If you have a buffet, serve large parties, cater events, or just cook in batches before serving, you need to use the right equipment for the tasks. The key to food holding is more than just keeping it cold or applying heat to keep hot food hot. Let’s take a look at several types of equipment and some features you should have to help you hold and serve food efficiently.
The cold pan is a common and basic holding and serving item. The pan’s most important function is to keep food cold at safe serving temperatures. Some pans use just an insulated bin for holding ice, while others are mechanically refrigerated. Sanitation guidelines require open-top refrigerated units to hold all areas of the product at no more than 41ºF. The required temperature includes all surfaces of the product, meaning cold air has to be introduced above and under the food. Look for the NSF 7 label on the equipment you buy so you’ll comply.
There are also ways to address a cold-side food display. Many operations are finding the European-style cold-air units give a more upscale and less institutional look for self-serve situations. Cold-air buffet units allow you to display food out in the open without having to hide your food presentation inside a refrigerated well. These counter units introduce forced air gently blowing across the food to maintain temperature. The refrigerated air blowers are usually horizontal slots rising slightly above the counter at the rear of the unit. An air intake hidden near the counter front keeps the airflow rolling over food product in the depressed space between. These units can be designed with very little stainless steel visible for a non-institutional look.
Another type of open cold-serving unit is the frost top. A frost top is a countertop surface chilled from below that creates a frosty surface for platters, bowls and crocks of foods. The frost surface is usually raised an inch or two above the counter and has a gully around the perimeter to catch condensate. It’s important to note that in many locations the frost top is not permitted for holding perishable food for serving. The frost top is great for displays and foods that don’t spoil, however.
Keeping Food Hot. On the hot food side, most operations have gotten away from the old steam table or typical hot food well except for limited back of house use. For display there are heated plates made of tiles, ceramic, stone or metal that allows the use of a variety of different serving vessels to be used and displayed attractively. Hot plates are available in a variety of sizes. Induction is becoming a popular alternative to traditional heated surfaces.
Induction has become widely used in restaurants for a precise even heat. These units are generally 12 to 14-inch square countertop or in-counter devices. Heating is instantaneous and can be regulated by output control buttons. In addition to being superfast, induction units are also super efficient as nearly all of the electrical energy consumed is converted to heat inside the pan.
If you want a holding unit, be sure you purchase induction units that are warmers, not for cooking. You’ll then avoid a possible requirement for an exhaust hood. You should be aware that in many locations a hood is required over units capable of cooking.Use an induction warmer that limits the temperature at the maximum setting to just over 180°F. Also, it’s important to remember that any induction unit must be used with special chafers with an iron base.
For back-of-house applications, mobile holding cabinets are the most flexible units. There are units made to hold plated meals that can be used in banqueting. These mobile banquet carts can be purchased with different shelf configurations to hold uncovered plates or covered hot food plates in special carriers. Probably the most economical and flexible arrangement is just plain shelves that can be loaded with varying sized covered plates or bulk containers.
If your needs include transporting and holding bulk hot product, there are a large number of these carts on the market as well. The bulk food carts have a variety of internal shelf and pan slide options. For bulk food some models can have angle ledges that hold 18” x 26” pans, but if you want to use 12” x 20” steamtable pans, a special universal angle ledge will be required. There are some great new units that can be very useful for operations doing a lot of outside catering. They are heated either by plugging in for regular indoor use or run off of propane for outdoor use. One can even be purchased with an optional solar panel, which charges its control battery for a truly green machine. These holding cabinets can be fitted with semipneumatic tires for rugged outdoor use.
Using heated holding units and serving cases that offer moisturized heat in a humidity-controlled cabinet should be considered for many food items. Delicate foods keep longer and will not dry out as rapidly in a high-humidity environment. Along with humidity control some display cases have the option of a forced-air glass defogger to prevent condensation build-up. The defogger is an important aid to merchandising.
The warming drawer is a product that is effective at holding food, but not for display. Warming drawers are a good back-of-house option for taking advantage of space since the units are typically only 20” to 30” wide and don’t use countertop space. Up to three six-inch deep, stacked drawers will fit under a typical tabletop. The drawers can be purchased with three individual thermostats and temperature dials so different products can be held in each. Some makers also provide moisture control for their drawers.
There are many types of food holding and serving units out there and almost certainly one to fit your needs for your products. Prices range tremendously because of materials and special features. If your needs include specific holding requirements for delicate products or longer holding times, you will do well to invest in a model with more advanced features. Match your needs with the product you buy and you and your customers will be safe and happy.
Dan Bendall is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities. He can be reached at email@example.com.