Five Tips for Buying a Countertop Food Warmer
It’s that time of year again when warm comfort food is on the minds of busy holiday shoppers. Whether the day’s fare is a scrumptious soup or a satisfying plate of alfredo or beef stroganoff, these dishes are scooped and served hot to anxious patrons ready to fill their yuletide tummies.
Commercial-grade countertop food warmers are staples in foodservice operations, used to properly heat, hold and serve foodie favorites. Besides ensuring the customer’s food is the perfect temperature, these warmers allow kitchen staff to prep meals ahead of time to heat and serve later, improving the operational flow of the kitchen and decreasing customer wait time.
Typically, countertop food warmers utilize wet, indirect heat – or a water-bath – to properly heat and hold prepared menu items. They come in a variety of capacities and shapes to hold round soup inserts or fractional-sized pans. Like anything in life, there is a wide range of choices when it comes to quality and functionality of warmers. Below is a list of considerations when deciding on the best commercial-grade countertop warmer for your foodservice operation.
1. What kind of capacity do you require?
Efficient operators build menus to use the same warmer across day parts, so knowing the volume of each warmed food product you go through daily will help you decide on capacity. Using a medium-capacity warmer to hold your three most popular sauces throughout the day can save you from needing to purchase multiple pieces of equipment. For example, a warmer holding hollandaise for a popular Eggs Benedict breakfast entrée can hold soup during lunch and marinara sauce for the spaghetti dinner special. For operations with many different gravies, sauces or pasta toppings that change throughout the day, rectangular full-pan warmers can accommodate up to six fractional pans with separation bars. This gives you the option of switching out certain pans as needed.
2. What are you serving?
Delicate cream-based soups and the aforementioned hollandaise sauce require specific temperatures or they could separate, so having precise temperature is crucial. Warmers come with one of two main heat controls: rheostats or thermostats. A rheostat control either has high, medium and low markings or a range of numbers to determine the heat. Think of it like the volume control for your dining room – if you turn your volume up during a busy lunch rush, it will not automatically adjust once the room empties. You end up pumping too much noise into an empty space, spoiling the ambience. Rheostats don’t adjust heat output as food is taken from a warmer; the same amount of heat is pumped into a dish until you manually adjust the dial, which can lead to scorching and wasting food if you don’t pay attention. For this reason, many operators prefer thermostatically-controlled warmers, which work like home heating and cooling systems – the thermostat keeps the inside of your home at a consistent temperature, and kicks in when it senses fluctuations.
3. How will you be plating the food product?
Portion control doesn’t have to stop with condiments –many restaurants rely on accurate portioning to control costs, maintain published food nutrition facts and ensure taste consistency. Some warmers have more dispensing versatility than others; while most use ladles, some warmers can interface with pumps. Gravies and sauces are pumpable, which can offer precise portions regardless of who is preparing the dish. Another way to ensure a proper portion includes establishing proper protocols for the number of ladle servings per food item. Food warmers come with a variety of lids – some warmers include lids that stay open while busy wait staff fill multiple bowls on a tray, and some are designed to return evaporated moisture to your soup, noodle sauce or other food product. For prepared proteins like pulled pork or similar items, check for warmers that come with an area to hang tongs between uses. Be sure you are able to incorporate the proper dispensing tools for your operation – warmer versatility can provide serving options across day parts as well.
4. Where will the warmer be located, and does it need to move throughout the day?
Whether your warmer is located back-of-house or at a self-serve station, space is a premium. Knowing how the lunch menu transitions into dinner will help in this area. A warmer that allows cooks to top pasta dishes at lunch can move to the wait station for dinner where wait staff handles soups. Because countertop food warmers utilize electricity, keep in mind the location of available electrical outlets. Countertop warmers are modular – an advantage over built-in warmers – meaning they can be relocated to accommodate different day-parts or LTO/seasonal offerings. Establishments offering buffets for brunch or weekend banquets will enjoy the ability to store warmers in equipment closets when they’re not in use. For customer self-serve warmers, look for models with temperature controls in the back – this way it’s harder for patrons to accidentally change the temperature.
5. Does it have the proper certifications?
Food safety should be a priority at every foodservice establishment; in addition to the various cleaning and food handling procedures you have in place, equipment meeting proper certifications will only help your efforts. When it comes to preventing illness and food spoilage, temperature accuracy is crucial. Select a true NSF-certified rethermalizing warmer as opposed to the less expensive “cooker/warmer” units. A rethermalizer has passed the stringent NSF-4 certification, meaning it can heat refrigerated pre-cooked food (below 40° F) through the temperature “danger zone” to a temperature above 165° F within two hours. A cooker/warmer has not been constructed to meet these requirements, and therefore operators must first heat the refrigerated product in the microwave or on the stove. By eliminating the heating and transferring step, rethermalizers save time in both the prep stage and clean up stage.
Each warmer brand and style offers its own unique set of bells and whistles, so be sure to look for additional features such as:
- Reduced energy consumption
- Digital temperature read-out or dial locks for analog temperature gauges
Commercial-grade countertop food warmers are an important component in the finishing or plating station in a commercial kitchen or in the customer self-serve station. It’s important to think through all considerations before selecting the best unit for your operation.
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