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A Guide to Steam Tables

Steam tables make it easy to serve a spread of hot food to a large crowd while maintaining food-safe temperatures. They're commonly used in buffet setups and catering events to present a wide selection of dishes for self-service. They help in organizing food displays, maintaining temperature consistency, and ensuring a smooth flow of service for large gatherings. We'll outline the different features of steam tables to help you choose the configuration that meets your needs.

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What Is a Steam Table?

A steam table is a type of food-holding equipment designed to keep hot foods at a safe holding temperature in high-volume businesses. They're ideal for use in kitchens, buffets, cafeterias, or hotels. They typically feature two or more compartments to hold full-size pans or a combination of smaller pans. With multiple compartments and adjustable heat controls, steam tables allow for the simultaneous holding of various dishes at different temperatures. This makes it easier for foodservice operators to manage a diverse menu and serve hot dishes promptly.

Keep in mind that steam tables are designed to hold pre-cooked foods that are already heated. Food cannot be cooked in a steam table and cold food cannot be reheated.

How Do Steam Tables Work?

To keep food warm, steam tables heat water to produce steam that gently heats the food pans. This method provides even heating to ensure all of the food pans are kept at the ideal temperature. Both sealed and open-well steam tables can utilize moist heating, which involves using water to create steam to heat the pans from underneath. Only open-well steam tables can use dry heating, which is the process of heating the pans without water.

How Hot Must Food Be Kept in a Steam Table?

To meet food safety guidelines, hot food should always be held at 135 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

Types of Steam Tables

One of the key decisions you'll need to make when purchasing a steam table is whether to opt for a gas or electric model. Both options are suitable for commercial use and can help streamline your foodservice operation by keeping dishes hot and ready to serve. Ultimately, the choice between gas and electric steam tables will depend on your specific needs and budget constraints.

Restaurant Equipment

Gas Steam Table

Gas steam tables are designed to be configured for either natural gas hookups or liquid propane tanks. Gas steam tables are quicker to heat up with less possibility of malfunction due to their simpler design. The cost of gas is typically cheaper than electricity but it is not as energy efficient and will raise the temperature of the kitchen or dining area in which it is being used. Most gas steam tables are designed to be stationary, but casters can be mounted onto propane-powered units for outdoor applications like catering events.

  • Gas is a more affordable utility than electric
  • Gas steam tables heat up quickly
Restaurant Equipment

Electric Steam Table

Electric steam tables take a little longer to heat up, but they are more energy efficient. They won't heat your kitchen, and they include easy-to-use, more precise temperature controls. Some electric tables use NEMA plugs while others must be hardwired (configurations available during the purchasing process). If you need to be able to easily move your table, then a portable steam table may be a better option for your business. Mobile electric steam tables with casters are ideal for applications like breakfast bars, where you might need to put your table into storage after use and then easily take it out again the next morning.

  • Can be installed anywhere with electrical access
  • Energy efficient 

Steam Table Wells

There are two kinds of well types for steam tables: open and sealed. These refer to whether the heating element of an electric unit or the open flame of a gas unit is covered or exposed. Open wells feature an exposed heat source, and because of this, spillage pans are needed for open well moist heating. Conversely, sealed wells have a covered heat source. The heating element or flame rests underneath the metal well, allowing you to add the water directly without needing spillage pans.

Open-Well Steam Table

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Open-well steam table units are versatile because they can utilize both moist and dry heating at the same time. Dry heat is especially good for holding fried foods and other crispy menu items. Open-wells feature an exposed heat source and require spillage pans for open well moist heating.

  • Can be used for moist or dry heat holding
  • Can be more cost-effective upfront
  • Requires the use of spillage pans, which must be emptied after service

Sealed-Well Steam Table

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Sealed-well steam tables are deisgned with a covered heat source. The heating element or flame rests underneath the metal well, allowing you to add water directly to the unit without needing spillage pans. If your menu consists of soups, rice, veggies, pasta dishes, and other non-crispy options, a sealed-well steam table may be the right choice for you.

  • Features a built-in drain for easy cleanup
  • Water is added directly to the well (no spillage pans required)
  • Cannot be used for dry heat holding

Steam Table Features

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When selecting a steam table for your restaurant, there are features and configurations to keep in mind:

  • Number of Wells: Steam tables come in configurations ranging from one well to multiple wells, depending on the volume of food you need to keep warm and the variety of dishes you want to offer. Single-well steam tables are ideal for smaller operations or for serving a limited selection of dishes. These units are compact and easy to move, making them a good choice for catering events or food trucks where space is limited. For larger establishments or those serving a wide range of menu items, multiple-well steam tables are a better option.
  • Mobile or Stationary: Mobile steam tables are designed with casters or wheels, allowing for easy mobility around your kitchen or catering event space. This feature is ideal for businesses that require flexibility in their setup or frequently need to move the steam table from one location to another. On the other hand, stationary steam tables are fixed in place and do not have wheels for mobility. These models are typically larger and offer more capacity compared to mobile steam tables. Stationary steam tables are best suited for businesses with a dedicated serving area or buffet line where the table will remain in one location.
  • Infinite Controls or Thermostatic: With infinite controls, you can set the heat output to one of two preset levels: high or low. This allows for easy operation and quick adjustments, making it ideal for busy kitchens where speed and efficiency are essential. Thermostatic controls offer more precise temperature control. These controls allow you to set a specific temperature, which the unit will then maintain by cycling on and off as needed. Thermostatic controls are ideal for situations where precise temperature regulation is crucial, such as when holding delicate food items that require consistent heat levels.
  • Indoor or Outdoor Use: Indoor steam tables are designed for use in commercial kitchens or buffet setups within indoor environments. outdoor steam tables are specifically built to withstand the elements and temperature variations associated with outdoor use. They are constructed with weather-resistant materials and are often equipped with additional insulation to maintain consistent food temperatures in outdoor settings. Outdoor steam tables are commonly used in catering events, food trucks, or outdoor dining areas where food is served outside.
Restaurant Equipment

Steam Table Accessories

When setting up a steam table in your commercial kitchen, it’s essential to equip it with the right accessories to maximize its functionality and efficiency. Steam table pans and adaptors are crucial components that enhance the performance of your steam table and help you serve hot and delicious food to your customers.  

  • Steam Table Pans: These food pans are made of stainless and come in a variety of sizes, from 1/9 pans to 2/3 pans.
  • Adapter Plates: Use adapter plates to create custom configurations for your steam table presentation.
  • Adapter Bars: Reduce the steam loss with adapter bars to increase efficiency and change the configuration of your table with fractional pans.
  • Shelves: Install overshelves to provide extra storage space above your table. Some come with sneeze guards to bring added protection to your steam table unit.
  • Cutting Boards: Add a cutting board to your unit to provide additional workspace for food prep and plating.
  • Water Filtration System: Ensure that the water you are using in your steam table is clean and sanitary with a water filtration system.
  • Spillage Pans: Use open well moist heating with a steam table spillage pan. Fill your spillage pan with hot water and place your food pan on top.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice. Please refer to our Content Policy for more details.

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