Steam Table Buyers' Guide

Steam Table Selection Tips

Hot food bars have a place across many concepts, whether they're used to hold sides and sauces in the kitchen, showcase entrées on an all-you-can eat buffet, or build a serving line in any number of institutions. Sizing is key to choosing the right one for your business, as is making sure you have the right features. This guide will help you navigate the many choices available and point you toward choosing the one that will fulfill your needs.

The Benefits of Steam

There are food warming alternatives to that don’t involve steam, so why invest in equipment that involves a few extra steps to operate and maintain? Using steam to transfer heat from the source - in this case, a gas burner or electric element - to food results in gentler, more evenly-distributed temperatures. While staff will still need to monitor food temperature and conditions, rotating and stirring each product periodically, steam tables pose far less of a risk of burning or overcooking food than "dry" equipment. Hot bars are the best method of holding multiple large pans of food at appropriate serving temperatures.

Application and Sizing

Now that you understand the benefits of steam, the business of choosing the right steam table begins with understanding where and how it will be used. Self-serve hot bars are generally accessible by guests from both sides and their controls are concealed to prevent tampering. Both sides of a self-serve food bar feature sneeze guards to better protect your guests from germs and most health departments require those for steam tables that are accessible to guests. Some models include adjustable sneeze guards, also called breath guards, allowing you to ensure full protection and accessibility of your offerings.

Full-service hot bars are made with one side for staff that generally features a cutting board and more readily-accessible heat controls, while the other side may have a rail for customers to slide trays or plates along. Often, full-service counters will have a sneeze guard only on the customer side so staff has unimpeded access to food on their side.

Hot food bars are sized according to how many full-size steam table pans they will accommodate. The smallest will hold just two, while larger ones will accept five or more. Each of those full-size pan wells can accommodate a number of smaller, fractional pan sizes in dozens of combinations, so long as the proper supports are used to hold them. Those supports, also called adapter bars, may be included standard with the steam table or you may have to purchase them separately.

To make sure you're choosing the appropriate equipment, estimate how many full-size compartments you'll need to hold all the food you need to have on hand at the busiest time of day. If in doubt, go with a size larger than you think you'll need to allow for a boom in business; it's better to have too much hot well space than too little.

Open-Element Hot Food Bars

Also called "exposed element" hot bars, the heating elements in this type of equipment are not sealed and are hence exposed when the equipment's pans are removed. Water is held in "spillage pans", which are essentially oversized steam pans inserted into the well above the element that must always be added and removed manually. Food pans rest inside the spillage pans above the water and are heated by the generated steam.

Open-element hot bars generally come at a lower upfront cost, but require more labor involvement than the alternative. One upside is that they can be easier to keep clean because spillage pans containing the water must be removed and are thus easier to deep clean in a pot sink or dishwasher. Because open-element bars have no drains or valves, there are fewer moving parts to maintain.

Sealed-Well Hot Food Bars

The sealed-well type of food bar is the less labor-intensive type. The heating elements are sealed underneath a permanent well that water is added to directly. These will include built-in drains and valves for changing that water, and the more sophisticated versions also feature automatic-fill systems that take away a good deal of the labor requirements involved in maintaining the equipment.

Often, sealed-well steam tables give you the option of using them without any water. This "dry" option does away with the need to manage water levels, but because the dry element will not distribute heat as evenly, staff must pay closer attention to food and stir it periodically to make sure it doesn’t burn. Food holding times are generally shorter when you're using dry wells because food quality will degrade more quickly in the presence of the more intense heat.

Gas vs. Electricity and Other Options to Consider

Steam tables are heated via gas or electricity. Your preference will largely depend on which of the two resources is available in your facility. If gas is not available in the part of your building that you intend to install your steam table, electric units are relatively easy to have installed by qualified electricians. The downside to electricity is that it brings equipment up to temperature slightly slower than gas, but may be less expensive to operate in the long run, particularly if your business is in a part of the country where electricity is cheap.

For establishments that have minimal requirements or need to supplement their larger equipment, a countertop hot food table is an economical option. These sit on the countertop and therefore provide a good deal of flexibility in where they can be placed. You'll find sizes that are built for as few as one or as many as five full-size food pans.

The type of controls each steam table is equipped with will make a difference in the price and how easy the equipment is to operate.

  • Thermostatic controls give operators precise control over the specific temperature of each section of the hot food bar. That means you need only determine the ideal temperature for each item and set the respective controls. Those specific settings can make it much easier to train staff on using hot food table equipment.
  • Infinite controls, rather than maintaining specific temperatures, only give you control over the intensity of heat in the form of Low to High. Equipment with infinite controls, also called manual controls, tend to be cheaper initially, but require more user attention and more trial and error to determine the right temperature for each product.