How do chefs keep food warm? As a chef it is so important that we always serve hot food. However, this is far from the easy task that it may first appear.
We all know that one of the quickest ways to ruin a nice meal is to be served lukewarm food. Most people are too shy to send the it back so they end up having a meal out that is just “OK.”
Fortunately, us chefs have several tricks for keeping food warm even when we are juggling multiple dishes at a time!
I have put together this list of the 8 best ways for keeping food warm, however if you just want the quick answer:
As chefs we have many methods for ensuring food is kept warm and served as hot as possible. These include the use of heat lamps, water baths, working quickly, and many other secret weapons we have at our disposal.
These are just a selection of the tricks used by chefs and I will expand on the various methods below so that you will be serving piping hot meals in no time!
1. Cooked To Order
Chefs cook food to order. This may seem obvious but it is a vital part of serving hot meals.
The Head chef will call a dish “away” this means the various chefs on each section will take the element of the dish they have created up to the front of the kitchen. The Head Chef then plates the dish and sends it out with the waiting staff.
This process takes very little time from the moment the prepared food is taken off the stove, or out from the oven, to the moment it is served to the customer. (How a professional kitchen flows)
There simply isn’t much time for the food to be able to go cold!
2. Hot Lamps
For those not familiar with hot lamps, they are bright lights that hang down low, close to the food, that when turned on produce a large amount of heat as a by-product of the light.
Hot lamps are a great place to ‘rest’ meats and fish after cooking. By placing the food directly underneath these lamps it maintains the food’s temperature without continuing to cook the meat or fish.
3. Working quickly
Chefs tend to work incredibly quickly in the kitchen when cooking. We have an article which I will link here covering how they are able to do this.
Working quickly and utilizing teamwork ensures that the smallest amount of time passes between a dish being cooked and ready, and it reaching the customer.
Head Chefs are notoriously particular about the amount of time the different elements of a dish are allowed to sit at the ‘pass’ waiting to be plated up.
If the Chef feels the dish has been sat there to long they will demand a fresh version. This is part of the quality control process that makes great chefs.
Food that sits up the front (on the ‘pass’ as it’s called) for even slightly to long begins to wilt and go cold. This should always be prevented from leaving the kitchen.
4. Flashing under the grill
At the front of the kitchen there is usually a grill called a ‘salamander grill’. I’m not entirely sure why it is called this (by this I mean I have no idea whats-so-ever!), but I do know what it does..
For those not familiar this video demonstrates a salamander grill in action.
- The Salamander grill heats food from the top and usually has two shelves.
- When food is brought up to the pass, certain food types get placed under the grill for around 20 seconds to quickly put some additional heat back into them.
- This is known as ‘flashing under the grill’
Food types suitable for this would be steaks or roasted vegetables for example.
This method does have risks. For example, we need to be careful when ‘flashing’ fish as too much time under the grill and you run the risk of overcooking the food rather then just adding a shot of heat.
5. Kitchens Are Hot Places
Any Chef will testify to the fact that a kitchen in full flow, (even with modern chef uniforms) is a very hot place to be at anytime of the year.
Whilst a hot kitchen may not be very comfortable for the chefs working in it, it is undoubtedly one of the main reasons that the food in restaurants is usually very hot.
The general temperature of the kitchen means that instead of having the problem of keeping food warm, the reverse is actually true; it is more difficult to try and keep the cold food cold!
Under counter fridges and cold sections (known as ‘larder’ section) are used to keep food fresh. Any food left out on the side would spoil much quicker than in a normal domestic kitchen.
Chefs have plenty of tricks to keep themselves cool in this environment which is probably deserving of it’s own blog post!
6. Wrapping Up
Kitchen foil (or Tin foil as it can sometimes called) is a strong ally to a chef and something that home cooks can definitely make use of as well.
Wrapping foods in kitchen foil is a great way to keep heat in; but to much time wrapped up and you run the risk that the food will begin to ‘sweat’ and take on a poor texture.
7. Bain Marie
Commonly referred to as water baths, these excellent tools are great at keeping food warm without continuing to cook it.
Most kitchens will have a Bain Marie at the front of the kitchen so certain food types can go in there and stay warm allowing the chef to take portions as needed.
If you have ever been to a Carvery at a restaurant this is a great example of a Bain Marie in action.
The metal dishes of vegetables and potatoes are placed in the top, with the hot water slightly below. The heat from the hot water keeps the metal dishes warm which in turn keeps the food warm.
8. Hot Plates
Bain Maries also tend to have hot cupboards beneath. Hot cupboards are a great place to keep plates so that they are warm before placing any cooked food on them.
Placing hot food on a cold plate is a big no no in a professional kitchen and a quick way to guarantee the food going cold.
To Sum Up
Some of the methods listed above are technique based and some are to do with the specialist equipment that chefs have available to them.
Rushing out to buy yourself a set of heat lamps for the kitchen at home may be a tad excessive, but other methods, such as heating the plates, are definitely techniques that anyone can implement.
If you are pursuing a career in catering (how to become a chef) hopefully these methods will help you begin to gain a mental picture of how a professional kitchen operates so that it is a little less daunting.
Like any trade, there are skills and tricks to learn. These make a process that seems difficult from the outside relatively straightforward with just a little experience!
With over 10 years experience as a professional chef, my mission is to help those starting their journey in catering.