Keeping hot foods hot until they are served is a food serving challenge.
If heat is not contained immediately after cooking, food can quickly lose heat in two ways:
- Radiation – Hot food radiates heat out into the room
- Evaporation – and as moisture evaporates off the surface of the food, it carries heat with it.
Professional chefs know various techniques to keep food warm for longer. With the coming holidays and potential bulk food preparations involved, many people can learn a thing or two from them.
Here are some tips that pro chefs use to keep food warm.
Use foil properly
Aluminium foil is the better option for wrapping hot food over ordinary plastic. Plastic can decompose at high temperatures, potentially contaminate food.
As the name suggests, Aluminum Foil is made of aluminium which has reflective properties that work to keep the food’s heat intact by reflecting the generated thermal energy. The reflective properties of aluminium also serve as a barrier to oxygen and light, helping to retain the food’s moisture and flavour.
But it is not enough to slap the food with foil and call it a day. To use foil effectively, do the following tips:
- Ensure that the dish is covered with the reflective (shinier) side facing the food to reflect the heat better. Aluminium is a good reflector of radiant energy, so it reflects the thermal radiation from the hot food, preventing heat loss due to radiation. The dull or shinier surfaces of the aluminium do not matter much when wrapping the food for cooking, but when you’d want to maximize the foil’s capacity to keep heat in so, this makes sense.
- Ensure that the foil is not in contact with the food. Aluminium is a good conductor of heat. It can quickly transfer heat to another surface that it touches or transfer it to the outside, where heat will be lost due to convection. Leave some space between the food and the foil for the heat to circulate within. This way, the foil can reflect the heat properly. If the foil is directly in contact with the food, heat will be lost through conduction.
- Wrap the foil with cloth, a layer of plastic wrap, a freezer bag or other heat-retaining materials. Because aluminium is a good heat conductor, it does poorly insulating heat. Notice that the better-insulated packages have an outer lining of fabric materials to help keep the heat. Aluminium foil doesn’t retain heat without help.
- Use foil only for a short time if food is left out. If any food reaches 7- 8 degrees Celsius or food, this temperature provides an atmosphere for bacteria to reproduce, potentially causing food poisoning. Otherwise, put the food inside the refrigerator and reheat it if needed to be served.
- Aluminium foil will discolour and break down when used acidic foods. The acidity (citric acid) can create small holes and break down the foil into aluminium salt. Although there’s a study that Aluminium salt is considered harmless and is safe to eat, do know that this can happen.
Use the Oven
Some ovens have a warm setting or have a warming drawer. But if the available oven has neither, set and keep the oven temperature to 93C-121C (200-250F). Place the cooked food on either a baking sheet, oven-safe pan, or a baking dish covered with aluminium foil and keep it warmed in the oven.
But keep the following in mind:
- If food items are deep-fried, such as waffles and pancakes, place them in a single layer atop a cooling rack on a baking sheet. The heat will circulate the food and prevent sogginess. Foil can also be loosely placed around the food to prevent further browning.
- Have a thermometer handy and ensure that the food temp is outside the danger zone. If needed, slightly increase the oven temperature.
- If food is kept warm inside the oven beyond 1 or 2 hours, the food texture and taste might be affected. They can either brown more or become spongy. In this case, you can consider reheating the food instead when nearing serving time.
Rice Cooker, Slow Cookers, Instant Pot, and other Steam-Based Cookers
Rice and slow cookers can be used on a low setting to keep sauces, soups, stews and hot vegetables hot. But, like an oven, be mindful of the food’s profile to be affected if it is kept warm for longer than one hour. These cooking appliances can keep food warm for five hours, but you need to allow steam to escape. These devices work by boiling, so removing the lid enables the moisture to escape.
Use warmer trays
Electric warmer trays are basically like giant hot plates. Some models have temperature control and safety features to prevent fire. Some models are cordless, which makes transporting convenient.
The non-electric variety is what you call Chafer sets, which professional caterers use. These sit on stands and use a burner underneath.
Warm the plates
Heating the plates can help to keep food hotter, longer.
Some commercial kitchens have commercial plate warmers but if this is unavailable, here are some alternative methods:
- To warm plates in the oven, set the oven to the lowest temperature, like 140°F to 190°F (60°C to 90°C). Stack the plates inside and keep them for 15 minutes.
- You can also warm the plates using a microwave. Stack plates in the microwave for 1-2 minutes at maximum power, with a cup or glass of water on top. Never use the microwave without any form of liquid.
- You can also use electric plate blankets, thermostatically controlled electric heating pads that warm plates to a hot, comfortable temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Some model simultaneously heats 10-15 dinner plates. Food stays warmer for longer than serving meals on cold dishes, improving the quality of the dining experience.
- Warm dinner plates using hot water. Fill a sink with the hottest water and put the plates in. Leave submerged for 5 minutes, then pat dry before using them.
Here are some examples of dinner plate types that hold heats best.
Don’t forget to inform others that the plates are hot, provide an oven mitt to handle and don’t immediately put the hot plate in a cold place to avoid shocking and breaking the plates.
Some more sensible ways to keep food warm longer:
- Keep food container sealed until use. If a spoon is sticking out, it will let the heat escape.
- Plan your work so that foods that can be kept warm or reheated easily are cooked first.
The trickiest part in food serving is keeping hot foods warm till guests are ready to enjoy them, especially during big events where crowds of people may arrive and eat at different times throughout the party. In addition, you need to consider safe temperature zones and retaining good food quality over time since it usually suffers when exposed to prolonged heat.
That’s it for this week.
As always, Professional Chefs on Call at Anytime!
Ciao for now,