There might be a treasure lurking in your refrigerator right now: last night’s dinner. For many, leftovers are an uninspiring burden: something to be drearily reheated in the microwave or eaten cold, straight out of the Tupperware. While it is true that I love a sliver of cold next-day lasagna, I’ve taken on a new role as a leftover evangelist: I want more home cooks to treat leftovers not as a duty but a source of pleasure and inspiration. In my latest cookbook, Secrets of Great Second Meals, I exhort my readers to look at leftovers as great ingredients for their next simple yet delicious creation. That extra rotisserie chicken has so much potential: It could soon be a sesame chicken salad! Or enchiladas! Those cheese ends gathering in your drawer could be grated and made into gougères, one of the world’s great appetizers. The benefits go beyond the gustatory—reinvigorating leftovers helps reduce food waste, and becoming more nimble with what we have on hand helps us become better cooks. After all, if you have some essential tools to add freshness and appeal to already-cooked ingredients, you can easily use them to embellish your cooked-from-scratch meals as well.
Obviously fresh foods like herbs, onions, chiles, and citrus can boost leftovers’ texture and flavor. But I also regularly turn to packaged condiments, which benefit from always being on hand in your fridge or pantry, to spark new life into not-quite-new food. Here are some of my favorite moves—and the condiments that make them possible.
Add Some Heat
In general, I have simplified my cooking over the years, but when it comes to spice, I want a condiment to complicate my food. I love spiciness, but I generally want more than the searing sour chile heat that a sauce like Tabasco delivers: I want aroma and texture, too. (If blazing heat is what you seek, look to this spicy-food FAQ.)
My eternal favorite chile condiment is harissa, the North African chile blend that gets its earthiness from spices like coriander, cumin, and caraway. I love to make my own, but I often keep a packaged version on hand as well. Harissas vary greatly, and I lean toward a less-tangy, more oil-based version. You can dab it directly on leftovers to add liveliness, perk up an omelet with a small spoonful, or consider stirring it into a simple tomato sauce to make an aromatic simmering base for a stew of roasted vegetables or canned chickpeas.
Chiles combined with umami-rich ingredients like fermented beans can always give your food a lift. I was sick this week and bought a mediocre roast chicken to feed the family instead of roasting my own. Today, my appetite was coming back, and I made a quick stir fry of the leftovers with some baby greens—it would have been a lackluster, utilitarian lunch, but I added a dab of fermented black bean chile paste to the onions and oil I started cooking in the pan.
After a minute, I added in the chicken and the greens and tossed them well: They were transformed by this little Sichuan alchemy of fragrant heat and leathery umami flavors.
Another lesser-known condiment to add to your repertoire is yuzu kosho, a thick chile and citrus condiment from Japan that tastes a bit like funky preserved lemon with a good slap of heat. Use it sparingly to start, but you’ll quickly appreciate its snappy presence. Because of its potency, I like to add it to another vehicle like dipping sauce, mayonnaise (see below), or stir it into a broth.
Sometimes a dish does need straight-up hot sauce: that clarifying burst of red-pepper heat and tartness can be a welcome tweak to reheated greens, say, or something crisply fried. For that purpose, I still keep a good vinegar pepper sauce, like my go-to— Crystal Hot Sauce—at the ready.
Take a delicious spicy condiment, including those above, horseradish, or even an ornery mustard, and mix it with mayonnaise and perhaps a squeeze of lemon. The result? An instant sandwich-elevating, spreadable sauce with some intense spice. Though I love homemade mayonnaise—I mean, really love it—having good jarred mayonnaise on hand like the Ojai Cook’s Lemonaise is key to the improvisatory nature of this hack.
Make a Salad
Crisp salad adds brightness and crunch to protein like meat or tofu, but a spirited vinaigrette will really elevate your meal. That’s why good mustard is essential to my condiment wardrobe. The best Dijon is sharp but rounded, vinegary but creamy. In leftover land, it plays a key role in brightening sandwiches, of course, but it also sharpens and emulsifies vinaigrettes. Over the years, I’ve grown most fond of Fallot mustard. You can get smaller jars, but since I am whimsical, I like to order the larger jar that comes in an old-fashioned mustard bucket that you can later use to hold cutlery or flowers.
Sometimes a salad wants a creamy dressing, and in that case, I turn to tahini. One of my favorite things about tahini is that you can make a decent dressing just by mixing it with water. Add garlic and lemon and/or herbs and you’ll be swimming in luxury. I also sometimes like to add toasted sesame oil to my dressing to really underscore the sesame flavor.
My favorite tahini, Al Arz brand, recommended by the high priest of Mediterranean flavors himself, Yotam Ottolenghi, is hard to find in the United States (and thus pricey); it is very toasty-nutty without the bitterness that plagues a lot of easier to source brands. Soom tahini, recommended by chef Michael Solomonov, is my favorite domestic option.
Float Leftovers in Soup
Repurposing leftovers as soup is a classic move. I puree previously cooked vegetables into creamy soups, and I whisk lemon and egg into chicken broth to make creamy Greek avgolemono. But if I have little time on my hands, I’ll often just stir some white miso and some spicy gochujang—the Korean fermented bean and chile paste—into some homemade chicken broth or dashi or water. Then, I reheat extra tofu or vegetables in the broth for an almost-instant meal that is still warm and restorative.
Dipping Is Important
Sometimes the difference between a sad Tupperware of leftover noodles and “a bowl” is in a tasty dipping sauce. One of the all-time great leftover wake-ups is a lime-fish sauce dressing like nuoc cham, for which you’ll want to have good fish sauce on hand. There are many good options, but I like the decided richness of Red Boat fish sauce, which gets bonus points for its petite bottle, so it fits in my refrigerator door shelf.
These days I’m also regularly tossing leftover meat, vegetables, and noodles in this tangy and aromatic sauce (recipe at bottom of the page), which is a mix of soy, rice vinegar, lime juice, sesame oil, ginger, and scallions. Soy sauces and tamari have become a very fancy condiment category, but for everyday applications, I have grown fond of light Thai soy sauce, like Healthy Boy brand which has a clean texture, bright salinity, and umami. Do I also love the happy boy on the label? Yes, I do.
Add Some Sprinkles
I’m too old to think that sprinkles add any flavor to an ice cream sundae but not too old to want something festive to top my food. The good news is that now is a great time to access savory confetti to sprinkle on top of reheated veggies, soups, and rice bowls—toppings that add color, texture, and flavor to what might otherwise be an ordinary meal. I often make my own furikake with toasted nori, sesame seeds, and Maldon smoked salt, but the rice-seasoning blend is easy to purchase ready-made, if you’re not craving a project.
In Mexico and central America, you’ll often find fruit topped with pucker-y chile-lime seasoning Tajín, and it’s delightful for salads and cheesy dishes alike; I also like to embellish an eggy breakfast taco—maybe one made with leftover beans—with a tart sprinkle of the stuff.
Of late I’ve had a real weakness for the onion-garlic crunch of everything spice, especially this version with dill added to it (does that make it more than everything spice?). This week, I tossed some sourdough on the verge of staleness with olive oil and some of the everything spice then toasted in the oven to make some pretty flashy croutons.
And finally, the king of savory sprinkles: dukkah is a coriander-forward combination of nuts and spices, that can function as a dry dip or a flavorful and slightly crunchy topping for salads, soups, and eggs alike. It’s especially nice tossed on a bowlful of pureed vegetable soup.
A Condiment Coda: Make Marinades
Though I have been writing about how these condiments help enliven leftovers, they are also a great first step to zippier cooking in general, and they can be quickly combined to add flavor to food you are cooking for the first time. Here are a few of my favorite quick combinations.
Harissa plus olive oil plus orange zest makes a marinade full of earthy-spicy goodness—excellent for chicken and root vegetables.
Miso plus canola oil plus a small dash of hot sauce—adds toasty richness that’s equally good on flank steak, oily fish like black cod, and tofu.
Tahini plus olive oil plus garlic, plus a pinch of smoked paprika—a rich and nutty rub for roasted squash and root vegetables.
Mustard plus crème fraiche or sour cream—makes a creamy-spicy accent that is great for pork loin and chicken.
For me, cooking is more of a rhythm than a series of individual meals: One of the great pleasures of the kitchen is figuring out how one meal can trail—deliciously—into the next. And having the right suite of condiments on hand can serve as a catalyst to such inventive and improvisational cooking.
Ginger Scallion Sauce
¼ cup canola or other neutral oil
1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
Juice of one lime
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 bunch scallions, washed, thinly sliced, white and dark-green parts only
Whisk together the oil, vinegar, soy sauce, lime juice, fine sea salt, sesame oil, and ginger. Stir in the scallions. You can use dressing right away, but it is most flavorful if it can sit around for 30 minutes or more before serving.
Excerpt from Secrets of Great Second Meals by Sara Dickerman (William Morrow Cookbooks, 2019)
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