If you are planning a large buffet—a large party, office picnic, church supper or school fundraiser—you will need to keep the food hot or cold. Whether you are preparing the food yourself or have a caterer doing the cooking, you will still need chafing dishes for serving the food.
Chafing dishes are the best way to keep food hot. They allow groups of guests to serve themselves while the hostess can move around the party without being tied to the kitchen or buffet line. For the frequent or infrequent hostess, purchasing or renting chafing dishes is the way to go.
Chafing dishes, sometimes called steam pans, are simply large serving dishes in which food is kept warm (or cold). The different types of chafing dishes consist of a frame or wire rack, a water pan, a food pan and a cover. Water in the pan is used to conduct the heat which maintains the food at a proper serving temperature. The heat source is Sterno canned heat or an electrical heating element placed underneath the water pan.
Oval or round ornately decorated chafing dishes made of silver are frequently used for sophisticated or formal parties. They can be used with Sterno or a heating element and are available to rent from party rental stores, or for purchase at department stores or restaurant/catering supply stores.
The most widely used chafing dishes are long and rectangular in shape and made of stainless steel. The water pan is placed on a wire or chrome rack and will hold up to two half-sized food pans. You can rent these from a party rental store, or purchase them at a party supply store, department store or restaurant/catering supply vendor.
Disposable chafing dishes are the least expensive and are designed like the stainless steel set-up. One consists of a large aluminum water pan and one or two smaller aluminum food pans. The wire racks are somewhat thinner. These are sometimes called caterers’ racks and are usually found at party supply stores, discount stores or restaurant and catering supply outlets.
For the home buffet table, stainless steel and aluminum rectangular food pan sizes range from 20 x 12 x 4 (full size) to 10 x 12 x 2 (half size). Water pans are sized to fit, and the wire racks are usually full-sized. Other chafing dishes vary in size. The aluminum pans can now be purchased in colors to coordinate with your party table decorations.
Remember is that chafing dishes cannot be used to bring foods up to serving temperature. Food must first be at the proper temperature before adding to the pan. Stainless steel and aluminum food pans can be used for cooking and/or heating the food in the oven.
The water pan is placed in the wire rack and filled with hot water to a level that is close to but not touching the food pan. The Sterno is then lit and placed under the water pan. The resulting steam will maintain the temperature of food that is already at serving temperature. The water pan should be checked periodically to make sure the water level is maintained and the food should be stirred occasionally to evenly distribute the heat and prevent scorching. Using a lid or cover will keep food moist.
Sterno fuels or similar brands are formulations of denatured alcohol, water and gel and is perfectly safe when used as directed. This fuel comes in small cans and is generally available from hardware stores and party supply stores. The fuel wick is lit and placed underneath the water pan. A full-sized water pan may require two fuel cans placed at opposite ends, particularly if the food is dense (such as pasta and cheese). The flame is blue in color, and an eight-ounce can will burn for about two to two and a half hours. The fuel can be extinguished and relit.
Do not leave an open flame unattended. Open the pan cover carefully, to avoid burns from the escaping steam. Do not use anything but Sterno-type fuel in the burner. Properly working chafing dishes keep hot food at a safe temperature of 140 degrees or above to avoid bacterial growth. Ideally, the temperature should not exceed 160 degrees to avoid overcooking.
Chafing dishes will also keep cold foods cold. Just fill the water pan with cold water and ice.
Chafing dishes make your buffet table look professional, appetizing and attractive. They also allow you to cook food ahead of time and put in the dishes just before your guests arrive–leaving you free to mingle with your guests.