Troubleshooting steam table temperature

steam table
Photograph: Shutterstock


I had my steam table set to 140 degrees but still had to throw out and remake an entire pan of food because our company sanitarian said it was out of temp. What’s the correct setting?

– Cook, Ogden, Utah


Steam table settings are not universal. While some have a temperature setting like yours, most have a series of numbers (1-7) or language (low, medium, high) on the dials. The number you use is irrelevant—what matters is the temperature of the food. You could have your steam table set to the highest setting, but if the food is cold, your inspector is right to take issue.

There are a few reasons a steam table may not seem to be maintaining the proper temperature:

  • It is broken. Always a possibility.
  • You didn’t allow time for it to preheat. It usually takes 20 minutes or so, depending on the model.
  • You used cold water. The water in the wells should be preheated, unless your steam table is specifically designed to handle that.
  • You used cold food. Unless specifically designed for reheating, steam tables should be used for hot holding and never heating.
  • You need to stir. Depending on the product, the surface of the food may not be keeping temp if the heat from the bottom can’t penetrate.
  • You need to cover. Keeping the wells covered will help keep the heat in the product.


Look at your process to analyze where things went wrong. While it may be a faulty unit, one or more of the other scenarios is more likely. Once you understand your process, ignore the numbers on the dial and rather use your own calibrated thermometer to make sure your food is at 135 degrees or higher, or whatever temperature your health department specifies. Keep food covered, stirred, and monitored. If you are regularly taking temperatures and maintaining logs, you will have no surprises when someone else does the same.

Be sure to check the manufacturer instructions for your particular unit to make sure you are using it properly.

More on steam table controls here.

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