How to Keep Hot Food Warm Before Serving

Tips When Cooking in Stages

Vegetable stew on a wooden spoon
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Whether it is a weekend morning and you're making batches of pancakes, or cooking up several dishes for Thanksgiving dinner, finding a way to keep the food warm is often a necessity. Luckily, there are several different methods available in your own kitchen to keep that French toast, deep-fried food, and even mashed potatoes from turning cold.

An important thing to keep in mind is that food that is kept out and not kept adequately warm or cool (lower than 40 F or higher than 150 F) may be dangerous to consume. Keep a thermometer handy to check food temps.

Your Oven

Some ovens actually will have a "warm" setting, which is usually 170 to 200 F, or a warming drawer, which is meant to keep foods at a level, warm temperature. If your oven has neither, set it to 200 to 250 F. Transfer the cooked food to a baking sheet, an oven-safe saucepan, or a baking dish and cover with aluminum foil before placing in the oven.

If you are trying to keep batches of pancakes, waffles, fritters, or any deep-fried items warm, place them in a single layer on a cooling rack set over a baking sheet to prevent them from getting soggy or soft. You may also want to loosely cover with foil to prevent the outside from browning any further.

For food that must be kept warm for more than 15 or 20 minutes, check with an instant-read thermometer to be sure it is at least 140 F; if it is not, then increase the oven temperature a little. Keep in mind that if you try to keep the food warm for more than an hour or two, the texture of the food may become spongy or the flavor profile might change. Consider reheating closer to serving time instead.

Slow Cooker or Chafing Dishes

For hot vegetables, sauces, stews, and soups, a slow cooker or chafing dish may be used on the low setting to keep the food warm. Similar to an oven, if you plan to store foods for longer than an hour, you may notice a change in texture or taste. Although the appliance is set to warm, the food may continue to slow cook to a slight degree.

Rice Cooker and Other Steam-Based Cookers

If you use a rice cooker to make rice, then the rice will most likely stay hot and moist for an hour or more while on its on the "warm" setting. If you are using a steaming method of cooking, you can usually keep a food warm if you remove the heating element from the steam cooker (remove it from the stovetop or turn off the electric steamer) and put the cooking vessel aside. You might want to open the lid for a quick moment to let the steam escape so the food does not continue to cook. Replace the lid and set the cooker aside until ready to serve.

Cooler or Insulated Bag

We may think of using our cooler or insulated shopping bag when transporting food that needs to be kept cold, but both are also great at keeping foods warm. If the food is not in a covered dish, transfer to a covered container or wrap in aluminum foil and store in the cooler or bag. Check the temperature of the food every once in a while to make sure it doesn't dip below 140 F.

Warm Plates for Serving

If there isn't a lot of time between when the food is done and when you're going to serve it, but enough time for the food to cool down slightly, heating the plates the food will be served on is a solution. Make sure your plates are oven-safe—ceramic plates maintain heat nicely.

To warm plates for serving, stack them in an oven for 15 minutes at the lowest oven temperature, like 150 to 200 F. You could also use a warming drawer or toaster oven, if large enough. Alternatively, you can warm the plates in the microwave for one to two minutes. If you do a lot of entertaining, you might want to invest in an electric plate warmer.

If you warm plates in the oven, make sure you use an oven mitt at all times, inform others that the plate is hot, and do not shock the plate by putting it in a cold place like a refrigerator. The thermal shock from hot to cold can cause the plate to break.

Aluminum Foil

If you need to keep food warm for the short-term, wrapping or covering with aluminum foil will do the trick. Just keep in mind the foil will keep in the heat for only about 30 minutes or so.

If you are trying to keep a roast, steak, or whole bird warm, tenting with aluminum foil while it rests will benefit the meat in two ways: It will keep it at a warm temperature while allowing the juices to redistribute. Just make sure you cover it loosely with foil; if you cover it tightly, you will make the hot meat sweat and lose the valuable moisture you are trying to retain. A roast is best when rested for 10 to 20 minutes before carving, but resting time will depend on its size. A turkey can sit from 20 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the bird (the larger the bird, the longer the resting time). Steaks or chops should stand, tented in foil, for 5 minutes before serving.