How To Reheat Leftover Pasta Without Murdering Its Soul

Every time you microwave a bowl of spaghetti, an Italian grandmother rolls over in her grave.
The microwave is never your best option, but there's a trick to make it a work a little better.
Spauln via Getty Images
The microwave is never your best option, but there's a trick to make it a work a little better.

For home cooks who are budget-conscious, eco-conscious or generally interested in streamlining their weekly meal prep, leftovers can play a crucial role in their money-saving, waste-reducing and time-crunching endeavors.

However, the key to maximizing your leftovers’ potential is coming up with a plan that highlights the dish’s positive attributes while also mitigating its downsides. Leftover pasta serves as a prime example of this principle; from a textural standpoint, reheated pasta can run into any number of challenges. If you’ve ever wondered why pasta often comes out mushy or dry when reheated, and if you’ve ever wondered what you can do to avoid that sad fate, we have some answers for you, courtesy of food scientists and professional chefs.

Why does reheated pasta turn so gummy?

When we asked food scientist and consultant Brian Chau why refrigerated pasta has a tendency to become gummy (and why those negative characteristics only heighten during the reheating process), he gave us a direct answer: “Starch. The cooking process of pasta draws out the starches when boiled. The starches, when cooled, go through [a process called] starch retrogradation. What that means is that the cooked starches have gelatinized and are forming a gel-like structure that will solidify when cooled down.”

Chau gets more granular with his explanation by telling us that “the amylose and amylopectin in the starch molecules are creating [that] gel-like structure. The sticky, gummy texture [causes the pasta to] congeal, which means the strands or pieces of pasta will stick to each other.”

Cooked and refrigerated pasta can also progress beyond the “gummy” stage and become downright mushy. Chau explained this by saying that “mushiness is due to the presence of too much water around the pasta.”

“When the starch retrogrades but is exposed to a pool of water at the bottom of the container, the starches interact with the water and form a mushy texture, much like how starch dissolves in water,” he added.

Cooking pasta to-order and tossing it with reheated sauce will yield the best results.

Cooked pasta can be a tricky leftover dish, but pasta sauce ― from meat sauce to cream sauce to marinara to pesto ― generally keeps very well in the fridge and freezer. For that reason, the best and most foolproof way to use leftover pasta is to “make extra sauce and then cook a fresh batch of pasta to go with the leftover sauce,” explained Nico Romo, the chef and owner of Laura in Summerville, South Carolina. Chef and cookbook author Amy Riolo also prefers this method, pointing out that “in Italy, the sauces are usually reheated on the stove, but pasta is cooked fresh each day.”

Part of the key is avoiding leftover pasta in the first place, cooking only the amount you need.
PixelsEffect via Getty Images
Part of the key is avoiding leftover pasta in the first place, cooking only the amount you need.

Sautéeing in a skillet works best for sauced pasta.

Let’s say that you cooked a full pound of pasta for dinner, tossed it with your sauce of choice, served it up to your family, friends, roommates or even just yourself, and then ended up with a supply of cooked and sauced leftovers. According to Fernando Scarpati, the executive chef of Ferdi in New York City, this pasta should be “dry sautéed.”

“This means that you heat up a stainless steel skillet, pour a teaspoon of [olive] oil into the hot skillet, add the pasta to be reheated, and constantly toss the pasta, ‘sautéeing’ it for three or four minutes,” he explained. “It will be hot, still firm, and not mushy [through] this technique.”

To prevent overheating in the microwave, add a splash of water.

As a general rule, our expert sources don’t recommend reheating cooked pasta in the microwave; microwave heat can easily suck the moisture out of starchy foods like cooked pasta and rice, so nuking your leftover pasta pomodoro or fettuccine alfredo could leave you with an unpleasantly dry result.

But if “dry sautéeing” isn’t an option and the microwave is your sole reheating possibility, take the advice of food scientist, consultant and author Bryan Quoc Le and “avoid reheating pasta in the microwave without a little extra water.” A small splash of water will keep the pasta hydrated enough to withstand the high heat of the microwave without over-dampening it and causing the starchy mess that Chau described above.

A frittata made with leftover pasta is a delicious solution for those times you cook too much spaghetti.
Carlo A via Getty Images
A frittata made with leftover pasta is a delicious solution for those times you cook too much spaghetti.

Cooked pasta can be completely repurposed into a new dish.

While reheating cooked pasta in its originally prepared form can be done, some of our experts prefer to transform leftover pasta into an entirely different dish. “If you’re open to repurposing your cooked pasta, take a cue from the Italians and make it the base for a delicious and satisfying frittata, or [put it in] a bean soup, or add it into creamy vegetable-based soups,” Riolo suggested.

Online cooking show host and cookbook author Rossella Rago agrees that repurposing is the best move for pasta leftovers, and she especially favors the frittata idea: “You can give last night’s pasta a second chance by adding a few beaten eggs and grated cheese and whipping up a delicious pasta frittata, a common practice in southern Italy.”

You’ll need a good cast iron pan if you want to make a perfect frittata. Here are some of the most highly rated options.

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Williams Sonoma
Staub enameled cast iron skillet
Available in red, burgundy, black and deep blue, this cast iron skillet measures 11 inches and has high sides to minimize splatters. It features a heavy-duty enameled black interior to get perfect browning on dishes like chicken, sausage, onions, tortillas and more. It has rust-resistance and requires no additional seasoning so you can try out new recipes faster. And it's dishwasher-safe.

Promising review: "
This is my first Staub cookware purchase and it exceeded my expectations in every way! I am accustomed to having to "season" cast iron cookware before you can cook in it without foods sticking. Not so with this pan. Performed beautifully from the very first time I used it. Excellent value." — Bluzhound
Lodge seasoned cast iron skillet
Whether you’re cooking for one or 20, this cast iron skillet comes in multiple sizes to accommodate your needs, from 3.5 inches to 15 inches. It comes pre-seasoned with soy-based vegetable oil and has an ergonomic design for campfire and stovetop cooking.

Promising review:
"I bring it with me when I go hiking. The whole pan heats up super well and stays hot longer than a normal pan. I also enjoy all the different flavors coming off of it and it is super easy to clean." — Matt
Victoria cast iron skillet
This ready-to-use cast iron skillet comes pre-seasoned with a flaxseed oil coating. It even has a large, curved handle for a better grip while you're cooking. It comes in multiple sizes from 4.8 inches all the way to 13 inches.

Promising review:
"I own just about every make of cast iron out there and this is the BEST piece I have ever used. Pretty well seasoned from the factory, nice smooth cooking surface. I love the longer curved handle and oversized pour spouts ( they actually pour the liquid not spill it out of the pan). This has quickly become my favorite piece of cast iron and will be buying more." — Will
Le Creuset enameled cast iron skillet
Known for its Dutch ovens, Le Creuset also makes a cast iron skillet that's one to have in your kitchen. The interior is made of black satin enameled cast iron for top-tier heat distribution and easy cleaning. Because of its enameled interior, you don't need to season it like you would a regular cast iron skillet. It comes in 6.33 inches, 9 inches, 10.25 inches and 11.75 inches. Color choices include red, orange, light blue, deep blue, green, white and black.

Promising review:
"I love this pan. While you don’t have to season it like old fashioned cast iron, I did anyway and it’s a gem. Food doesn’t stick if heated slowly and properly before adding meat and fish to skillet." — Maryanne
Cuisinel cast iron skillet with a lid
Having a lid for your cooking pans sure does come in handy for making sauces or juicy chicken, and this pre-seasoned skillet comes with one made of tempered glass. And since cooking with any pan — but especially cast iron — is hot territory, you'll be thankful for the included silicone handle holders. It comes in 8-inch, 10-inch, 12-inch and 25-inch sizes.

Promising review:
"I used it to make New York steaks searing them at high heat and the pan did a marvelous job of searing. I covered it and placed it in the oven at 400 degrees and took it out about 20 minutes later. Perfection! Clean up was no problem with a scouring brush and a small amount of soap and a full rinse and dry." — Amazon customer
Our Place cast iron Always Pan
I've had Our Place's cast iron Always Pan for a couple weeks now and it's one of the easiest pans to clean that I own. I've cooked chicken, eggs, salmon patties and sausage in it and it still looks brand new. It has a black matte enameled cast iron interior to get the perfect browning you want on all your favorite foods — without having to season it at all. The pan is designed to replace eight traditional pieces of cookware, including a fry pan, sauté pan, steamer and skillet. It’s available in six colors, including a dusty pink, cream, dark gray, green, lavender and blue.
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