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Types of Countertop Warmers, Soup Kettles, and Rethermalizers

When preparing large quantities of food for lots of people, it can be difficult to keep food hot and fresh. That is where food warmers make a practical and convenient option. Whether you are cooking for a buffet, catering an event, or serving large groups of people that are coming and going, food warmers can make a big difference in how your food is prepared and stays warm for customers and guests. This guide will help you understand these products, including their differences and features to consider, so you can make the most informed decision to accommodate your needs.

Types of Food Warmers

Food warmers for commercial food service

The purpose of food warmers is to keep food temperatures above the Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Point (HACCP) danger zone. The HACCP danger zone is identified as 41°F to 135°F, which is the temperature range where most pathogens will multiply in foods. Between 70°F and 125°F, pathogens grow most rapidly. Therefore, food that is held between 41°F and 135°F may become time-temperature abused and could lead to serious or fatal illnesses in guests.

Food warmers and rethermalizers can help to keep food at safe holding temperatures, but there is one main difference between the two. Food warmers keep hot, prepared food above the danger zone and come in a variety of models including food warmers and soup kettles. Chilled or frozen food that is placed in a warmer will not reheat and rise above the danger zone, resulting in time-temperature abuse. If you are reheating food, it must be warmed by other means (e.g. a stovetop, an oven), then placed in a warmer. Unlike regular food warmers, rethermalizers can heat chilled or frozen foods through the danger zone to a safe holding temperature in the same unit. Rethermalizers may sometimes be referred to as food cooker / warmers. See the table below for a comparison.

Soup Kettles/Warmers

Avantco S600 14 Qt. Round Countertop Black Food / Soup Kettle Warmer - 110V, 600W

Countertop Warmer

APW Wyott W-3Vi 12 inch x 20 inch Countertop Food Warmer - 120V, 1200W


Vollrath 7217260 Black Finish Retro 11 Qt. Stock Pot Kettle Rethermalizer - 120V, 1450W
Keeps hot food hot above danger zone; food must be heated before being placed in warmer
Keeps hot food hot above danger zone; food must be heated before being placed in warmer Heats food from freezing or chilled temperatures through danger zone within 90 minutes
Holds warm foods
Holds warm foods Holds warm foods and reheats frozen or chilled foods
Great for soup, gravies, stews, nacho cheese, or side dishes
Great for appetizers, main courses, sandwiches, pastas, and more Usually more expensive and uses more wattage than food warmers
Can hold one food item
Can hold multiple food items Can hold one or more food item depending on the model
Limited product visibility, but convenient and accessible at buffets and self-serve areas
Increases product visibility, especially at buffets and self-serve areas Similar product visibility to either food warmer depending on the model

Important Factors to Consider

People at a buffet line

In general, countertop warmers, soup kettles, and rethermalizers are all useful and convenient for buffets, cafeterias, healthcare food services, and restaurants, but there are circumstances in which one product may be more suitable than another.

  • A countertop warmer maximizes product visibility and can display multiple products at one time. This design is especially helpful at buffets where customers rely on sight to choose their meals. Countertop warmers are often used in the back of the house to hold prepared foods, saving space in the kitchen, providing more time for chefs to prepare and cook other foods, and helping staff quickly plate already-prepared entrées, sides, and more.

  • The cylindrical shape of soup kettles is perfect for liquid-based foods, and allows guests to easily serve themselves. In the back of the house, these warmers keep soups in one convenient location, making service more efficient for staff. A soup kettle is great for soup and salad stations or soup kitchens where a lot of soups, gravies, stews, and sauces are served.

  • A rethermalizer is helpful if you are a caterer with limited preparation time. It is possible to prepare the food the day prior and reheat it within two hours for your event if you use a rethermalizer. This option is also convenient for allowing dishes to reheat within their serving stations and to reduce preparation time.


Capacity is the most important factor to consider with food warmers. Look for each item's capacity prior to purchase so you know it can accommodate your needs. Soup kettles can range from 4 quarts to 22 quarts, while countertop warmers are usually classified by the size and number of pans they hold.

Pan Configurations and Depths

Countertop warmers use pans, and soup kettles use insets. Some countertop warmers are combination warmers that use both pans and insets. Food pans are rectangular and best for product visibility, while insets are cylindrical and good for holding soups or other liquids.

The industry standard for a full-size food pan is 12" x 20". Rethermalizers and countertop warmers can fit one, two, or more heating pans or a combination of different size pans and insets. This is helpful for restaurant kitchens that need to keep certain foods together in one location for ease-of-serving or space constraints. Buffets and cafeterias can also use different configurations to display many food items at one time. A full-size warmer could hold one full-size pan, two half-size pans, three 1/3 pans, etc., or it could fit one 2/3 pan and one 1/3 pan. There are many combinations! Pan depths also vary from 3/4" to 8" or more. Look at the depth of your warmer, leaving at least one inch of space for water, to determine the depths your pans should have. Check out this guide for more information on how to choose the correct food pan size.

Control Type

Food warmers typically come with two options for control type: infinite and thermostatic. An infinite control cycles on and off based on a time cycle. Instead of waiting for food to reach a certain temperature, infinite controls can be adjusted based on amounts of time, which allows the output of heat to be customized. A thermostatic control cycles on and off based on the temperature of the heating elements. This is good for keeping food at a certain temperature, but heat output is less customizable than with infinite controls.

Low Water Indicator Light

Food can fall into the danger zone if water levels are too low in your countertop warmer, soup kettle, or rethermalizer, and the machine itself can be damaged. A water indicator light, which glows when the water gets too low in the machine, can help your staff monitor and maintain more than one warmer along a buffet line. When the low water indicator light comes on, your staff will know it’s time to refill the machine without the hassle of lifting out pans of food to check the water level. This also reduces the chance for cross-contamination by ensuring your staff is only moving food pans and refilling the well when absolutely necessary.

Countertop Warmers

Good, Better, Best Scale
  • Heavy duty water well
  • 27 qt. capacity
  • 14 1/2"W x 22 1/2"L
  • UL Listed
  • Features both a food pan and insets
  • Compatible with up to 12 adapter plate combinations
  • 27 1/2"W x 24 1/2"L
  • ETL and NSF Listed
  • Made in America
  • Accommodates two full-size food pans
  • Independently controlled wells allow for customization
  • 30 1/2"W x 24 1/2"L
  • UL and NSF Listed
  • Made in America

Soup Kettles

Good, Better, Best Scale
  • Adjustable temperature knob
  • 11 qt. capacity
  • Stainless steel pot with aluminum inset
  • CE Listed
APW Wyott CW-1B 11 Qt. Countertop Food Warmer - 120V, 800W
APW Wyott CW-1B
11 qt. Countertop Food Warmer
  • Preheats water in 10 minutes
  • 11 qt. capacity
  • Heavy-duty stainless steel
  • UL and CSA Listed
  • Made in America
  • Thermostatic controls for precise temperature settings
  • Epoxy coated aluminum exterior
  • Comes with inset, hinged cover, soup cards, and clip
  • 11 qt. capacity
  • UL and NSF Listed
  • Made in America

Rethermalizers and Warmers

Good, Better, Best Scale
  • Adjustable thermostat controls
  • 7 qt. capacity
  • Heavy-duty stainless steel well
  • NSF Listed
  • Made in America
  • Includes two insets and two hinged covers
  • Independent heating controls
  • 4 qt. capacity
  • Coated aluminum wells and stainless steel exterior
  • UL and NSF Listed
  • Made in America
  • Accommodates two 7 qt. insets
  • Steel “element support” stabilizes heating elements and reflects heat toward food
  • Durable stainless steel exterior
  • Thermostatic controls
  • 22 qt. capacity
  • UL and UL Classified Listed

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