Quick Recipes and Easy

The 411 on Chafing Dishes

Plotting your next huge get-together? Whether it’s a birthday bash, church fundraiser or holiday gathering–serving buffet-style is the way to go. When setting up a buffet table, chafing dishes are the best way to keep food hot. They allow a large number of guests to serve themselves while the host can mix and mingle without having to worry about food on the stove or in the oven. Even if you don’t entertain frequently, purchasing or renting chafing dishes can’t be beat.

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 or an electrical heating element placed underneath the water pan.


Oval or round, ornately decorated chafing dishes, would be perfect for an elegant or formal gathering. They are generally made of silver and sit on a platform with tapered legs. They can be used with sterno or a heating element and are available to rent from party rental stores, or for buy at department stores or restaurant and catering supply outlets.

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. Rent these from a party rental store or buy at a party supply store, department store or restaurant and catering supply outlet.

Disposable chafing dishes are the least expensive and are designed like the stainless steel set-up. They consist 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 first thing to 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.

Chafing dishes will also keep cold foods cold. Fill the water pan with cold water and ice and of course, don’t light the fuel!

Sterno fuel is a formulation of denatured alcohol, water and gel and is perfectly safe when used as directed. It comes in small cans and is generally available from hardware stores and party supply stores. The sterno wick is lit and placed underneath the water pan. A full-sized water
pan may require two sterno cans placed at opposite ends, particularly if the food is dense (such as pasta and cheese). The flame is blue in color and an 8-oz. can burns for about 2 to 2 1/2 hours. The fuel can be extinguished and relighted.



-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, temperature should not exceed 160 degrees to avoid overcooking

Chafing dishes make your buffet table look professional, appetizing and attractive. They also allow you to cook food ahead of time and place in the dishes just before your guests arrive–leaving you free to mingle with your guests. Yes, chafing dishes are a party hosts’ dream come right.

Pleased Cooking

Debra Haydel

Debra Haydel publishes chef-menus.com chef-menus.com. This site is packed with information and tips on party menu plotting. Not only recipes but complete, coordinated menus for all your special occasions. Go to chef-menus.com/cooking-for-a-crowd.html chef-menus.com/cooking-for-a-crowd.html for help on food shopping as you plot your next large party or event.

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