Any good host or hostess wants to keep food warm long enough to serve it at its best temperature. Some foods are more sensitive than others to requiring warmth to be delicious, among them are crepes, pancakes, porridge, gravy and souffle.
Time and circumstance, as well as the type of food, will dictate the best ways to keep food warm for palatability.
Food Temperature and Food Safety
There is, however, another consideration when it comes to keeping hot foods hot. Food is usually considered to be at a safe temperature when it is kept below 38 degrees Fahrenheit or above 140 degrees Fahrenheit, or below 4 degrees Celsius or above sixty degrees Celsius. Temperatures in between those two extremes are considered to be the danger zone for food safety.
Most references state that most food can safely be kept at room temperature for around two hours, or about the time that it would take to serve and consume a leisurely meal.
For a winter meal, the challenge is usually to keep the food sufficiently hot to prevent the growth of pathogens without turning it into an unsavory mess that no one can eat. Historically, a pot of stew or porridge might have been hung in a large pot over a perpetually tended fire.
Fortunately, modern appliances make it much easier to keep food at a steady temperature. Nonetheless, it is good to know some tricks to make it easier maintain the right temperature to keep food warm. A food thermometer is a good tool for keeping an eye on the temperature of a particular dish to ensure that it is kept at a food-safe temperature.
Keeping food warm under different conditions
A thermal, insulated warm bag for food provides another way to keep food warm. It is especially nice for items that are unlikely to grow bacteria in transit, such as bread or rolls that are tastier warm, but not impossible to eat cold.
While a more expensive solution to keeping food hot or cold, cold or hot box combos can be handy for temperature control. Frequently sold in the camping section of department stores, or from restaurant supply companies, these insulated, thermal boxes are rated for keeping food at a constant temperature for up to six hours. Some of the more expensive ones can be plugged into a vehicle USB port to help maintain that constant temperature.
Keep Food Warm in Oven: Many a young man or woman has heard a parental voice say, “We had dinner a long time ago. Your dinner is in the oven.” An oven is a good place to maintain a steady temperature, but it might not be the best place to keep food warm for an uncertain amount of time.
For one thing, many foods will dry out or become glutinous. If a soup or stew runs out of water, it might stick or become inedible. Still, if the cook has a good idea of how long the errant family member will be gone, perhaps less than an hour, the oven is a reasonable place to keep food warm.
A covered dish that will hold in moisture can help with the problem of food drying out in the oven. A tightly covered dish will have less opportunity for the moisture to escape.
For a Picnic: To keep food warm for a picnic is a bigger challenge than to hold a serving of food for someone who is late. You can’t count on a power source to provide a means of heating, so you will need some other method.
A heated stone is one solution, especially if a bonfire or campfire is involved. The stone can be heated in the fire or even in a solar oven and a dish of food set on the stone.
Thick ceramic dishes or “stoneware” are excellent containers for food that needs to be served hot at some distance from the cooking facility. The thick walls of the container retains heat, and many such dishes have lids that do a good job sealing in the heat.
For travel, a pre-cooked dish can be placed inside an insulated box, and then wrapped in a blanket for additional heat conservation.
In a Car: It is not difficult to keep food warm in a car. The floorboard of a vehicle will usually heat up during a trip and can be counted on for additional warmth. Foods that need to be kept hot can be placed on the floor boards in a central part of the car where the container will be over the transmission and exhaust system, areas that can be counted on to heat up during a trip.
By the same token, if you have food that needs to remain cold, put it on a seat or near a door, away from vehicle parts that are likely to become warmer during operation.
At a Party: Transporting food to a party isn’t the only challenge. The next challenge is to keep food warm at a party. Here, technology both old and new, is ready to help. There are all sorts of pans to keep food warm, beginning with chafing dishes and extending to crock pots and steam tables.
Chafing dishes were originally used for cooking delicate items that did not do well over an open fire. Their heat sources have ranged from charcoal used in ancient Roman times, through spirit lamps, cans of sterno, and finally electrically heated trays on which pans of food can be set.
The crock pot or slow cooker is a marvel when it comes to keeping things warm. Their only problem is that as the food level in the pot diminishes, the food might stick or even burn. In miniature, they make excellent fondue pots. Small hot plates or crock pots in a single burner unit are also useful.
How to Keep Food Warm for Hours
There are not many situations in which you need to keep food warm for hours, but they do arise. If you cook food at home and transport it to a relative’s home that is several hours away, you will need a portable warmer. The insulated boxes with a heating element are your best bet for safe transport of these items.
For keeping things warm at home, crock pots offer the best multi-hour solution.
Whether you are providing warm dips or a hearty stew that can be munched on at intervals, crock pots are a personal favorite.
Not everything works in a crock pot, however. Some items need a constant heat that is not as wet or as warm as a crock pot, which is designed for cooking foods as well as keeping them warm. That brings us right back around to the historical chafing dish, which used a combination of a heat source, a hot water container and a pan placed above that to cook meals.
There are several approaches as to how to keep food hot. Some of them focus on getting the food very hot then placing it in heavy dishes that can easily be insulated. Others use a low, slow heat that can keep the food at a consistent temperature. All focus on creating and keeping food at the perfect temperature to bring out its best flavor and consistency.