Why You Need A Warming Tray
You may be asking yourself, "Why do I need a warming tray when I can just re-heat my food in the microwave?" But experienced chefs and passionate foodies would shake their heads at that question. Warming trays play several important roles in maintaining the integrity of that food you worked so hard to make. First off, sometimes you simply do not have space on your stove to keep all of your cooked items hot and ready to eat while you finish making a few other dishes. A warming tray frees up your cooking surface, while still allowing you to keep all of your food hot.
The second reason you need a warming tray is safety. According to the FDA, there are very specific temperatures at which certain foods need to remain so they don't begin to grow bacteria. Of course, if you're serving a buffet-style dinner, you have no choice but to keep dishes out of the refrigerator for hours at a time. Food warming trays improve your and your guest's safety in another way: they keep your guests out of the kitchen. When your friends come in the kitchen to serve themselves off of the stove, they run the risk of knocking things over or burning themselves. Warming trays allow you to keep food warm while it is out of the kitchen, and that keeps your curious guests out of there, too.
The third motivation for having a warming tray has to do with the flavor and texture of your food. You most likely spent a lot of time perfecting your recipes, and you want your friends to appreciate the nuances of the food. Some flavors really pop when they're warm, but don't stand out once they're cold. Then you have ingredients, like cheese, that can curdle or harden once they cool down. You didn't work in the kitchen for hours to make a dish, all to let it get so cold that it doesn't even taste good. Warming trays ensure this will never happen.
Chafing Dishes Versus Warming Trays
If you make a lot of buffet-style meals, then you will be faced with the question: chafing dish or warming tray? Each has its merits, so you'll need to think about your specific needs. Chafing dishes consist of a frame or rack, a water pan, a food pan and a cover. You heat the water pan using either a sternol or electric heating element. Once you have heated the water to the desired temperature, you place the serving pan inside the water pan. In other words, hot water keeps the food pan, and the food inside of it, warm. A cover on top of the entire unit traps the heat inside the food pan. Warming trays, on the other hand, do not use water in any way. They plug into the wall, much like an electric griddle, and tend to feature a one-piece design.
Neither a chaffing pan or warming tray is better of worse than the other — they're just different. Chafing dishes are typically more affordable than warming trays. You also have the option to place disposable pans in chafing dishes, which makes them ideal for cooks who hate the cleanup. Just keep in mind that chafing dishes pose a few safety hazards that warming trays do not. Piping hot water is present in a chafing dish. If you use a sterno-heated model, there will also be one or several small open flames beneath the water pan. These features make chafing dishes less-than-favorable for buffets where children will be present.
These two accessories offer different presentation options, too. Warming trays allow you to display your dishes in a more formal way. You can put your serving set (so long as they're made from materials safe for use on the heating element) directly on your warming tray. Meanwhile, chafing dishes only accommodate aluminum or steel food pans, and they are usually large. For this reason, warming dishes are ideal for smaller dinner parties, whereas chafing dishes come in handy for serving large groups of people. Ultimately, you probably do not have enough decorative serving plates to hold food for 100 guests, so generic-looking chafing dishes are expected at bigger events.
What To Look For In A Warming Tray
Before picking out your warming tray, think of the ways you're going to use it. If you're simply looking for a quick way to reheat a dish, but don't want to use a microwave due to the many damaging effects it can have on your health, look for a warming tray that reaches high temperatures quickly. If you don't plan on consuming your food immediately, but rather need a way to keep it hot for hours on end, make sure your warming tray can run nonstop for prolonged periods of time. Regardless of how you plan on using your tray, make sure it features temperature control so that you can prevent burning your food.
You should also ask yourself if this tray will be more for personal use and small family meals, or for social gatherings. If it's the latter, then look for one with an extra large surface that can accommodate several plates at once. You might also want one with big handles that don't get hot so you can relocate it to make room for other plates during a party without the risk of burning your hands. On that same note, make sure your warming tray has a long cord so you can move it from one end of a table to the other without having to unplug it and find a new outlet.
You should consider maintenance and storage, too. You can put food directly onto to many warming trays, and if that is what you plan on doing, make sure your model is made from a material that wipes clean easily, like stainless steel. Some units fold up for storage and even have detachable cords. The slimmer the profile, the easier it will be to store your tray in a drawer or under a table when it's not in use.