Best Practices for Steam Tables

Steam Table Best Practices

As humans, we've decided that cooked food is preferable to raw food. Several thousand years after we first began cooking, we still yearn for a hot meal when we're hungry—but keeping our meals hot isn't always easy. For buffets or any front-end serving stations, operators need a way to keep products at desired temperatures without moving the grill into the middle of their seating area. More than that, operators need a way to keep food warm without cooking it further, which requires maintaining precise temperatures throughout the warming area. Spikes of heat or cold spots can create burned food, cold food, or unpleasant textures. So how do we keep food at that perfect level of warmth? Commercial steam tables, of course. We'll go over the basics of steam table operation and maintenance here.

How to Use a Restaurant Steam Table

Commercial steam tables use steam to produce gentle heat that keeps pans of food warm over long periods of time. The process of heating water to produce steam distributes heat evenly throughout the steam table's wells, preventing food from getting too hot or too cold. However, steam tables do not cook or defrost food, so any food that you place in the steam table to keep warm should already be fully cooked.

Each steam table will come with its own instructions that should be followed over any advice we give here, but we will still give you an overview of how to use a restaurant steam table.

  • Steam tables only work to keep food at the same temperature over time, so they cannot and should not be used to cook food.
  • The amount of water you need to use depends on how long you'll be using the steam table, but you shouldn't exceed one and a quarter inches of water in the wells. Too much water will overwhelm the heating elements and prevent your steam table from keeping the food warm.
  • Most commercial steam tables can be operated without water in the reservoir, but we don't recommend this method. Without water to create steam, your steam table is just an inefficient oven with exposed elements unevenly radiating heat towards the food pans.
  • Bring your steam table to the desired temperature before adding food. Water absorbs a lot of heat, and your food might drop to unsafe or undesirable temperatures before the steam table can adequately heat the water. Different models will require different run-up times, so determine how early you need to turn on your table before adding food.
  • Dense foods, such as meat or potatoes, might require more heat than most steam tables can produce. Consider adding a lid to conserve heat. Heat lamps can also help keep very dense products warm, but they may dry out food, changing the consistency and flavor of a dish.

Restaurant Steam Table Maintenance

A steam table is a substantial purchase for any business, and an investment of this size needs to be protected. A steam table can last a long time if you take good care of it. Again, your specific steam table's instructions should be followed over the ones we offer, but we'll give you some rules of thumb for restaurant steam table maintenance.

  • After every use, be sure to dry the steam table completely. Over a long period of time, water or other liquids can degrade the longevity of a steam table. Water will leave mineral buildup, which can eventually corrode the table's finish. The best practice is to dry your table thoroughly after every use.
  • Don't use harsh chemicals to clean your steam table. A light detergent and water will be sufficient to clean mineral and food residue off the table, while harsher detergents could wear down the finish over time.
  • Steam tables are built to withstand the everyday damage that comes with long-term use at a busy restaurant. Most are made of stainless steel, which resists corrosion, dings, and scratches. Maintenance for steam tables focuses on keeping the unit working for as long as possible. While you can ignore maintenance advice for a while without ruining your steam table, properly maintaining it will keep it working for many years.

Gas or Electric?

Electric steam tables are generally preferable to gas tables, unless you have a good reason to use gas in your operation. For example, a food truck would need a gas steam table as users wouldn't have access to an appropriate electrical outlet. Consider the price of electricity compared to the price of gas in your area as well. Because of the way a steam table works—and because it is not intended to cook food—gas- and electric-powered models should not perform differently from one another.

A few notes about gas versus electric tables:

  • Gas-powered steam tables are very useful for mobile operations that cannot guarantee electric power at every location.
  • Electric steam tables frequently require more power than a standard outlet. Consult your building maintenance team to ensure that you'll be able to power your unit wherever it is needed. If you can't, consider a gas-powered table as a replacement.
  • If you have gas lines that you want to use to power your steam table, check the machine's specification sheet to ensure it will work with your current apparatus.