There's an understandable lure to bringing prepared food home from the grocery store. The work has already been done.
Except the reheating. As you unpack the black plastic containers and white takeout boxes from the grocery bags, it becomes apparent that a critical part of the preparation remains.
By default, most consumers toss the container in the microwave and hope for the best. But microwave a quesadilla and it turns into a soggy mess. Nuke the fried chicken and you can kiss a crisp crust goodbye. It's still edible, but . . . it certainly could be better.
Most prepared food counters offer little or no reliable help in this regard. When asked for instructions, some employees are happy to give advice, while others respond with a blank stare. Wegmans in Sterling prints rewarming directions directly on the package, on a sticker alongside the bar code and list of ingredients. Some of the advice works, but other times it does not. And when you're rewarming slices of beef tenderloin at $19.99 per pound, you don't want to take any chances.
There is a subtle but sure art to reheating prepared food once you get home -- and it requires a little finesse. We purchased commonly found prepared foods, squinted at the fine print and asked questions about warming wherever we went. Still not satisfied, we consulted a handful of local chefs and Dean & DeLuca corporate chef Eloise Sanchez, who has been devising prepared food -- and advising people on how to warm it -- for 13 years. Then we started reheating.
Following are the quickest, most foolproof methods that we found, arranged by common categories of prepared foods.
A WORD ON OVENS: Some foods take better to the moist heat of the microwave; others require the dry atmosphere of the oven. The difference is substantial.
Microwave wattages vary dramatically; times will vary accordingly. Go slowly in short bursts of 20 to 30 seconds.
Never place a closed container in the microwave. Crack the lid or, better yet, uncover the container or transfer it to a dish and drape a paper towel over the top. This catches splatters, absorbs excess liquid and prevents a buildup of steam that can occur beneath the lid.
The go-to oven temperature is 350 degrees. Take the time to preheat the oven completely before adding the food; a lower temperature equates to more time, which dries food.
PACKAGING: Many of the plastic containers used for prepared foods are deemed safe for microwave use by the Food and Drug Administration. Research continues. You may, however, wish to transfer the food to a dish or plate. Exceptions are packaging made from plastic foam, foil or paper containers fit with metal handles.
TEMPERATURE: Food should not be left unrefrigerated for more than two hours. If rewarmed, it should be heated to a temperature appropriate to that particular food. For more information, see www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/index.asp.
ROTISSERIE CHICKEN: As the chicken cools, the meat loses moisture, and the skin becomes soggy and wrinkles. It is best served as soon as possible -- still warm from the store -- rather than reheated hours later.
If reheating is your only option, you must decide between crisp skin or moist meat.
For relatively crisp skin but slightly dried-out meat, place the chicken on a foil-lined baking sheet; for moist (well, moister) meat, wrap the chicken tightly in foil. Heat in a 350-degree oven until warmed through, about 20 minutes for a small (2- to 3-pound) bird. To test for doneness, slide a carving knife alongside the breast bone to loosen the meat, then feel for warmth.
MASHED POTATOES: Incredibly easy. Cover with a paper towel and microwave for 30 to 60 seconds (depending on the amount) to soften slightly. Stir, then recover and microwave in short bursts until warm throughout. Do not overcook. May need to add a little milk to attain the desired consistency.
The same goes for any puree, such as sweet potato or cauliflower.
BREAD: The best path to a crisp crust and a soft crumb depends on the size of the loaf.
For baguettes and individual-size rolls, place the bread directly on the rack in a preheated 350-degree oven. Heat until the crust is hot to the touch and the bread is barely warmed through, 3 to 5 minutes. (Watch carefully; if left in even a couple of minutes too long, the bread turns dry and crumbly.) Serve immediately.
For a larger, denser loaf of bread, such as a boule or ciabatta, wrap the bread in foil and warm in a 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes.
VEGETABLES: Rather than risk overheating already cooked vegetables -- whether they have been roasted, grilled, steamed, sauteed or stir-fried -- consider serving them at room temperature.
If you prefer a warm side dish, leave the vegetables in the plastic container or transfer to a dish, cover with a paper towel and microwave for 30 to 60 seconds. Stir and continue to microwave in short bursts until warmed through.
ROOT VEGETABLES: Roasted root vegetables -- whether new potatoes or chunks of sweet potato -- should be wrapped in foil and placed in a 350-degree oven until warmed through, about 10 minutes.
ROAST BEEF: Rather than risk reheating, and inadvertently overcooking, beef tenderloin that has been cooked to a perfect medium rare, consider serving the beef chilled rather than warm.
If a warm entree is preferred, place the beef on a foil-lined baking sheet and transfer to a 350-degree oven just until barely warmed through, 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the slice. If reheated until hot throughout, the meat will become tough.
FRIED FOODS: Some fried foods never come back from being chilled. Spring rolls, with their layers of wrapper, will never regain their crisp, flaky texture; they remain, instead, flabby. Fried chicken, however, rebounds surprisingly well.
For fried chicken, place on a foil-lined baking sheet and transfer to a 350-degree oven until the exterior becomes somewhat crisp and the interior is warmed through, about 15 minutes for a thigh, 25 minutes for a breast.
For small fried foods wrapped in pastry of some sort, such as shrimp purses or wontons, use the same approach but far less time. Aim for 5 to 7 minutes.
BONELESS, SKINLESS CHICKEN BREASTS: Microwaving makes chicken tough. Instead, place it on a foil-lined baking sheet, cover loosely with foil -- be careful to tent the foil so it will not stick to any toppings, such as sauce or cheese -- and transfer to a 350-degree oven until warmed through, 5 to 8 minutes.
QUESADILLAS Heat a nonstick skillet over medium or medium-high heat, add the quesadilla and heat, turning once, until the cheese melts and the tortilla crisps slightly, 3 to 4 minutes total. (Thick quesadillas loaded with fillings will remain somewhat soft.)
Quesadillas become exceptionally soggy in the microwave and dried out in the oven or toaster oven.
This method also pertains to potato pancakes.
APPLE PIE: Fruit pie is pretty forgiving, although the bottom crust may never crisp to its original state of flakiness. Place on a foil-lined baking sheet and transfer to a 350-degree oven until warmed to the desired state, at least 30 minutes and up to 45. If the crust begins to brown, cover loosely with foil.