Best Practices For Holding Food In A Steam Table


QUESTION From: Arnold in DC

“We are a Mexican restaurant and we have a steam table we use for lunch.

We get a lot of construction and healthcare workers that come on their lunch break. They often have 30 min and can only spend 5-15 min waiting on food to get back on time. I’ve been thinking of using the steam table to hold the meats we use for the popular lunch items (tacos, nachos, burritos) so that the meat is easily accessible already cooked and warm. But my staff complains about that.

1. Can I use it this way? (Basically the chipotle way) and if so, what do I need to do to sustain quality? If not, thought on making this system faster since the meat cooking takes a couple min?

2. What are the best practices for holding food in a steam table? Some challenges we have often: meat with sauce dries out, things generally dry out/look ehhh after a while, veggies get over steamed.

Thanks in advance!”


Yes. You can use a steam table that way and strongly recommend that you do.

Keep in mind that some things (like veg) die fast ...which is why volume is your best friend when it comes to holding food in anything (even a rice cooker).

It’s great that your staff is concerned with your product quality but their fears can be relayed by following the below steps and making them dry a freshly prepared sandwich/entrée side by side with one that made from ingredients that have sat for 10mins in the steam table…not that I advocate appeasing every challenge staff may put to you but regular tasting is vital to ensuring consistency and quality.

When it comes to holding food in a steam table be sure to do the following & oversee/ confirm compliance via checklists on an hourly basis:

1. Maintain water level(s) in the table

2. Maintain proper temps

3. Keep lids on product accessed frequently

4. Keep plastic on other product not yet served / until you have to serve them (when appropriate... i.e., you obviously don’t want to cover veg with plastic)

Just pay extra attention to plastic when removing - last thing you want is for someone on the line to see a rush coming and haphazardly remove plastic and leave some on the pan... or worse drop some in the pan.

5. Stir sauces frequently, add TINY bit of liq when necessary & double pan

6. Let grilled items rest before slicing / chopping

7. Transfer juices with meat

8. Toss when anything dries out sits too long regardless of whether it’s one serving left, half the pan or a full pan (one of the visual cues we used at (orig) Chipotle was the color of the cilantro in the rice i.e, as soon as it changed from bright green to faded green, we tossed it.

9. Anticipate traffic and prep appropriate i.e., you don’t have to fill every pan in the table - cooking smaller batches more frequently always helps to keep food fresh and minimizes waste.

Good Luck & Thanks for the question!