How to Keep Food Hot

Four Methods:Water Bath MethodSlow Cooker MethodWrapping MethodOven Method

There is a fine line between keeping food hot enough for food safety and overcooking or drying out foods. Good cooks need techniques for holding food so it remains at the proper temperature but still stays tasty. Here are some techniques to keep food hot until it's served.

Method 1
Water Bath Method

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    Place the food to be kept warm in a shallow pan with a cover.
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    Place some warm water in the bottom of a slightly larger and deeper pan.
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    Put the pan holding the food inside the pan holding the water.
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    Place the pans on a source of steady, low heat.
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    Replace water that evaporates with warm water if needed.

Method 2
Slow Cooker Method

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    Use a slow cooker or other kitchen appliance (electric fry pan, electric rice cooker, electric griddle).
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    Warm food in the slow cooker on high, or pour hot food into it.
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    Use the low or keep warm setting to keep food hot.
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    Keep a cover on the slow cooker or other appliance.

Method 3
Wrapping Method

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    Place hot food in an insulated bag or carrier.
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    Wrap hot food containers in several layers of aluminum foil, then in a blanket if you do not have an insulated bag.

Method 4
Oven Method

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    Place the oven on low heat—below 200 degrees F (95 degrees C)—or on a warming setting.
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    Place a shallow pan of warm water on the lowest oven shelf.
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    Cover the food to be kept warm.
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    Place the food pan on the shelf above the water-filled pan.
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    Check food frequently to prevent drying out or burning.


  • Fried foods are difficult to keep warm without them getting soggy. If possible, leave them uncovered.
  • Food should be kept in a shallow layer when using water bath warming.
  • Keep foods at a safe temperature. Check all foods with a food thermometer every 15 minutes to maintain food safety. Hot foods must be kept above 135 degrees F (57 degrees C).
  • Water bath food warmers work best if the food pan is filled with hot food. They do not work well if you're trying to warm food from a cold state.
  • Many rental places rent water bath food warmers. They can also be purchased from food service stores if you have a frequent need for them.
  • Slow cookers and other appliances work best with soups, stews, beans, and rice.
  • Some buffet warmers use electricity to warm the water bath. You can sit the water bath on an electric griddle or stove on a low setting if you use a sturdy metal pan for the water pan.
  • Usually, water bath warmers are kept warm with small cans of chafing fuel, which are lighted like a candle. You can purchase these cans in food service stores.
  • Add a little broth or water to pans of meat being kept warm to keep them moist.
  • A commercial electric warmer can replace the water pan in Method 1; it can be purchased very reasonably, especially on eBay for used equipment. It can use a variety of pan depths and sizes--also readily available from vendors, including ebay.
  • Pan liners placed inside the steam table pan(s) used with the water-bath method help to keep the food from drying out or scorching--plus allowing easier cleanup. Adding hot water to the "serving" pan increases the overall heat-transfer rate from the heat source to the food inside the liner. The better "ovenable" type can withstand temperatures from -70 (for refrigerated storage) to at least 400 degrees (for heating in microwave or conventional ovens).


  • Foods shouldn't be warmed for more than an hour. Either refrigerate (or reheat) them or throw them away.
  • Be careful with warming devices that use a flame. You will have to watch these more closely than you would a flame-less warming device.

Things You'll Need

  • Food thermometer
  • Water bath warmer or
  • Appliance with low or keep warm feature or
  • Oven or
  • Insulated food bag or carrier or
  • Aluminum foil and blanket
  • Chafing fuel cans, if needed
  • Pan liners (optional)

Sources and Citations

  • Lundberg, Kotschevar, Understanding Cooking, Amherst, Mass., University Press, 1965

Article Info

Categories: Food Preparation