You Should Never Reheat Chicken In The Microwave. Here's Why.

The microwave oven is a modern technological miracle. We all take them for granted, but since microwaves became affordable for the average household in the 1960s and '70s, their popularity has soared and they have forever changed how we cook and reheat food. As great as they are for making buttery popcorn late at night, or quickly cooking up a frozen meal, the microwave isn't ideal for everything — even if all you're doing is reheating. One prime example of this is chicken.

Let's get something out of the way right up front: Sometimes you just don't have time to heat up the oven to reheat your food. And in the summer, it's sometimes just too hot to heat up the whole house for leftovers. That said, when it comes to chicken, it's worth making the time and dealing with the heat not only for the flavor and texture of your food, but for food safety as well.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are about 48 million cases of food poisoning in the United States each year, resulting in about 128,000 hospitalizations and more than 3,000 deaths. One of the leading causes of these food poisoning cases is salmonella, which causes 1.2 million cases of food poisoning alone. What does this have to do with your chicken? You guessed it — salmonella can be found in raw chicken, along with campylobacter and clostridium perfringens bacteria. 

But that's raw chicken. You may be wondering how using a microwave to reheat cooked chicken is any different than using the oven or the stovetop. This comes down to two things: Was the chicken stored properly prior to reheating, and are you following the recommended guidelines for microwave reheating?

Once chicken is cooked to the recommended internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, the bacteria we mentioned should have been eliminated, but that doesn't mean they're gone for good. After cooking, chicken needs to be refrigerated or frozen within two hours, and if it's hot out (higher than 90 degrees), it'll need to be refrigerated or frozen within one hour. Any longer than that and bacteria start to regrow and multiply. Gross.

Typically, when chicken is reheated to that internal temperature of 165, bacteria are again eliminated, but it turns out that microwaves don't do a particularly great job of that compared to ovens and stovetops.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), microwaves don't penetrate thick pieces of food very well, which can lead to uneven heating. This means that even if part of your leftover chicken is now piping hot, there may be portions of it that never reached that internal temperature of 165 — and bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses may still be hanging out. The WHO recommends allowing food to rest after heating in a microwave to ensure the heat is distributed evenly, but unless you're using a food thermometer, can you really be sure? When was the last time you actually followed your microwave manufacturer's instructions about the power level for different food items, or the United States Department of Agriculture's recommendations for stirring the food (yes, even in microwaves with a turntable) to ensure even cooking? Be honest — you just hit a random number, hit start, and hope for the best. This simply isn't enough for chicken, especially when you consider that the heat from a microwave can only penetrate 1 to 1-1/2 inches into food, so the larger the piece of chicken, the more you have to rely on conduction heating from the outer surface.

But let's say you're not worried about any of that, or that you're a microwave aficionado who always rotates food, cooks meat on a lower power and for longer, and uses a thermometer to ensure a safe temperature. You still shouldn't be reheating your chicken in the microwave for the sake of its flavor and texture.

Postdoctoral research scientist Dr. Kyle Frischkorn explains that reheating leftovers often results in what he calls "Warmed-Over Flavor" – or WOF — but he worked with the team at Serious Eats to see if they could minimize WOF in chicken. While they found that WOF is mostly unavoidable regardless of reheating technique, he did not mince words when sharing his feelings about microwaving chicken. "From the reheating-methods portion of the testing, the clearest result was that microwaving does gross things to chicken and should be avoided at all costs," he wrote, further noting an "unappealingly spongy texture" combined with the warmed-over flavor.

Let's go out on a limb and say that spongy, funky chicken isn't what you're looking for when you reheat your leftovers. What other options do you have?

Conventional cooking wisdom says that you should reheat chicken (and most foods, really) the same way they were originally cooked. This means your baked chicken dish should be reheated in the oven, your sautéed chicken should be reheated in a pan, and so forth. Science says not only will it taste better, it'll be safer, too.

When it comes to chicken, ditch the microwave. Your health and tastebuds will thank you.