Hot food tables, sometimes referred to as steam tables, serve to keep food warm and at set serving temperatures. They are not designed to cook or warm foods up from unsafe or uncooked temperatures, but rather to hold at steady temps during serving. Such tables can be utilized in a variety of settings but are usually found at self-service buffets or cafeterias. Our top food table brands include:
Below, we review common factors to consider prior to purchasing a new hot food table unit.
Gas vs. Electric
Electric or gas food tables are available, each with their own sets of benefits. This is an important factor to determine early on the buying process, because each provide their own unique set of solutions to specific needs.
Gas hot food tables are often quicker to heat and have a lower probability of malfunctioning because of their simpler design. Natural or liquid propane gas options are available. A factor to consider when opting towards a gas steam table is the unit will most likely increase the temperature of the area in which the unit is setup more so than an electric steam table.
Electric hot food tables, on the other hand, may take a little longer to heat but are generally considered to be more energy-efficient. Voltage and phase options are available on many units, depending on your setup. Many electric units use NEMA (National Electrical Manufacturer Association) rated plugs. For non-NEMA rated plugs, we recommend hardwire installation from a certified electrician.
A good starting place when deciding between gas or electric hot food tables is to compare the cost of gas over electricity for the area you’ll be working.
A factor that goes hand in hand with deciding between a gas or electric unit is the type of controls the table is equipped with. The two prominent control types you’ll notice most are thermostatic and infinite controls.
What are thermostatic controls? Glad you asked. These controls allow users precise temperature control over each section of the steam table. Determine the ideal serving temperature for each item and dial it in. One of the biggest benefits to the thermostatic control type is the ease of training staff to operate. You will generally only see this feature advertised on electric tables.
Infinite controls, sometimes referred to as manual controls, on the other hand, are set on a dial curve from low to high, giving the operator control over the intensity of the heat, but not necessarily the specific temperature. These units tend to have a lower upfront cost, but necessitate more attention and some degree of trial and error to set the right temperature for each product.
Open well hot food tables are more versatile because they can be used for both moist or dry heating. Dry heat is preferred for holding fried foods and not an available option on sealed units, so if your menu contains crispier selections, open welled units would be the preferable route. Open well units generally have a lower upfront cost but require more labor than their sealed counterparts.
Sealed well hot food bars may cost a little more but require less labor because there is no need to set up spillage pans. With this style, the table’s heating elements are sealed underneath a permanently placed well in which water is added to from a direct source. These units include built-in drains and valves which change the water automatically, assisting in easy cleanup and paints a stark contrast to the labor required for filling and replacing the water for spillage pans. The dry option on sealed well units does not distribute heat as evenly and holding times are often shorter because food quality deteriorates quicker, which is why this style is not preferable to fried foods.
A newer type of well to hit the market more recently are induction ready dry wells. These drop-in wells eliminate the need for water altogether, saving operator time and labor. With no need for water, these induction ready wells remove the worry out of installing drain installation and can be installed virtually anywhere, on any surface with very minimal clearance. Dry well induction units also don’t get hot, so this prevents accidental burns, and have precise temperature controls to ensure product is always at proper serving temperatures, resulting in better product consistency and less food waste. The one drawback is that these units can not be used with just any food pan, but rather ones specifically designed for induction.
How Many Wells Do You Need
The number of wells you need depends on your intended usage, quantity and variety of what all you plan to serve. Units are available in one to six-well operations. If your operation features a serve yourself buffet style, or a university cafeteria in which you want to offer many options in large quantities, a six-well table will be your best bet. If you’re planning to use your unit for catered events in which only a few options will be available, you may only need a table with room for one or two drop-in wells. Adapter bars are available to allow for additional, fractional size pans to serve lesser quantities but more options. If this is the case, you may want a unit with easy mobility (see below). Fewer wells typically translates to lower cost, another factor to consider when making a purchase decision.
Steam Table Pans and Custom Configurations
In addition to deciding how many wells you’ll need, you’ll also need to decide on the pan size to fit in them. Wells are traditionally designed to accommodate full-size pans. One well fits one full-size food pan; however, food pans are available in a few standard sizes. With half-size food pans, you can fit two within one well. One well can also fit three third-size pans, four fourth-size pans, all the way up to nine ninth-sized pans.
Adapter plates and bars are available accessories that divide steam table wells to fit various types of pans, reduce steam loss for greater efficiency, catch drips before they fall into the well to assist in easier cleaning. These make it easy to customize your units and support the use of multiple fractional size pans. Of course, this all depends on the variety and quantity of food you’re looking to serve.
Another consideration is whether you need standard or heavy-duty steam table pans. Heavy duty pans are considered to provide a more durable quality, better at withstanding the wear and tear of the kitchen. Standard duty pans are more prone to show nicks and scrapes far sooner, while heavy duty pans offer a reprieve in this area. They tend to cost more upfront but need replaced far less often. To tell if a pan is heavy duty or not, look for 22-gauge thickness and 300 series stainless steel construction.
Portable vs. Stationary Units
Portable and stationary units are both available and deciding which one is right for you, again, depends of your intended use. If you’re only going to be using the table in one primary location, then a natural gas or hardwired electric unit is the best option for you. However, if you’d like the option to transport your table, to move from the back of the house to the front, or for catered events, then a mobile electric unit with casters will be the better option. Most gas units are stationary, but add-on casters are available for some units.
With the exception of induction ready wells, a water source is needed to heat hot food bars. The differences between water sources are noted above. For exposed, open wells, the use of spillage pans to hold water are needed. However, sealed-well units have a built-in drain pump which may require additional plumbing and drain installation. Good water management and floor drains are typically a worthwhile investment for sealed units because water is directly added and emptied. Investing in a good backflow prevention device will help ensure you follow food safety regulations. Whether or not you need a floor drain installed will depend on your situation and which type of unit you choose. Read the manual and spec sheets to learn how to safely operate your steam table, and check with a plumber prior to installation.
Tips for Cleaning Your Table
To ensure a long and stable life of your product, here are a few general cleaning and maintenance tips:
At the end of each day, allow your steam table to cool, drain the water, and then scrub wells with a mild detergent. Avoid using abrasive scrubbers, especially steel wool pads, or harsh cleaning chemicals as these can erode and tarnish the metal. Always scrub with the grain of stainless steel and never in a circular pattern.
Clean spills up quickly because they will dry fast due to the heat of the unit, and this will make them much harder to clean afterwards.
On a weekly basis, clean with a descaling agent approved for use on stainless steel to remove all scale deposits as these can cause corrosion and eventual failure if left for long stretches of time. After, rinse well, making sure to remove any chemical residue.
Don’t allow water to sit in wells for long periods of time. Remove water and clean after each use.
Always put water in the well prior to turning on the table (for exposed and sealed units).
Avoid using cold water on hot surfaces as this can warp the metal.
Hot Food Table Accessories
There are many accessories available to help you get the most out of your steam table unit.
Adapter plates work to create customer configurations for your steam table presentation, allowing for more variety to be served in a single well.
Steam table pans come in many different sizes, from full-size to ninth-size. Small pans can be used in one well to server smaller quantities. Different sizes can also be used to create a variety of configurations for a highly customized look.