Can you leave empty spaces open to the air in a steam table?
– Angela Smith, cook/manager, Little Nashville Restaurant
Steam tables are very simple pieces of equipment: a gas- or electric-heating element under a closed or open well to hot-hold food for service. But they always seem to generate plenty of questions.
Regarding leaving wells open, there is a difference between can you and should you. On most modern wet/dry steam tables, you can leave a well open next to one that’s on and containing food. But you should leave it covered.
James Feustel, commercial kitchen designer and account manager with the Singer Equipment Co., says, “The answer is yes. Spaces in a steam table/hot well can be left ‘open’ to the air above, and [the steam table] will still work. However, open spaces allow the heated, moist air that keeps pans warm to escape. So there will be a drop-off in performance, and they will have to work harder (use more energy) to keep temp.”
Think of it like a row house in the winter. If all the neighbors have their heat on, the shared walls make the entire row of connected houses more energy efficient. But if one house in the middle is vacant and open to the elements, the surrounding houses need to use more energy to keep their homes warm.
My advice is to always keep inserts in your wells. It looks more professional, keeps things cleaner because the pans are easily washed and makes the unit work more efficiently.
More on regulating steam table temperatures here.