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Guide to Chafing Dishes

Chafing dishes are an essential addition to any foodservice establishment or engagement. They keep hot food hot and ensure food safety. Keep reading to learn more about what chafing dishes are, what they're used for, and all about the different types so you can find the right chafing dish for your catering business, hotel, or banquet hall.

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What Are Chafing Dishes?

A chafing dish is a multi-part system that keeps hot food hotter for longer than food stored in a traditional food pan. Chafing dishes come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and styles, and they can be used in many different foodservice settings.

Chafing Dish Definition

Chafing dish comes from the French word chauffer, which means to make warm. As such, chafing dishes use gentle, indirect heat to keep their contents warm in a large and shallow pan. The heat they use can come from fuel, electricity, or induction heating, and it's used to heat a pan of water to create steam. This steam then heats the pan above that's filled with food.

What Is a Chafer Used For?

A chafing dish is used to keep food that is already cooked warm. Typically, these dishes will be arranged in a buffet line and customers will serve themselves directly from the dishes. You can find chafing dishes in many different types of foodservice settings, and they are commonly used at catered events, banquet halls, and hotels. Remember that chafing dishes are only used to keep food warm, and they cannot be used for cooking food.

Restaurant Equipment

Chafing Dish Sizes

Chafing dishes come in three standard sizes: full size, half size, and 2/3 size. 

  • Full size chafers hold between 8 to 9 quarts of food and are typically rectangular. They are the most common size of chafer and are primarily used for holding and serving entrees.
  • Half size chafers hold between 4 to 5 quarts of food and are typically square or rectangular. They are often used for holding and serving sides and desserts.
  • 2/3 size chafers hold between 5 to 6 quarts of food and are typically either round or square. They are often used for holding and serving side items.

Types of Chafing Dishes

With so many different types and styles of chafing dishes to choose from, it can be difficult to find the right option for your business. We broke down the different chafing dish types and what they're used for to make the process simple.

Restaurant Equipment

Rectangular Chafing Dish

Rectangular chafing dishes are the most common chafing dish style and an essential addition to your catering supplies. They are typically full size chafing dishes, making them perfect for serving entrees in your buffet line.

  • Primarily used for serving main dishes or large quantities of sides
  • Many frames can accommodate full, 1/2, and 1/3 size food pans
  • Available in capacities between 3 qt. to 15 qt.
Restaurant Equipment

Round Chafing Dish

Round chafing dishes provide a welcome break in appearance from the typical rectangular models and are great for holding main dishes, sides, sauces, and desserts. The round shape makes it easier to stir food as needed, making clean circular motions instead of taking extra time to scrape bits of leftovers from the side or corners of a food pan.

  • Ideal for scoopable foods like eggs, casseroles, chilis, and dips
  • Frames feature curved legs for optimal stability
  • Available in capacities between 10 oz. to 14 qt.
Restaurant Equipment

Square Chafing Dish

Square chafing dishes are commonly used for serving appetizers and sides, making them a nice complement to rectangular chafing dishes in your buffet line. They are compact, so they won't take up too much space on your table, and are easily portable to and from your event.

  • Ideal for serving vegetables, grains, dips, and desserts
  • Many have an induction-friendly bottom to use with an induction warmer
  • Available in capacities between 3.5 qt. to 8 qt.
Restaurant Equipment

Oval Chafing Dish

The egg-shaped design of an oval chafing dish adds elegance to any serving table. Some oval chafing dishes are as large as rectangular chafers but can be used to enhance the visual interest of your presentation.

  • Great for serving entrees, sides, and desserts
  • Generally have a mirror finish for an upscale look
  • Available in capacities between 4 qt. to 6 qt.
Restaurant Equipment

Disposable Chafing Dish

Disposable chafing dishes feature all of the warming capabilities of standard chafers, but they have the added benefit of being disposable, so you can save time on cleanup by throwing them away after service. These chafing dishes are ideal for outdoor parties or casual events.

  • Economical alternative to maintaining an expensive line of chafers
  • Ideal for events where quick cleanup is needed
  • Great for restaurants that offer catering menus
Restaurant Equipment

Drop-In Chafing Dish

Drop-in chafers are permanently installed into countertops or tabletops. They have an upscale, streamlined presentation, and they're ideal for businesses like hotels that offer continental breakfast or buffets that are looking for a permanent chafing option.

  • Require an electrical outlet nearby
  • Must be installed into a countertop
  • Remove easily for cleaning
Restaurant Equipment

Coffee Chafer

Popular in hotels, buffets, and at catered events, coffee chafer urns are used to hold and dispense hot coffee and water for tea. These chafers are insulated to prevent heat loss, so your coffee or beverages stay hot for longer periods. They include a lid with a knob that is easy to remove for quick, simple refilling of your hot beverages.

  • Great for serving hot beverages at outdoor or indoor events
  • Include two side handles to assist in lifting and carrying
  • Come in sizes between 1 and 5 gallons
Restaurant Equipment

Soup Chafer

soup chafer, also known as a marmite chafer, is commonly used to keep soups, stews, sauces, and gravies warm throughout your service. It has a tall and narrow shape, which makes it easier to ladle out the contents, and a wide base to keep it stable on the table.

  • Can also be used to serve oatmeal, grits, and cooked grains
  • Include two side handles to assist in lifting and carrying
  • Come in sizes between 1 and 14 quarts
Restaurant Equipment

Chafer Griddle

Chafer griddles are ideal for cooking and serving a variety of foods, such as pancakes, french toast, meats, vegetables, and bacon, and will help streamline your operation as well as provide a memorable display cooking experience for guests. This type of chafer is open, so the smells and sounds of sizzling food will help entice customers.

  • Multi-functional design for cooking or serving
  • Feature raised edges to contain juices or other liquids
  • Creates a unique, modern display
Restaurant Equipment

Induction Chafing Dish

Induction chafers are designed for use with induction cookers or warmers to heat the unit rather than utilizing a heated water pan, like other chafing dishes. Induction cooking only heats the chafer and there is no open flame, which eliminates the hazard of burns and fires. An induction chafer also provides best-in-class heat distribution with no hot or cold spots, and they allow you to maintain a specific temperature for longer periods than other chafing dishes.

  • Require access to electricity
  • Ideal for compact dining areas
  • Don't have to worry about open flames and potential fires or burns
Restaurant Equipment

Electric Chafing Dish

Electric chafers are great for outdoor events as they are more reliable than chafing fuel in the event of windy or inclement weather. They're also ideal for indoor use when you don't want to deal with the hazards of open flames. Keep in mind that electric chafing dishes do require access to an electrical outlet, so plan accordingly when using them.

  • Come with fully-adjustable thermostatic heat controls
  • Most can use fuel canisters to heat food if an electric outlet isn’t available
  • Don't have to worry about open flames and potential fires or burns

How to Choose a Chafing Dish

When choosing a chafing dish, the main factor to consider is who your customers will be. The price point and features of chafers that are used for casual settings versus fine dining settings are different, and purchasing the correct chafer style will help you stay true to your theme and concept. Once you know your customer base, you can choose your chafer by determining which price point is best for you, how often you will need to travel with it, and what your storage needs will be.

Price Point

Chafers are categorized into three different price points: economy, mid-range, and high-end. Typically, the higher the price point, the more durable and decorative a chafer will be. Economy chafers are no-frills serving vessels that usually feature a thinner gauge stainless steel construction than more high-end models. Economy chafers are ideal for infrequent, light-duty use whereas mid-range models can handle higher-volume use. High-end models, which are perfect for fine dining establishments, boutique hotels, and weddings, are the most durable and feature a highly polished mirror finish for an upscale look.


How often you need to use your chafer and how often you are traveling with it will determine the durability needed. If your catering business primarily caters to social and corporate events in off-site locations, you will need to transport your chafer frequently. Choose a more durable mid-range or high-end chafer to stand up to frequent wear and tear and to prevent dents and scratches from occurring. If you own a restaurant that occasionally hosts private catered events with a prix-fixe menu, economy chafers may be all you need.


A foldable or stackable design may be very important to you if you are limited in space. A chafer with a folding frame saves you space during transport and storage and makes setting up and tearing down a breeze. There are also chafers with stackable frames, which allow for several frames to be nested together for easy, compact storage.

Restaurant Equipment

Chafing Dish Fuel

Fuel chafers utilize chafer fuel cans to keep the water in your chafer dish heated and in turn, keep your food at optimal serving temperature. There are two main types of chafer fuel that you can choose from:

  • Gel fuel comes in either ethanol (pink) or methanol (blue) gel. This type boasts strong heating performance and can last through long services without the need for a wick. It is ideal for low-profile chafers where the water pan is too close to the fuel cell holder for a wick fuel.
  • Wick fuel uses clean-burning glycol fuel for reliable chafer warming and it comes in both traditional and stem types. Unlike gel fuel, wick fuel needs a wick to burn, making it safer if it is spilled since glycol cannot combust without a wick.

Chafing Dish Covers

Chafer covers help keep your food hot in between servings. When choosing the best lid type for your chafer, it is important to keep in mind your style of service to ensure the best dining experience for your customers.

Lift-Off and Dome Cover

Lift-off and dome covers can be lifted off the chafer completely using the handle on top of the lid. This lid style is preferable for buffet lines where servers are dishing out portions of food so that guests are not responsible for removing and recovering food, which can slow down lines and potentially cause accidents.

Roll Top and Retractable Covers

Roll top covers are ideal for buffets because customers do not need to hold the lid or even remove it. Roll top covers generally have front handles for easy use. For a two-sided service, choose a model that can retract on both sides. Many retractable covers have a 90-degree and 180-degree opening for versatility. Many options also feature slide locks to keep the cover in place. Keep in mind that roll tops that don't flip down 180 degrees are only ideal for one-sided service.

Hinged Covers

Hinged covers give you the look of a lift-off unit without the hassle of having to remove the lid. Many models offer a stay-open feature at 45-degree and 90-degree angles. Some options even double as lift-off lids for added versatility. There are also hinged covers with slow closing hinges, which close gently and quietly, which helps preserve the atmosphere of your dining area and causes less wear and tear on the unit.

Glass Top Covers

Glass top covers feature clear windows that allow customers to view the contents without opening the lid. This helps prevents heat loss from customers opening and closing the cover regularly to see what's inside.

Chafing Dish Finishes

From attractive mirror finishes to subdued matte options, there are many different chafer finishes that you can choose from. It is important to keep in mind your establishment's concept and menu so that you choose a chafing dish finish that complements your theme.

Restaurant Equipment

Mirror Polish Finish

  • A shiny, reflective appearance provides an attractive display
  • Used in fine dining settings
  • Requires frequent polishing
Restaurant Equipment

Matte Finish

  • Provides a modern, industrial look
  • Ideal for mid-scale to upscale dining settings
  • Helps hide any surface imperfections
Restaurant Equipment

Satin Finish

  • Smooth to the touch and not reflective
  • Ideal for mid-scale to upscale dining settings
  • Does not attract fingerprints
Restaurant Equipment

Hammered Copper

  • Dimpled, hand-hammered copper appearance
  • Ideal for mid-scale to upscale dining settings
  • Provides an elegant, vintage look

Chafer Trim Styles

Chafing dishes also come in several trim styles, which add a pop of color and visual appeal to your buffet line. When choosing a trim style, keep in mind your establishment's existing decor and choose the type that best suits your concept.

Restaurant Equipment

Brass Trim

  • Adds a sophisticated, vintage appeal to your chafer
  • Complement the sleek look of the silver chafing dish
Restaurant Equipment

Gold Trim

  • Adds a sophisticated, elegant appeal to your chafer
  • Stands out against the silver body for a striking presentation
Restaurant Equipment

Chrome Trim

  • Highly polished for a contemporary look
  • Ideal for establishments looking for a sleek, modern presentation

Chafer Accessories

Because chafers are display items, it's important to protect them and keep them looking sleek and clean. Below are a couple of accessories to purchase with your chafers to keep them looking new.

  • Chafer Storage Boxes: Protect your chafing units from bumps and dings during transport with chafing boxes. Chafing boxes are made from impact-resistant plastic, and they keep your chafing dishes safe from scratches, dings, and scuffs. Many have sturdy handles so they're easy to lift and handle, and are stackable for convenient storage and transportation.
  • Microfiber Cloth: To keep an upscale appearance, regularly clean and polish the exterior of your chafers with a microfiber cloth. They are gentle and won't scratch the surface of the chafer.
  • Stainless Steel Cleaner/Polish: If your chafer's exterior has fingerprints or light scratches that won't buff out with a microfiber cloth on its own, use a stainless steel polisher with the cloth to remove them.
  • Chafing Dish Alternative: If you're looking to create a unique food presentation, chafer alternatives can be a visually interesting addition to your action or carving station. Many include features like fuel cell rails to securely hold chafing dish fuel, a durable wire metal grill, and built-in wind guards for outdoor events.
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