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Art of Keeping Food Warm

The right warming equipment helps alleviate two major concerns–food safety and food quality. Whether we are talking about transporting bulk food for a catering event or just keeping an entrée hot until it’s delivered, the right equipment will make a difference. Let's take a look at several types of food warmers and some features you should have to help you keep quality hot food hot in your kitchen.

Cabinet warmers are a basic type of unit with almost universal application. Essentially a box available in many sizes with some sort of heating source, it has walls that may be insulated for better heat retention. Hot display cases, which make terrific sales tools, are just one type of cabinet type warmer.

There are well over a dozen manufacturers making display warmers for various specific products in many different sizes. No matter how much and what sort of product you want to display, there is almost certainly a case for your budget.

Hot Display Cases. Hot display cases can be matched to many styles of cold or ambient temperature units for a consistent look. The full-size, floor-mounted hot cases are available in two-foot increments from four feet to 12 feet with some makers providing in-between lengths. They typically have a built-in steam table for 12" x 20" pans or an equivalent-sized heated area for china or metal serving containers.

The hot units are sometimes available with "steps" inside the case to merchandise product and maximize display area. It's extremely important to be able to maintain a consistent and proper temperature in hot cases. Hot foods generally need to be held at 140°F or above to be food safe. Generally maintaining the proper temperature requires bottom heat as well as top heat to surround the product. Heat is important, but it's equally important not to dry out the product.

Moist Heat. Using heated display cases that offer moisturized heat in a humidity-controlled cabinet should be considered for many food items. Delicate foods will keep longer and will not dry out as rapidly in a high humidity environment. Some manufacturers offer sophisticated humidity controls to maintain a precise amount of moisture in the case that can be varied depending upon the optimum holding of the product within.

Manufacturers say precise humidity control extends some products’ holding times and keeps items at the proper crispness. Along with humidity control some cases have the option of a forced-air glass defogger to prevent condensation build-up, as important an aid to merchandising as lighting.

Pizza Cabinets. Other specialized hot display cabinets include snack and pizza cabinets. These are typically small glass merchandising cases that sit on a counter top. Pizza cabinets, some featuring turntables, hold several whole pizzas on shelves. Some manufacturers have a variety of shelf configurations available. Look for a cabinet with a dial-type thermostat for adjusting heat. Some also have an optional water reservoir to provide moisturized heat to keep food appetizingly crisp or moist.

Warming Drawers. The warming drawer is a product that is effective at holding food, but not for display. Warming drawers are a good back-of-the-house option because the units are typically only 20-30 inches wide and don't use counter-top space. Up to three six-inch deep, stacked drawers will fit under a typical tabletop. The drawers can be purchased with three individual thermostats and temperature dials so different products can be held in each. Some makers also provide moisture control for their drawers.

Mobile Food Warmers. If your needs include transporting and holding hot product, there are numerous heated carts on the market. Carts for bulk foods have a variety of internal shelf and pan slide options. Some are tailored to hold specific products, while others are all-purpose. And there are heated banquet carts for food portioned on a variety of plate sizes.

When purchasing any type of mobile food warmer, be careful to choose one that fits your requirements. For bulk food some models can have angle ledges that hold 18"x26" pans. But if you want to carry 12"x20" steamtable pans, a special universal angle ledge will be required. With plated food carriers, coordinate the plate size to the model or you won't get the plate capacity expected.

Newer cabinets allow operators to adjust the temperature and moisture content of the cabinet interior to hold many products under optimum conditions, resulting in crisper or moister food with more appealing color and texture. Every operation interested in serving quality food should investigate one of the new generation "engineered" warming cabinets.

Make sure you look for the NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) label on the equipment and you can be assured the unit will be sanitary and have the ability to maintain safe food-holding temperatures. FM

Dan Bendall is vice president of Cini-Little International, a Maryland-based consulting firm.

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