Navigating steam table temperatures: Chicken edition

carnival world buffet chicken


Do you have any techniques for cooking and holding chicken breasts on a steam table without overcooking them? I have tried convection baking, poaching or steaming the chicken. I have tried cooking the chicken from both thawed and frozen, and it still gets overcooked when holding on the steam table. When holding the chicken, it gets dry and mealy.

– Susan Fleece, Cook, Mercy Hospital, Urbana, Ohio


Steam tables can be effective in holding food at proper temperature (usually 140 degrees Fahrenheit or above, though it can vary slightly by municipality). But there are a few problems with them:

  1. As you note, the moisture, in the form of steam, is kept away from the food. That allows moist foods such as stews, soup or mashed potatoes to retain moisture and temperature, while drier foods like grilled chicken, pancakes or rice get even drier and may maintain uneven temperatures.
  2. Related to No. 1, the heat comes only from the bottom, allowing exposing the top of the food to cooler air and subjecting it to further drying. Furthermore, in order to maintain proper temperature, the steam table often needs to be set above the minimum holding temperature in order to counteract the cooling from the air above, especially in the case of dry foods such as grilled chicken breasts. That makes things dry out even more.
  3. Because of No. 2, it is often challenging to set a steam table to maintain precise proper temperature, and foods held in a steam table should be stirred frequently to redistribute the heat.


My first piece of advice is to switch from a steam table to a hot holding cabinet with a humidifier. A good holding cabinet will be able to be precisely controlled, will surround the food with steam to both convey heat more efficiently and keep the product moist, and will subject all the food to uniform temperature and moisture conditions. Even if you are using a steam table to plate for a banquet or tray line, doing your longer-term holding in a cabinet will maintain the food at higher quality.

If you have no other option besides the steam table, fill it with smaller batches more frequently and keep the chicken pieces in chicken broth to moderate the temperature and better conduct the heat.

More on hot holding equipment here.

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