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Especially when there is sauce in the food. It seems the sauce heats less evenly in the microwave. I suspect the kind of flour used in the sauce is the problem but am not sure.

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The sauces in Chinese restaurants are typically thickened using corn starch. –  Jay Jan 6 '13 at 4:04
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You need to define what you mean by the word better because in my experience this isn't necessarily true. –  spiceyokooko Jan 6 '13 at 15:08

3 Answers 3

up vote -2 down vote accepted

I believe it has more to do with HOW a microwave cooks or reheats food vs. the way a conventional stove top does it.

When you put something into a microwave to reheat it, it does not apply heat the way a stove does. Microwaves use their namesakes -microwave radiation- to jostle the molecules contained within the food, causing friction, which in turn causes heat, and heats up the food, from the inside out. This means that food with a higher density, such as meat or veggies, will heat up more quickly than liquids, which are less dense. Also, microwaves don't just heat up the food, but also the container, be it plastic, foam, or the stereotypical white paper boxes. When this happens, the particles within the container (which are being heated) will give off various chemicals, which can alter the taste of food.

When you reheat food on a stove top, you are using a container that is much more resistant to heat (a pan) and you are applying heat evenly, from the outside of the food, regardless of it's density. This means that the pan (90% of the time) will not alter the way your food tastes, and because everything is being heated at the same time and rate, your food tastes more like it did yesterday, or whenever it was that you brought it home.

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Despite being accepted, this answer is completely in accurate on how microwaves transfer energy. Microwaves do not "cause friction"; they directly excite vibration, which is heat. They do not heat food with higher density, nor does it matter whether the phase of the food is liquid or solid--what matters is whether the molecules are excitable by the microwaves--generally, because they are polar. Water (a liquid) and fats are generally what is being excited in most foods. The microwaves only penetrate an inch or two (a few CM) into the surface of the food, regardless of phase. –  SAJ14SAJ Jan 6 '13 at 12:24
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Microwaves do not heat the containers, unless the container's material is itself composed of or contains excitable molecules--microwave safe containers do not contain such molecules. In any case, the questing did not indicate heating in the original takeout containers. This includes most paper, microwave safe plastic, some ceramics (the microwave safe kind without lead). I won't even start on the idea that pans heating heats everything at the same time..... –  SAJ14SAJ Jan 6 '13 at 12:27

There are probably several factors which lead to the perception that chinese food heats less evenly in a microwave than on the stove top.

There are lots of types of Chinese food, but due to the mention of sauce on the original question, I am going to assume its a dish with meat and vegetables in a sauce, like (as often available in US Chinese restaurants), Kung Pao chicken or beef with broccoli. Since the liquid is thickened, and only part of the dish, little convection can occur--transfer of heat within the food itself will be by conduction unless the dish is stirred.

Contributing factors probably include:

  • Microwaves excite polar (usually water, sugar, and fat) molecules directly, creating heat. However, the pattern of microwaves inside the oven cavity is not uniform due to wave interference, so different parts of the dish will be heated somewhat unevenly. This is why modern microwave ovens have rotating platforms.
  • Fats seem to heat much more quickly than say, plain water, so parts of the dish with more fat (like meat pieces) may seem to heat faster.
  • Microwaves only penetrate a few centimeters into the dish, heating the food at the outside of the food volume. The interior of the food, is heated through conduction or convection of heat from the outside of the food.

All of this leads to the main probable cause: less stirring. You are probably more likely to be actively stirring the food on the stovetop, where the heat only happens at the bottom, and may burn on the pan, thus distributing the heat throughout the dish.

With the microwave, stirring still is important due to all of the factors listed above, but you have to stop the cooking and open the oven to do it so it possibly doesnt' happen as much.

Truthfully, I find the microwave the superior method for reheating Chinese food. Try these suggestions to make it successful:

  • Don't do it at full power for longer. By lowering the power (which really just does full power a proportion of the time, in very short intervals), you slow down the heating, which gives more time for conduction and convection to move heat through the dish, evening out the cooking.
  • Reheat the food in a shallow, thin layer (like a wide soup or pasta bowl), rather than a more compact volume. This will let more of the food be exposed to the microwaves, heating more evenly.
  • Stir a few times.
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It depends on the dish. Reheating Mongolian beef or Kung Pao chicken in a microwave does not produce a better result than reheating on the stove, but reheating General Tso's chicken or sesame chicken does. The latter two turn soggy or slimy or both.

Why?

(My opinion, as I'm not really sure):

Have you ever put a piece of bread (or a sandwich) in the microwave too long and the bread gets soggy, slimy, and/or gummy? I think that's what's happening to dishes like General Tso's and sesame chicken, as both dishes (and other similar ones) involve meat being coated in flour/corn starch and then deep-fried (before being sauced). In a sense, these dishes are like bread-coated meat fried in oil and then sauced, and it's reheating that bread coating that makes them awful on reheat, like putting a sandwich in the microwave.

Mongolian beef and Kung Pao chicken are not coated in dough. Nor are they deep-fried. They reheat fine in a microwave. General Tso's and sesame chicken are coated and deep-fried, and they're always awful when reheated, in a microwave or otherwise. Reheating most fried food usually results in a soggy, slimy, gummy travesty, and I think (but don't know if) that's the issue here.

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