A Guide to Steam Table Pan Depths

Choosing Your Steam Table Pan Depth

To ensure the appropriate amount of food is available for each daypart, operators should know what size steam table pans they need, since they are available in seven common sizes ranging from full-size pans that usually measure 12 inches by 20 inches to several fractional pans that may be as small as 4 inches by 623 inches. When choosing the right hotel pan size for your steam table, it's also important to note the different pan depths available and how the depth of your pan may impact your service.

Which Food Pan Depth Do You Need?

Just as there are multiple steam table pan sizes, there are multiple common pan depths: 212, 4, and 6 inches. Although 212-inch-deep hotel pans are the most common choice, each of these pan types is best suited to different applications.

Operators of catering businesses, hotels, and restaurants that set up buffet-style dining for continental breakfasts or private events are equipped with hot food bars and chafers, which are meant to be used with food pans. Whether the buffet is designed so staff members can prepare plates for guests or to allow guests to serve themselves, foodservice operations using buffet setups want to ensure the food being offered stays as fresh and visually appetizing as possible. To do this in a buffet line meant to serve a low-to-medium volume of food, you'll want to use steam table pans with shallower depths, like the 212-inch-deep pans.

Hotel pans with a 212-inch depth hold less product than deeper pans, which means employees may have to add additional food or change the pan more frequently. However, since the pans are emptied at a faster pace, the food held in them generally doesn't have time to burn and stick onto the sides of the pan, which can otherwise leave behind an unappetizing residue when food is eventually portioned out. Because food isn't allowed to burn onto the pan, 212-inch-deep pans can help lessen the amount of product that is wasted during meal service.

Steam table pans with this depth are also better suited to holding foods at the proper temperatures, since the heat or refrigeration doesn't have to permeate as much of the product. This is especially true for holding dense foods like pasta and potatoes.

Many chafers use water pans with a 4-inch depth. Hotel pans with a 212-inch depth are more compatible with these models, since this depth allows for an inch of water to be added and leaves a half-inch of room for steam to rise and circulate.

If your chafers can accommodate deeper hotel pans or if your serving line is primarily made up of drop-in food wells, you may prefer 4- and 6-inch-deep pans. Steam table pans with these depths are generally the best option for operations that need to meet high-volume service requirements, like soup kitchens, cafeterias, and military facilities that feed hundreds of people each day. There are also certain foods that will do best in deeper food pans, including:

  • Proteins and vegetables that require water or liquid, like hot dogs and corn on the cob
  • Fruit, seafood, and other products that require a drain shelf
  • Lettuce and other products that hold large amounts of air
  • Liquid-based menu items like gravies, sauces, and soups.