Steam Tables, sometimes referred to as hot food tables, keep food at set serving temperatures. They are not designed to cook or heat foods from unsafe or uncooked temperatures, but rather to hold prepared foods at steady temperatures for serving. Such tables can be utilized in a variety of settings but are usually found at self-service buffets or cafeterias.
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What to Consider When Purchasing a New Hot Food Table Unit
Gas vs. Electric
Electric or gas food tables each have their own set of benefits. Depending on your preferences and how you plan to use your hot food table, one will be more appropriate for your needs than the other.
Because of their simple design, gas steam tables usually heat more quickly and rarely malfunction. Some gas-powered steam tables use natural gas while others use liquid propane gas. One factor that could be considered a negative is that gas steam tables are more likely to increase the temperature around the unit than an electric counterpart.
Electric steam 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. Most electric units use NEMA (National Electrical Manufacturer Association) rated plugs. For non-NEMA-rated plugs, we recommend having a certified electrician install hardwired plugs specifically for the unit.
When deciding between gas or electric hot food tables, it’s helpful to compare the cost of gas vs. electricity for your anticipated level of use, as well as other potential costs like plug installation.
After deciding between gas or electric power, the next thing to consider is the type of controls with which you want your table equipped. The two control types you’ll notice most often are thermostatic and infinite controls.
Thermostatic controls allow users precise temperature control over each section of the steam table. A user will determine the ideal serving temperature for each item and simply adjust the corresponding dial accordingly. One of the biggest benefits to the thermostatic control type is the ease of training staff to operate the unit. You will generally only see this feature advertised on electric tables.
Infinite controls—sometimes referred to as manual controls—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 require more attention and some degree of trial and error to find the right temperature for each product as you “get to know” your unit.
What are the different types of steam table wells?
Open well steam 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 steam tables 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.
The induction-ready dry well eliminates 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 your product stays at proper serving temperatures, resulting in better product consistency and less food waste. The one drawback is that these units cannot 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, 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 to be 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 and stationary units are both available and deciding which one is right for you, again, depends on 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
Adapter plates work to create custom configurations for your steam table presentation, allowing for more variety to be served in a single well.
Adapter bars enhance efficiency by reducing steam loss, while dividing wells to allow space for fractional-sized pans.
Cutting boards allow for convenient built-in carving stations, or to accommodate other preparations right at the buffet.
Storage cabinets provide extra space under the table for convenient access to commonly used items.
Tray rails make it convenient for customers to rest their trays, helping avoid spills and other messes that often occur while trying to balance a tray of food.
Sneeze guards work to prevent germs and other contaminants from coming into contact with food products.
Steam Table Pans
Steam table pans come in sizes from full-size to ninth-size. Small pans can be combined to fill one well, and different sizes can create a variety of configurations.
Spillage pans are essential for open well units. These allow the operator to use moist heating in order to prevent product from overdrying.
Water filtration systems ensure your steam table is using clean and sanitary water, but most importantly protect your unit from mineral buildup.
Based in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Emily uses her 15+ years of marketing, copywriting, and design experience to create foodservice equipment content that is as fun to read as it is useful and informative. After a long day of crafting many lovely words and images, you can usually find Emily with a big smile and dirty hands; either in the kitchen cooking up a new recipe or tending to her impressive jungle of houseplants.