The Value and Versatility of Steam Tables for Caterers

Last updated on October 6th, 2023 at 03:31 pm

When it comes to catering, precision and presentation are key. One invaluable tool that catering companies rely on to maintain the quality and temperature of their dishes is the trusty steam table.

Below we embark on a culinary exploration, delving into the diverse landscape of steam tables and unveiling the secrets of their versatility.

What is a Steam Table?

Buffet setups commonly feature steam tables. They serve the purpose of keeping prepared food items hot and at a consistent temperature for extended periods of time.

Typically, a steam table consists of a rectangular or oblong stainless-steel container with multiple compartments, known as wells or pans. Food pans sit in the well where steam maintains the food’s temperature.

The water reservoir beneath the pans is heated, creating steam that rises through perforations in the table’s surface. Food pans are set on top of the steam chamber, ensuring that food remains evenly heated without drying out or overcooking.

Benefits for Caterers

  • Temperature Control. One of the primary advantages of steam tables is their ability to maintain precise temperatures. This ensures that food stays safe to eat while preserving its flavor and texture.
  • Efficiency. Steam tables allow caterers to prepare and hold food in advance, reducing the last-minute rush during an event. This efficiency is especially crucial for large gatherings.
  • Presentation. A well-organized steam table can elevate the presentation of your dishes. Guests are more impressed by an accessible and well-maintained buffet.
  • Variety. With various types of steam tables available, caterers have the flexibility to offer a diverse menu.
  • Convenience. Steam tables are easy to clean and maintain, making them a practical choice for busy catering operations.

Steam tables come in various types, each serving a unique purpose.

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Let’s take a closer look at the different types of steam tables and how they differ.

Types of Steam Tables for Catering Use

Dry Heat Steam Tables:

Also known as hot wells, these units are designed to maintain the temperature of pre-cooked food using dry heat.

  • Heat Source: Hot wells primarily use electric heating elements or heated air to maintain the temperature of the food. They do not use water or steam as a direct heat source.
  • Moisture Retention: Hot wells are less effective at retaining moisture in the food. Food placed in these tables may tend to dry out or become less moist over time.
  • Food Types: They are suitable for dishes that don’t rely on moisture retention, such as fried foods, baked goods, or items that need to maintain a crispy texture.
  • Cleaning: Hot wells are generally easier to clean since they don’t involve water or steam.

Wet Heat Steam Tables:

Wet heat steam tables, on the other hand, use water to create steam, which keeps food moist and prevents it from drying out.

  • Heat Source: Wet heat steam tables use a water bath or steam as the primary heat source. Heated water underneath food pans creates steam to maintain even temperatures.
  • Moisture Retention: These units excel at maintaining moisture in food items, making them ideal for dishes like soups, stews, vegetables, and other items that require moisture to stay appetizing.
  • Food Types: They are best suited for dishes that benefit from moist heat and where maintaining the food’s texture and juiciness is crucial.
  • Cleaning: The use of water and steam can cause calcium build up over time. The use of steam to retain heat in a hot well requires extra care and cleaning.

Soup Kettles:

These specialized steam tables keep soups and stews at the perfect serving temperature. Soup kettles have precise temperature controls to ensure that your guests enjoy a piping hot bowl of soup every time. Round warmers are similar in production but differ in cosmetic design.

  • Heat Source: Soup kettles primarily use electric heating elements that are submerged in the liquid contents. Some advanced models may use induction heating.
  • Moisture Retention: Soup kettles are excellent at retaining moisture in the food they hold. They prevent evaporation and keep liquid-based dishes from drying out.
  • Food Types: Soup kettles are specialized for soups and similar dishes. They are not suitable for dry or solid foods.

Bain-Marie Steam Tables:

Bain-marie heaters gently heat delicate dishes like custards, sauces, and gravies. The water bath prevents overheating and curdling, making it a favorite among caterers who serve a variety of sauces and condiments.

  • Heat Source: Bain-maries use a water bath or steam as the primary heat source, making them gentler in terms of heat transfer compared to dry steam tables.
  • Moisture Retention: They are effective at retaining moisture in both liquid-based and solid foods, making them versatile for a wide range of dishes.
  • Food Types: Bain-marie steam tables can hold a variety of foods, including soups, sauces, vegetables, meats, and even desserts, making them more versatile for buffet setups and catering.

Catering Operations Love Steam Tables

In this exploration of different types of steam tables, we’ve uncovered the versatile tools that chefs and caterers rely on to ensure their creations reach diners in optimal condition.

Understanding the differences between these food-warming marvels is key to selecting the right one for your culinary needs. Whether you’re running a bustling restaurant, setting up a buffet, or catering a special event, food bars help set you apart.

Check out this blog, Unique Ways to Display Warm Foods, for more food warming and displaying options.

Catering a buffet? The Supplies You Need to Cater a Buffet blog has everything you need in one location. 

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