For any restaurant or food service business that wants to keep food at countertop level and heat it to safe temperatures, steam tables can be an excellent purchase and a vital part of daily operations.
These kinds of restaurant equipment do a lot for restaurant people. They are a key protector of food inventories, and they ensure that food is being handled safely, which is really at the core of a successful restaurant business. In fact, having food at safe held temperatures is very much a requirement, not something that’s “nice to have” in an active kitchen. The more that chefs and kitchen leaders can micromanage the key transfer of food to and from areas like walk-ins, and to the grill or the range or oven, and then to adequate food warming equipment, the more that restaurant is operating on solid ground.
What Is a Steam Table?
Steam tables are essentially countertop food warming systems, in which hot water uses the power of radiant heat to keep food at safe temperature levels.
It’s important to note that these types of machines can come with different terminology attached. For example, buyers or sellers may describe them as “food wells” or “soup kettles” that fit into a countertop food warming system. Then there’s also the bain marie, a very similar setup in which, again, hot water heats the food in a type of tray or table system.
Steam tables are typically used for buffet areas, or to maintain food at safe temperatures at the back of the house, for plated servings. In today’s coronavirus environment, chefs may choose to plate food themselves, rather than having people file past to self-serve, and plexiglass or plastic dividers help to mitigate the spread of germs and virus.
How Do Steam Tables Work?
The conventional steam table actually has a somewhat sophisticated design. As mentioned, it’s based on the principle of radiant heat – that close contact with heated items will keep the food inventory appropriately hot.
In a steam table, there is a heating element. It may be gas or electric, as we’ll talk about later, and the heating element can be open or sealed. In any case, this heating element heats water. The heating element is not in direct contact with the water – it’s heating the air underneath the water.
Then a food tray sits inside of the hot water. The heat from the water radiates into the tray, and establishes that higher temperature that keeps food safe.
What Temperature Should Steam Tables Be Kept At?
In explaining how hot to keep steam tables and why they are important, experts talk about the HACCP “danger zone.”
The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points or HACCP system so often used in restaurant operations is an official scientific review of food safety. The HACCP danger zone, experts say, is roughly between 40°F and 140°F. That means to be kept safe in a steam table, the food temperature must be above 140°F. (It also means safe temps for refrigerators start at around 40°F.) There’s quite a margin for error there, since even 300° is a relatively low roasting temperature. So keeping food at 150°F or 160°F should be okay for quite a while, without drying the food out too much, although some types of meat and other food may need a bit of liquid to keep them from drying, or a cover placed over the heated tray.
Gas Versus Electric Steam Tables
One of your biggest considerations for buying a steam table component is whether to power the heating element with electricity or gas.
As experienced restaurant managers know, these two heat sources are very different.
Gas heaters operate quickly – after they’re turned on, the heat is almost immediate. But they also require specific hard connections to gas pipelines. Electric steam tables do not. They’re fairly portable, and easier to connect overall. Operators also avoid some of the inherent liabilities involved in gas line safety.
While thinking about all of these things for your business, you can also think about existing equipment and how that is powered. For example, if a fixed restaurant kitchen already has a gas range, a gas oven and other gas appliances, it’s going to be relatively easy to use a gas-powered steam table in the same area. The lines are already there, and people already know how to use gas systems. On the other hand, if the range and other gear is electric, an electric steam table may make more sense, especially if you’ll be wanting to move the equipment around at all. A gas connection doesn’t really travel!
Steam Tables: Open and Sealed Wells
There’s another big choice to be made with steam tables, too.
Some team table systems have an open well design, where the heating element is not separated from the space above it. Others have a sealed well, where the heating element is covered. That way, you can pour water directly into the unit, and it will heat without coming in direct contact with the heating element.
With open wells, restaurant operators will need a series of spillage trays to handle the hot water and prevent it from coming in direct contact with the heating element. An additional tip: the open well design is generally more capable at heating crispy or fried foods, because it can facilitate a dry heat, which is more difficult with the sealed well models. Sealed well models may heat less evenly, or allow food to deteriorate more quickly.
Controls and Tray Sizes
Some steam tables come with thermostatic controls for holding foods at precise temperatures. Others that use an “infinite heating” approach may only have a rheostat, with various settings that don’t define temperature. Think about this while shopping.
Also, you’ll want to think about the sizing of trays in the stream table system. Typically, a full size tray will be the whole length of the steam tray, with a fairly broad width, maybe 22×12”. Then buyers can choose one half, one quarter and other smaller trays to fit into the overall steam table build.
Steam Table Food Pans and Accessories
Along with your actual steam tables, there are some smaller accessory purchases that are usually a good idea. Adapter plates and bars will fit your rectangular or round wells into the steam table. Cutting boards allow for food prep in the area. Then there are the tray rails that businesses can use to help with self-service, and the sneeze guard barriers which are so much more valuable now, in the age of the coronavirus.
Keep all of this advice in mind when shopping for the best tools and installations for your restaurant. For much more, check out all of the resources and equipment we have available online at Chefs’ Toys, where our mission is to support chefs and restaurant owners using our own real-life restaurant experience. We’ve been there – so we know what you need!