Retains moisture, not just heat. Indirect and direct heating possible. Lightweight but durable design. Electric model, no liquid or gel fuel required. Holds food at temperature for hours.
Thin metal construction, can dent easily. Short power cord.
Generous 4 quart capacity. Sterno tray safely suspended above table. Sturdy glass lid and holder included. Stay-cool handles and knob. Water tray for indirect heating and moisture retention.
Heat distribution is uneven. Pans are not as heavy duty as promoted, and include dividers.
Can also be used as a plate warmer or warming tray. Pans include notches for easier removal. Lightweight and easy to assemble/transport. Includes three 2 1/2 quart buffet pans and lids. Variable temperature control.
Trays are smaller than expected. Pans are aluminum, not stainless steel.
Large pan with 8 quart capacity. Lightweight but sturdy construction. Affordable upgrade from disposable chafing dishes. Includes dripless water pan, dome cover, and two liquid fuel holders.
Reports of sharp, unfinished edges. Thin metal construction – not commercial grade.
If you frequently find yourself needing to keep food warm and fresh for extended periods of time, you may be in need of a chafing dish. Perfect for catered events, buffet lines, and potlucks, chafing dishes offer a simple and hygienic way to keep cooked foods warm.
The majority of these do this via indirect heat: fuel warms a water bath, which then provides steam that keeps the pan of food above it warm. While some electric chafing dishes do away with the water bath entirely, traditional chafing dishes using a gel fuel are usually made up of a frame, a water pan, food pans, and some form of lid or cover.
You will have a variety of choices to consider when comparing chafing dishes. From the appearance and size down to what type of fuel you want to use and even what type of cover you want sitting atop it, one chafing dish can vary considerably from another. This guide will examine the questions you will run up against when looking for a chafing dish as well as our top picks to make shopping easy.
All elements of your chafing dish should be made from long-lasting materials so that you can get years of use out of it. These are generally made from a rust-resistant metal, such as stainless steel or aluminum. Stainless steel will tend to be a sturdier build, while aluminum will weigh less, which could be a big factor if you will be traveling frequently with your chafing dish. Whatever material you go with, it should be thick enough to resist denting. Because the combined weight of food and water can be significant, the stand that you place your chafing dish on should be rugged and stable as well.
One of your first decisions is what fuel you want to use to power your chafing dish. Electric chafing dishes offer a number of advantages over the more standard gel-fuel chafing dishes (see the FAQ section below for more on electric chafing dishes). If you do opt for a gel- or liquid-fueled chafing dish, you will have several different options of fuel — both wicked and non-wicked — to select from. Check with the manufacturer for specific fuel recommendations.
While a larger capacity dish can feed more people, it can also be heavier to move around and will go through fuel a lot faster. Decide what size you will need before starting your chafing dish search so you’re not stuck with a dish that’s unnecessarily cumbersome. Chafing dishes typically run from four to eight quarts in food capacity. Ones on the upper limit are usually full-sized rectangular chafing dishes geared more toward entrées.
The chafing dish should be easy to put together, and it should break down into a compact shape for storing or transport. This is particularly true if you plan to travel often with the chafing dish. If storage or transport size are a primary concern, seek out a chafing dish with a frame that folds up.
Are the various elements dishwasher safe? Some chafing dishes offer this, but the majority of manufacturers seem to recommend that you hand-wash food pans, water pans, and other parts.
The standard here is for one food pan that takes up the entire space above the heating element, but some chafing dishes have multiple food pans. These are great for warm dips, appetizers, and other finger foods. Again, knowing how you will use your chafing dish should dictate your choices here.
All chafing dishes have some form of lid or cover to keep moisture and heat in. The majority of these are simple covers that you lift off, and they often come with a cover holder attached to the side of the chafing frame for ease of serving. Some are made from tempered glass, others from metal or plastic. Other types of covers include roll-top covers and covers that are hinged.
All handles and knobs should offer some form of protection so they can be safely used when the chafing dish is hot. This is often in the form of a protective coating (nylon or some other material) that keeps handles and knobs cool to the touch.
While the majority of chafing dishes are rectangular, it is far from the only shape you will find them in. Round chafing dishes are also popular and can provide an elegant accent to a buffet line. While less common, oval and square chafing dishes are also available if those are more to your taste.
Quality chafing dishes start at around $25 and can reach up into the $100 to $200 range. The majority fall well short of the $100 mark. For a higher price, you can expect to find a larger capacity, a better build, and more elegant designs. Some models also start you off with a canister or two of fuel, which can save you several dollars right out of the box.
Read your manual carefully before using your chafing dish with salty or acidic foods, as these can do damage to the finish of some dishes.
If you will be transporting your chafing dish often, consider picking up a special chafing box to store and carry it in. These stackable plastic boxes will protect your chafing dish from damage while on the road.
Fuel-can holders on the underside of the chafing rack should keep the cans from making contact with the table, as this would constitute a fire hazard.
You can also use a water-bath type of chafing dish to keep food cold. Just fill the water pan with ice instead of boiling water and omit the flames.
Check whether the company that sells your chafing dish also sells food pans in other sizes for it. This is one way to easily and cheaply create a more versatile chafing dish.
While the majority of liquid/gel-fuel chafing dishes do not ship with fuel, you can easily pick some up in the camping section of your local department store.
Do not place food directly in the water pan. This pan tends to be constructed from thinner material, which will allow your food to burn easily when it is in contact with a more direct heat than the water bath.
If your chafing dish uses a gel fuel, be sure that you have enough fuel to last for the entire event or party. What you do not want to deal with is switching out gel-fuel canisters on a hot chafing dish.
To avoid injury, be sure to check that any metal edges on your chafing dish are planed down so that they are neither sharp nor rough.
Q. Should I go with a metal or a glass cover?
A. While both are effective at keeping heat and moisture in, there are some differences between them that you should consider. One of the biggest is visibility. With a glass cover, you can easily tell what is in the chafing dish. This not only allows the cook to tell at a glance how much food remains, but also will cut down on heat loss from guests constantly lifting the lid to peek at what is inside.
Where metal trumps glass is in durability. Glass — even tempered glass — is still susceptible to breakage. While less sturdy than metal or glass, plastic covers may also appeal to some for their translucence and relative ruggedness.
Q. Can I use the food pans in a regular oven?
A. Generally, no. These pans are made to be used with the relatively gentle heat of a water bath, not an oven’s heat. That said, some models do claim that their food pans can be safely used in an oven, so double-check with the manufacturer to be sure.
Q. What are some of the benefits of an electric chafing dish?
A. If you have access to an outlet and don’t mind dealing with the cords, an electric chafing dish does have a number of pluses. You won’t need to deal with messy and potentially hazardous gel fuel, for one. Electrics often feature variable temperature dials, which you will have considerably more control over than a gel flame. Gel chafing dishes can also be difficult to use outdoors if there is any kind of wind, something that will not affect the performance of an electric chafing dish.
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