Chafing Dish Buying Guide: How to choose the best chafer for your business

Chafing Dish Buying Guide: How to choose the best chafer for your business

Serving a cold or even room temperature meal is a major foodservice faux pas guaranteed to scare away customers and guests to any establishment. However, with a chafing dish it’s easy to keep your freshly cooked dishes hot, like they just came out of the oven.

Also called chafers, buffet servers, or even warmers, this essential piece of equipment is frequently used by caterers, buffet-style restaurants, and hotels for keeping cooked food hot during service. You’ll find them in hotel breakfast bars, banquet halls, and at catered events like weddings.

The word chafer originates from the French word, chauffer, meaning “to heat.” A chafer is essentially a large serving vessel with a heat source and lid. They’re designed to keep any type of food or dish hot for hours after they’ve been cooked, ensuring that even the last person in the buffet line receives a hot meal. They’re used to hold anything from pancakes, steak, and potatoes to soups, sauces, and everything in between.

Parts of a Chafing Dish

Chafing dishes feature four main parts: a food pan, water pan, lid, and a type of fuel or heat source.

The food pan is made out of a food and oven safe material like stainless steel or ceramic. Since chafers aren’t designed to cook food, it’s common to place the entire food pan in the oven and then move it to the chafer when it’s ready, where it’ll be kept hot for serving.

A water pan sits underneath the food pan and above the fuel source. When the water in the pan gets hot, it produces steam that heats the food while preventing it from burning or drying out.

Chafers are also equipped with a lid that helps retain heat and keep food hot. They come in a variety of styles from lift-off to roll-top to suit the different needs of each venue.

Finally, in order for a chafing dish to adequately keep food hot for an extended time, it needs a heat source. Depending on whether it’s a fuel, electric, or induction chafer, it may also be equipped with a stand to hold it directly above the heat source while in use.

Types of Chafing Dishes

Fuel

  • Best option for portability
  • Safe for indoor and outdoor use
  • Limited burn times

Electric

  • Requires electrical outlet
  • No open flame makes it a safer option
  • Unlimited heating time

Induction

  • Requires electrical outlet or induction cooktop
  • Safest option for guests
  • Excellent heat distribution

There are three main types of chafing dishes, categorized by their heating style. They can be heated by either fuel, electric, or induction sources and while it ultimately depends on preference, some options may be better suited to certain environments than others.

Fuel: Fuel chafers use small cans of chafing fuel to heat the water dish and keep food hot. These fuel cans contain either a flammable gel or a liquid with an ignitable wick. Both are safe to burn inside and are convenient to use at outdoor venues since they don’t require an electrical outlet. Gel fuels are excellent at delivering hot holding temperatures, while wicked fuel cans are known to be safer since the liquid isn’t combustible in itself. You can find chafing fuel that will burn for as little as two hours and up to six hours. Some are also equipped with screw-top lids that allow you to seal and re-use them as needed.

Electric: Electric chafers are a convenient option for keeping food hot when there’s easy access to an electrical outlet. Since there are no open flames, they’re safer than fuel chafers and are also an excellent option for outdoor use when wind has the potential to put out flames. However, it is important to consider what extension cords may be needed as well as where they’re placed in order to prevent guests and staff from tripping over them.

Induction: Similar to electric, induction chafers require access to an outlet as well as an induction plate or induction cooker. These types of chafing dishes are more commonly found indoors on induction buffet tables and venues featuring fixed or drop-in induction cooktops. Induction chafers are a popular choice since it provides the most even heat distribution that prevents hot and cold spots. They’re also well known for being extremely safe to use.

Shapes & Sizes

The heating source isn’t the only characteristic you need to consider when purchasing a chafer. These handy devices also come in a range of shapes and sizes. Some allow for more versatility in what dishes they serve, while others may only be able to serve specific dishes like soups and other hot liquids.

Rectangular: This is the most common chafing dish shape and the most versatile. Because they’re longer in length, they usually feature two locations for a fuel source, which spreads the heat out evenly throughout the entire dish. These chafers are often used for main entrées but can also be found serving larger sides, pasta, or cooked vegetable dishes.
Oval: Oval chafers offer a more elegant look than many rectangular dishes. Since they’re of a similar shape and size, they’re often used to serve many of the same types of dishes as well.
Round: Round chafing dishes are much smaller than rectangular and oval chafers and are typically used to serve desserts, sauces, and side dishes. The smaller size means they only require one fuel source to adequately keep their contents warm.
Square: Square chafers are usually found serving smaller sides or appetizers. They’re much less common, most likely due to their size. On busy buffet lines or breakfast bars, these chafing dishes would need to be refilled much more often than their rectangular equivalents.
Soup/Marmite: Soup or marmite chafers feature a unique shape and are really only suitable for serving liquids such as soup, hot cereal, chilli, or sauce. They’re round in shape and much deeper than other chafers in order to make it easier to scoop and serve liquids from.

The size of chafer you choose will depend on the size of your buffet table and how much food you’re going keep inside. Chafers come in full, half, and 2/3 sizes. Full-size chafers have an 8-9 quart capacity or larger and usually come in a rectangular shape. Half-size chafers hold 4-5 quarts and are usually square or rectangular in shape. Round chafers come in many sizes but typically fall in the 2/3-size range or right in-between the full and half size capacities. They’re typically able to hold between 4 and 7 quarts, with the deeper soup or marmite chafers falling on the larger side.

Lids & Covers

The final consideration when selecting a chafing dish for your business is the type of lid or cover it’ll have. In order to choose the right one, you need to consider your guests and whether they’ll be serving themselves or being served by staff.

Lift-Off: Lift-off covers feature a handle in the centre that allows you to completely pick up and remove it from the food pan. These covers are ideal for when you have staff available to serve customers. They can be very frustrating for customers to serve themselves when they have their plate in one hand and lid in the other. Many chafers with lift-off lids feature a cover holder on the stand where it can be conveniently stored while serving.
Roll-Top: Roll-top or retractable lids feature a handle at the front that lets you simply slide it over and around the base to open it up. They’re very easy to operate and are perfect for self-serve buffet lines since a locking mechanism keeps them open while serving. Some chafers with roll-top lids can even open a full 180 degrees to make two-sided service possible.
Hinged: Hinged covers often closely resemble lift-off covers but are more similar to roll-top lids in that they don’t need to be completely removed while in use. A hinge on one side attaches the cover to the chafer allowing you to open and close it with ease. Some hinges operate on hydraulics that prevent it from getting slammed shut, creating a noisy distraction and potentially damaging the unit.
Glass Top: Glass top covers feature a transparent portion of the lid that provides both servers and guests a clear view of the dish’s contents. This extremely useful feature helps keep food hotter for longer since you won’t have guests constantly lifting up the cover just to see what’s inside.

It’s important to consider the type of atmosphere your restaurant or business offers when selecting a particular style of chafing dish. Is it for a cozy and casual breakfast buffet or for a classy wedding reception dinner? Your environment will dictate the style of chafer you’ll display. From the most basic, user-friendly designs to more ornate and classic styles, there’s a chafing dish for every occasion and every setting.


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  • Jamie Bertolini
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