Warming and holding food properly is one of the most important tasks in any commercial kitchen. With the right warming and holding equipment, you can keep your food delicious and ready-to-serve.
Designed to either bring precooked foods up to a safe warming temperature, or to put the finishing touch on "just cooked" food, warming and holding equipment will bring your food up to a safe warming temperature and maintains that for hours on end. It’s important to know, however, that warming and holding equipment should never be used to cook raw food because the product spends too much time in the danger zone, putting your customers at risk for a foodborne illness and a potential fine from a health inspector.
In this buying guide, we’ll walk you through different warming and holding options for the front and back of house.
Depending on what you’re cooking and where you’re cooking it, there are different warming and holding options that will work best for your needs. First consider the type of food you’ll be cooking, and what needs to be held. Does your menu consist of a lot of fried, crispy things? Or are you holding foods like curries, soups and more? Start with your menu, and then read on to learn more about certain heating options.
Dry or Moist Heat?
Commercial warming and holding equipment comes in dry and moist heat varieties. These different types of heat applications work best with specific menu items, which is why you should always consider your menu before picking up a new piece of equipment. Warmers that rely on moist heat relies on water to create steam for heating. This method of heating helps prevent items from drying out and becoming scorched. Though with moist heat you will use more energy, you’ll find it heats faster than their dry heat counterparts.
Dry heat might take longer to get to temperature, but it’ll use less energy. Plus dry heat is better for fried and other crispy products that have the potential to become soggy. Induction is a type of dry heating that relies on oscillating magnetic fields to generate heat, making it the most energy-efficient warming and holding options. Plus no water requirements means no filling and refilling, no scaling, and less worries about scorched foods. Manufacturers like Vollrath make several types of induction food warmers, drop in warmers and other type of induction options to suit your needs.
Thermostatic and Manual Controls
Just like with your griddle or backyard grill, a lot of warming and holding appliances are equipped with either thermostatic or manual controls. Manual controls enable you to set the heat level to low, medium or high heat, so you have full control over what temperature to cook different products. Manual controls need to be watched by an operator regularly to ensure food doesn’t get too hot, or too low and slip into the danger zone. On the other hand, thermostatic controls work like your oven, where you set a particular temperature and the equipment will add more or less heat to achieve and hold that temperature. Before purchasing make sure you’re aware of what type of controls your equipment has.
Front or Back of House?
It’s a simple question to ask, but one many of us forget. Once you’ve considered the type of food you’ll be cooking and holding, next up is to think about where the food will be served. Are you caterer specializing in large events? Or do you need to keep large amounts of food warm for a buffet or cafeteria line?
When it comes to commercial kitchens, timing is everything. Customers expect warm, ready-to-eat food that isn’t dried out or burned, and health inspectors require food safe temperature to ensure no one gets sick. Whether you’re cooking for a fine dining restaurant or for a buffet line, the challenge of safely holding food remains the same. Here are a few different warming and holding equipment options to use in your kitchen.
Versatile and convenient, no commercial kitchen is complete without a holding cabinet of some kind. Offered in a variety of capacities and configurations, you can customize your holding cabinet to fit the needs of your unique kitchen. Whether shopping for an insulated or uninsulated cabinet featuring manual or thermostatic controls, you can create the perfect cabinet to make life easy and efficient in the kitchen. Read on to learn more about the 3 types of cabinets often found in commercial kitchens:
Not to be confused with a "cook and hold Cabinet", warming and holding cabinets are an easy way to keep precooked product at the perfect food safe temperature. You’ll often find that many large commercial operations use these cabinets for transporting food long distances (like in a hospital) to ensure proper food safety temperatures are always maintained. No matter if you’re serving now or in a couple of hours, holding cabinets are a great way for keeping buffet line refills close at hand.
Cook and Hold Cabinet
A bit of a misnomer, food isn’t so much as cooked in this cabinet as it is finished. Great for crisping up chicken skin or adding that final browned touch to the top of a lasagna. These cabinets often stick close to the line in the back of house for holding pre-seared and browned foods prior to serving.
Unlike holding cabinets, proofing cabinets are designed for bakers who want to achieve beautiful bread and pizza doughs. "Proofing" specifically refers to the final fermentation rest that allows the dough to rise after it has been shaped (but before it has been baked). Yeast cells can be finicky, and can either proliferate or die if the external environment isn’t optimum. Commercial proofing cabinets enable bakers to set precise temperature and humidity levels for consistent results each and every time.
Heat lamps (also known as bulb warmers) are often used at the pass to keep food warm before a server takes it to the table. Heat lamps often utilize an infrared bulb or heated metallic rod to spot warm food. Because heat lamps often transcend into the dining room, many manufacturers like Hatco give you the ability to customize the look of your heat lamp.
Strip heaters are extremely effective at safely holding the temperature of your food without drying out your food. Mounted above a shelf, strip heaters come in a variety of lengths and heat a wide area with even, consistent heat. That said, it’s important to follow manufacturer instructions when installing a strip heater so as not to overcook your end product.
Referred to as soup warmers or just "round" food warmers, this piece of equipment is good for everything from keeping soup warm to melting cheese for nachos. Round commercial food warmers can be used either in the front or back of house, and they’ll hold your food at a safe warming temperature for several hours of service.
Unlike food warmers, which are designed to simply hold warm food at a consistently warm, safe temperature, rethermalizers can be used to bring cold food up to safe serving temperatures without fear of lingering too long in the danger zone. Because rethermalizers excel in quickly heating up frozen and chilled foods for service, they are often used by caterers with limited preparation times. Rethermalizers come in both moist heat and induction varieties.
Perfect for the back of house, drawer warmers keep a diverse selection of foods hot, fresh and ready for serving. Commonly used for baked potatoes, dinner rolls, tortillas and more, drawer warmers can used to keep foods safely held at the proper foodservice temperature. Featured in both single and multi-drawer options, you can easily set the proper holding temperature and moisture content for each particular drawer.
When you need warming and holding solutions for the front of house, it’s not just about keeping your food at a safe temperature and tasting great—the equipment has to look good too!
Like your warming and holding cabinets, steam tables are designed to hold pre-cooked foods at safe holding temperatures. They are not to be used to cook food or bring it up to the proper serving temperature. Because steam tables are often used in buffet lines and other self-service areas, many manufacturers like Vollrath offer customization options to fit the style and brand of your business.
When purchasing a steam table, pay attention to its type of well: open or sealed. These well types refer specifically to the heating element in both electric and gas units. Sealed wells feature a covered heat source and a built-in drain system that eliminates the need for spillage pans and saves you cleanup time. However, keep in mind that sealed wells only deliver moist heat, which isn’t ideal for crispy options like fried chicken. Open wells, on the other hand, can be used for both moist and dry heating making it a more versatile options. Because the heat source on open wells is exposed, you will need spillage pans when utilizing moist heating.
Merchandisers are a great way to keep food warm and visible to customers who are ready to purchase. Ideal for buffets, gas stations and other convenience areas, merchandisers can be used to hold sandwiches, pizzas, French fries, and other self-service items. Some merchandisers come with customized LED displays or automatic product rotation for added quality control.
The best way to keep condiments warm and at a safe holding temperature is with a heated dispenser. Great for that ooey gooey nacho cheese or rich chocolate fudge to top sundaes, heated dispensers can be used in both the front and back of house. Plus, with manufacturers like Star ensuring proper portion control with each pump, you can get a better handle on your costs.
Quite popular in Europe, and starting to garner more traction in the United States, induction heating is the most efficient and precise form of heating on the market. Instead of relying on a heat source (gas, electric, etc) for heat, induction units create an oscillating magnetic field to generate heat in the pan itself. As a result, induction is the best way to achieve and maintain precise temperature controls. Manufacturers like Vollrath are leading the industry with induction rethermalizers, drop-in induction hot plates, warmers and much more. For more about cooking with induction, check out our Buying Guide.