Is it the hot water or the steam that keeps food hot on a steam table? What is the correct water level? How full of food should the insert pan be? I want to finally resolve it with my kitchen staff.
– Julie Bell, Manager, Casa De Pico, La Mesa, CA
Steam tables are often misunderstood and misused. First, it is important that your staff know that steam tables are designed for hot holding, not for heating or cooking. For best results and good food safety, both the water and the food should enter the unit hot. Even though cooks may know this in theory, many times cold food is thrown onto a steam table in hopes that it comes up to temperature in time for service. It’s a bad practice.
It is the steam, not the water, which keeps the food warm. Vince Dattolo, Director of Sales at Wells Bloomfield, a manufacturer based in St. Louis, MO, says, “Steam is intended to envelope all five surfaces of the food pan (bottom and four sides). Steam transfers heat much more efficiently than either water or dry air (approximately five times better than water and around twelve times better than air).” Because the steam is the key element in maintaining temperature, a gap between the water and the pan is good. Dattolo recommends using as little as an inch of water in the steam table, though you should monitor the level so that if too much water evaporates over the course of service it can be replaced.
In terms of how full of food the pans should be, the answer depends on the type of food, but in general less is more. Unless you have heat lamps over the steam table, remember that the heat is only coming from the bottom and sides of the pan. It is important to stir the food occasionally so that the temperature redistributes. If the food is too densely packed, not stirred, or not entering the steam table at a hot enough temperature, the warmth from the steam beneath the pan may not penetrate through the entire product.