Chafing Dish Buyers' Guide
A chafer is a heated serving dish made to keep food at safe temperatures before and during serving. Often used by caterers and at restaurants with buffet serving lines, there are a wide variety of chafing dishes available to meet every need, from corporate events to casual picnics and formal weddings. Most are made to sit in a pan of water, which sits in a frame over one of several heat sources. They can be purchased in sets or in separate pieces that let you put together a custom configuration.
There are many types of chafing dishes that allow you to serve everything from meat or vegetables to soup or coffee. Rectangular dishes, the most popular shape, are available in full (dimensions) and half (dimensions) sizes. Full-size pans can usually hold 8 to 9 quarts, while half-size pans can hold 4 to 5 quarts. Round dishes can be shallow for holding side dishes or sauces, or deeper to hold soup. Coffee urns are available to hold hot drinks, and griddles use a heat source to keep dry food products warm without a water bath underneath.
Because these pieces are used at a variety of functions, there are many finishes – including mirror, satin, and matte – available. Hammered finishes are available in both stainless steel and copper for the lids, and brass or gold accents can add a decorative touch to your dishes.
The point of using a chafing dish is to keep the food warm, but the heat source varies. The traditional way of heating a chafer is with solid fuel, often called canned heat or more commonly by the brand name Sterno. It employs either liquid or gel fuel, and is rated by the manufacturer by the average amount of time it will burn. Those with liquid fuel will use one or more wicks, while the gel fuel burns directly.
All of these produce an open flame and must be used with caution. Since they do not need electricity, they're ideal for outdoor events, though they may not stay lit in windy conditions. If you plan to use canned heat, you will need a fuel holder, which is a canister-shaped piece with a swing-out top. These allow you to control how much of the flame reaches the chafer to control the heat and make it easy to extinguish the flame when needed.
Another option is an electric heat source. Some of these are heaters similar in size to chafing fuel cans, while others are larger round heaters that resemble a hot plate. Some chafing dishes are induction compatible, so they can be used with countertop induction warmers. Water pans with built-in heaters under the pan are another option. Although all of these types require electricity, they have the benefits of not being extinguished by the wind or having time limits on them like canned heat does. For a catering operation that serve in many different venues, it may be wise to have several heating options to choose from.
Because chafing dishes are made to hold food for extended periods of time, lids are generally required to meet health regulations. Keeping the lids on when food is not being served can also help retain heat to keep food at safe temperatures. Lids may lift off completely, swing up on hinges, or roll open.
The majority of chafing dish lids are metal, which may be stainless steel, silver-plated, or copper. Some have a glass window in the top so that customers can see what is inside without opening the lid. Another option that increases visibility is clear, heat-resistant polycarbonate.
Chafer racks are essential, enabling you to suspend the water and food pans over the heat source. Most include a place to hold fuel underneath the pans. The simplest racks are made of wire and are often cheap enough to be disposable. These are favored by catering companies that use disposable pans as well, as they allow you to deliver the food to locations without having to come back to collect your supplies after the event has ended.
Some other rack options include stackable units that make storage and transportation simple. Decorative models are also available, and include lattice patterns, art deco designs, and scrolled ironwork. Many racks are sold in sets with the chafing dish and lid, with matching designs and accents. Also available are plastic and wooden boxes to transport the chafers and racks in.