For how long can I safely hold food on a steam table?
Here it’s important to distinguish between how long you can hot-hold food and how long you should hold it. Under the food code, there is no set time limit for how long a food can be held, provided it maintains its temperature above the danger zone.
But just because something is safe to eat does not mean it should be eaten. Some foods, such as chili, for example, do well in hot-holding and may even be enhanced as flavors meld and some water evaporates over a period of a couple of hours. Other foods such as vegetables, eggs, fish or baked items such as pancakes do not age well in a hot-holding environment.
Ideally, each item on your buffet or hot-held in the kitchen will have an established time limit as part of your standard operating procedures, considering not only the safety of the item but also its quality. Small digital timers can help you remember to refresh each item as it nears the end of its optimal life.
As a best practice for quality, safety and waste reduction, prepare steam table items in smaller batches as needed rather than loading up the table and letting things devolve over a long period.
As always, local regulations may vary. Check with your health department to be sure your practices are in compliance.
More on hot holding here.