How to Keep Hot Food Warm Before Serving

Tips for Keeping Food Warm When Cooking in Stages

Vegetable stew on a wooden spoon
Tobias Titz/Getty Images 

When making batches of pancakes, French toast, stir-fries, and deep-fried foods, or when preparing large meals in stages, you might want to keep your hot food warm while you finish cooking other items or as you create more batches.

An Oven as a Warmer

To keep hot foods warm, transfer them to a baking pan, an oven-safe saucepan, or baking dish and keep them in a warming drawer, or you can set your oven at 200 to 250 F. If the food in question is pancakes, waffles, fritters, or any deep-fried items, and you want to prevent the item from getting soggy or soft, then keep it in a single layer.

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. 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.

Slow Cooker or Chafing Dishes

For hot vegetables, mashed potatoes, sauces, stews, and similar foods, a slow cooker or chafing dish may be used on the low setting to keep food items 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 item 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 "warm" setting. If you are using a steaming method of cooking, you can usually keep an item warm if you remove the heating element from the steam cooker (remove it from the stove top 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 to escape so the item does not continue to cook. Put the lid back on, and put the food item aside until you need it.

Warm Plates for Serving

To keep foods warm while serving, you might want to warm the plates. 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. Also, you can warm them in the microwave oven for one to two minutes. If you do a lot of entertaining, you might want to invest in an electric plate warmer.

Two words of caution with warming plates: First, consider 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. Second, 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 are cooking meat, particularly large cuts or whole birds, let it rest after removing from the heat. When meat cooks, its juices gravitate to the center of the cut. If you allow the meat to stand away from heat before serving, you give it time to redistribute and reabsorb its juice. As a result, the meat loses less juice when you cut it, also making the meat more tender and juicy throughout.

To rest a piece of meat using aluminum foil, take it away from the heat and place it on a warm plate or serving platter. Cover the meat 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. The time taken to rest will depend on its size, a roast is best rested for 10 to 20 minutes before carving. A turkey can take 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 for five minutes before serving.