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Why Do Some Leftovers Taste Better the Next Day?

Woman microwaving leftovers in a microwave oven.
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Some find the thought of leftovers to be icky, while others swear they taste better rewarmed. We’ll provide you with a little science that proves some foods do, in fact, taste better the next day.

We’ll also delve into ways of using leftovers to create new dishes, and list out foods that don’t quite make a gourmet meal the second time around.

The Science of Leftovers

Cooking is often considered an art. From chopping to garnishing, there is so much creativity that goes into the process. However, beyond the beauty of each gorgeous bite, there is also a science that lies within.

So, let’s talk a little bit about the chemical reactions that occur when a prepared meal is placed in the fridge for a day or two, then rewarmed.

According to the Institute of Food Technologists, flavor enhancement occurs through a wide variety of mechanisms. They write:

Some flavor enhancement may involve the breakdown of proteins to release amino acids such as glutamate and small nucleotides that interact to enhance savory, meaty umami taste, or reaction of amino acids with sugars to produce new flavor molecules by the Maillard reaction (browning), which can occur when the leftovers are reheated.

Other foods that tend to improve over time include aromatic ingredients like onion, celery, carrots, garlic, and herbs.

While your meal is cooking, chemical reactions take place and produce flavor and aromatic compounds, which then react with the proteins and starches.

After the food chills out in the fridge overnight and is reheated the next day, those chemical reactions continue to take place. In turn, you’ve got an even more flavorful meal the second time around.

Why Are Some Rewarmed Leftovers so Bad?

In this day in age, convenience and the value of time is important for people, especially with tasks like cooking. So, when we need a quick meal, we throw it in the microwave, which works great for many foods, but not all.

Microwaves tend to heat food unevenly and cause certain foods that were once crispy, to become soft, and less palate-friendly. Texture and flavor go hand in hand, and if not in sync, the value of the meal goes down.

Here is a list of foods that do not accomplish the same mouthfeel and texture, the next day, after a little rewarming in the microwave.

  • Fried Foods
  • Pizza
  • Eggs
  • Sandwiches
  • Steak
  • Risotto

Some foods simply don’t belong in the microwave as the texture suffers, so instead, turn to an oven or skillet to ensure you are keeping the texture and flavor intact.

Preference Matters

A woman retrieving leftovers from the fridge.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Let’s be real; I might tell you leftover pizza is one of my favorite day after breakfasts, cold or hot. But you might find that to be an unfathomable food sin. The point here is that everyone has a preference on what foods taste best to them.

Some foods, however, taste just fine (or better) after a little microwave session. Here they are:

  • Curries
  • Sauces
  • Soups
  • Stews
  • Chilis
  • Casseroles
  • Potatoes
  • Pasta meals
  • Baked Dishes

The extra time in the fridge really helps meld the flavors in many of these foods, especially stews, chilis, and the like.

Repurpose Those Leftovers

Using up odd-and-end ingredients from the night before and turning them into an entirely new dish is always a good option, too. Not sure what to do with your soggy chicken tenders? Peel the soggy skin off and save the meat for a soup, stew, or mini pot pie.

Have a little extra plain pasta from last night? Sauté a few veggies and toss in pesto for an ultra-flavorful lunch.

Do your best to view leftovers as an opportunity to create a new and exciting meal, or simply enjoy the overnight flavor enhancement boost.

Save Food, Waste Less

While some people cringe at the thought of leftovers, we strongly encourage you to give them a shot. Rather than placing your extras in the garbage bin, spruce them up and save them for next-day lunch.

Freezing leftovers is always a reliable option as well. If you aren’t feeling leftovers or if you are having a hard time finding a way to repurpose your extras, simply seal them up, and eat it down the road.

Food waste is a huge problem today, but doing your best to turn foods into new meals and enjoying them a second time around is a great way to prevent waste. With a little online research and ingenuity, you’ll be surprised by what delicious concoctions you’ll develop. Who knows, you might even come up with a new family favorite.

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »
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