huge fan of the intentional leftover. There is always a way -- and usually many great ways -- to use components of meals in other ways, later in the week. If I’m not packing up leftovers after a meal, something went wrong."

Heide gives an example using two separate leftovers to create a whole new dish. "Steak you took home and some leftover (or canned) mushroom soup, why not make it into a nice stroganoff?”

Add a step to your weekly meal planning. (You are planning your meals, right? RIGHT?) That step is simple: Make a list of all the leftovers currently in your fridge. Step two then incorporates those ingredients into your menu for the following week.

You’re not using "fridge velcro"

I first heard this concept called “refrigerator velcro” on the Gospel According to St. Alton: Good Eats. But it’s a common practice among chefs and home cooks worldwide. Fridge velcro refers to staple foods you can mix damn near anything with to make a good enough meal.

The Holy Trinity of fridge velcro is: rice, pasta, and tortilla chips. If you keep these in the pantry, you can find uses for almost any kind of leftover you might have lurking in the dark corners of your kitchen.

Gritzer notes that leftover veggies go great in a pilaf, while Workman raves about leftover meats like chicken going into pasta and pasta salad. Tortilla chips will take up your beans, corners of cheeses, and bits of beef, chicken, or fish and turn them into pretty kickass nachos.

Bottom line: You can clean out your fridge and feed your face once a week by breaking out a staple and throwing leftovers onto it until it looks like a meal.

You're botching your storage

The second you stick your leftovers in the fridge, you have created a time bomb ticking down to wasted food. If you store it right, the timer gives you plenty of days to defuse the bomb by stuffing it in your pie hole. Get it wrong, and your storage container will grow fur and crawl away.

Where most people screw this up is they treat all leftovers the same way. They find a plastic container or a Ziploc bag the right size, (sort of) seal it, and toss it in the fridge. Which is horseshit. Different foods require -- guess what! -- different solutions.

Gritzer uses salad as a good example. If you just bung your whole salad into a plastic box, the avocados will go bad before the spinach, which will go bad before the shredded cheese. And if you have salad dressing in there, it all gets worse.

Beat this by storing different foods in different containers, so fast-failing food doesn’t contaminate the hardier stuff. Says Gritzer, “Better to think ahead, make the right size for what you’ll eat tonight, and save the rest partially prepped for the next day.”

Gritzer also points out that air is your enemy when it comes to leftover storage. “Burp” your bags, press some plastic wrap down on that guacamole, and seal those plastic bins. The less air exposure, the less oxidation. The less oxidation, the longer all your foods will last.

You’re giving up on the best stuff

A few things you encounter in the back of your fridge, cupboards, and pantry, you perceive having rolled right on past “leftovers” stage and straight into “trash.” In many cases you’re right. That bread with enough mold on it to go back in time and stop the Black Plague is not an ingredient.

But other stuff, plus some alchemy, you can turn into culinary gold. The difference between stale bread and delicious croutons is some olive oil and a few minutes in the oven.

And that’s not all! Fruit that’s not quite bad, but is so soft you’ll wait until it goes spoiled? Stick it in the freezer right now, then make it into a smoothie in the morning. Slightly wilted veggies can go into soups or chilis. Bones, vegetable chunks and peels, or cheese rinds? Soup base. The possibilities are endless.

Your fridge is a goddamned mess

Defusing the expiration-date time bomb requires finding the bomb in the first place, and remembering it’s there. Too often, leftovers go into a container that looks just like all the other containers in your matched set, and sit there forgotten like the One Ring. Only when it gets rediscovered, you have to go to your garbage disposal to destroy it forever.

But you don’t want to destroy it forever. You want to eat it while it’s still delicious. Improving your chances of doing that requires a fridge with better organization than you have right now.

Lisa Woodruff, founder and CEO of Organize365, recommends you start by cleaning out the fridge regularly. That’s a full clean, where you take everything out and scrub everything down. If possible, do a light version of this each time you prep your grocery list. It helps you identify leftovers for ingredients, and makes room for the new stuff.

She also recommends grouping like items with their buddies: cheeses together, condiments in the same space, etc. The produce and meat drawers will help with this, and she suggests using clear acrylic bins for some of the other categories. According to Woodruff, an inexpensive Lazy Susan turntable can help keep things organized and accessible in deeper fridges.

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Jason Brick is a voracious reader, heroic drinker, and super-cool dad (not necessarily in that order of importance). When not testing the theoretical limits of coolness, he practices martial arts so he can beat people up for teasing him about how much he likes playing Dungeons & Dragons. Find out more at BrickCommaJason.com.