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Without steam tables, caterers and restaurateurs would spend much of their time keeping food from sticking to hot pans and inefficiently replenishing serving platters. Used everywhere from hospital cafeterias to all-you-can-eat buffets, steam tables make food service less stressful, allowing you to amply prepare for a dinner rush. Full-sized steam tables usually use electricity, but you can create smaller, simpler versions using chafing dishes, inserts and canned gel fuel.

Some Like It Hot

Steam tables use steam from boiling water to keep food hot. They keep hot food at the right temperature for eating, but they also maintain a temperature sufficient to limit microbial growth. However, they are not designed to bring refrigerated food to safe temperatures quickly. Reheat food to serving temperature in the oven or on the stove over direct heat, then transfer it to the steam table.

Appearance Counts

Because they use indirect heat from steam rather than the direct heat of a gas or electric burner, steam tables keep food sufficiently but not excessively hot. This happy medium prevents overcooking and makes sure that the food looks appetizing even after a period of time. On a steam table, for example, colorful dishes such as vegetable stir-fries retain their vibrancy.

Serving in Volume

Steam tables are standard for professional catering companies and designed to feed crowds. A full-size hotel pan, which fits in the well of a steam table, holds between 5 and 18 quarts of food, depending on its depth. The capacity of a steam table gets diners through a buffet line in a minimum of time, without having to pause every few minutes to wait for restocking.


Steam tables are user-friendly at self-serve restaurants. Counters on both sides allow diners to rest trays and utensils as they fill their plates. Food is easy to reach, and accessible surfaces are insulated for safety. Steam tables are equipped with sneeze guards, which limit the spread of airborne pathogens. Self-service cuts staffing costs and allows diners to easily customize meals.

About the Author

Devra Gartenstein

Devra Gartenstein is a self-taught professional cook who has authored two cookbooks: "The Accidental Vegan", and "Local Bounty: Seasonal Vegan Recipes". She founded Patty Pan Cooperative, Seattle's oldest farmers market concession, and teaches regular cooking classes.