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Uses for a Chafing Dish – 9 Ways You Hadn’t Thought of!

I love having people over and throwing dinner parties.  When we cook for our friends, we make a lot of food. So, we used to run into trouble with the timing of cooking everything and then struggling to keep everything at an appetizing and safe temperature. But that was before we learned about all the uses for a chafing dish!

A chafing dish uses a heated water pan to heat a smaller pan with food that sits in the water pan. You can use it to keep food warm & in the temperature safe zone for parties & large gathering, keeping food from drying out (like it would in an oven), and with a lid, it also keeps flies and other insects off your food.

But there are actually a lot more surprising ways to use a chafing dish.

So let’s dive in deeper!

If you’re looking to buy any small kitchen appliance, don’t forget to check out my Recommended Products Page (click to see my page) which breaks down all my best picks by category.

I always hand select items that I either own, have used, or have researched well to ensure they are great items. I also give not only top of the line as well as inexpensive alternatives so my choices work for any budget.

uses for a chafing dish Kitchen Appliance HQ row of chafing dishes

What is a chafing dish?

Chafing dishes, which are also known as chafers, are the best way to keep cooked food hot for a dinner party, buffet or other events where a large group of people will be eating over a period of time.

Chafing dishes come in a wide variety of sizes and depths. They have a large steam pan which holds water and then 1 or more smaller pans are inserted into the steam pan which holds the food.

They typically have lids as well to keep the heat and moisture in so your food stays fresher longer and dries out less. Traditionally, you would use small disposable Sterno cans as the heat source, but you can get electric chafing dishes too.

The racks that hold the pans have built-in holders for the Sterno cans.

Essentially, the heat comes from underneath and heats water that you place in the steam pan closest to the bottom. You then place slightly smaller insert pans in the water pan and the food goes in there. The heat source heats the water which in turn heats the food.

Depending on your needs and how often you plan to use chafing dishes, you can buy disposable ones, rent nice ones, or buy nice ones.

My wife and I buy the disposable ones, but keep the frame and water pan and simply get new inserts for each party.

What are the most common sizes of chafing dishes?

A typical full-sized chafing dish steam pan is 20″ long by 12″ wide. You can find then 2″ or 3″ deep. You can also use half pan inserts in the full-sized steam pan. Half pans are roughly 10″ long, which insert into the 1 large steam pan. 

I prefer steam pans that are about 3″ deep.

That way there’s plenty of room for water and it’s not so shallow that I risk overflowing the steam pan when I place the food insert pans into the steam pan.

You can, however, get some steam pans that are under 2″ deep which could be useful for keeping the food hotter. You just can’t put as much water in the pan or it will overflow when you place the food insert pans in them. Thus, you may need to add water during the course of the event.

I also typically get 2 half pans.

You can get lids for them as well, but aluminum foil works just fine too. At a fancy event or buffet, you would typically keep the lid on during serving. But for our casual dinner parties, I just keep the food covered until the guests arrive.

At restaurants or hotel buffets, you may also see round or oval-shaped chafing dishes as well.

Where do you buy a chafing dish?

You can buy chafing dishes online with Amazon, or at Walmart. But I prefer the chafing dishes at Party City who only carry disposable ones. I reuse the frame and steam pan and simply buy new insert pans when needed.

All the components are purchased individually and they have a variety of sizes. Since Amazon has everything, they, of course, not only carry disposable chafing dishes, but nice stainless steel chafing dishes too.

Thus, Amazon is probably your best bet for chafing dishes unless a Party City is around the corner from your house.

Do bear in mind though, that you can rent chafing dishes from local party supply stores too. My wife and I did that when we got married since the caterer just dropped off the food and wasn’t in charge of setting up.

So if you are having a fancy event where a disposable aluminum chafing dish isn’t quite nice enough and you don’t have parties often enough to buy nice ones, renting could be the way to go.

What is the best chafing dish?

Tiger Chef makes some of the best heavy-duty chafing dishes available for those looking for a more permanent chafing dish beyond the disposable ones.

But, best is a subjective term. Also whether you’re going for function, style or cost will make a big difference.

For my wife and I, hosting 3-4 parties a year for friends in a casual setting, the inexpensive disposable chafing dishes you can buy at Party City or on Amazon work great.

For something a little nicer that’s reusable and won’t break the bank, TigerChef has an electric commercial steam table chafer at a great price, and the reviews are outstanding. Free shipping too!

Click HERE to check current prices on Amazon.

If you had a budding catering side job, however, you probably want something nicer with an attached lid that slides back. For that, there’s no better option than the Winware Madison 8 quart roll-top Chafer.

The Winware is an Amazon’s Choice product with great reviews and free shipping. Click HERE to check current prices on Amazon and read more.

How much does it cost to rent chafing dishes?

You should expect to pay $25 per full-sized chafing dish to rent for a 1-day event. By comparison, disposable chafing dish sets from Party City cost a little over $12 each. Then you can use them again and again.

Of course, renting ANYTHING in someplace like New York or San Francisco will be very different than renting in Boise.

So you will need to call around and check some local party supply stores in your area that do equipment rental.

Depending on how much food you had and how many people you plan to serve, you might need 2-6 chafing dishes or more.

For most of the dinner parties my wife and I like to throw we often have around 15-20 guests. We find that 2 large chafing dishes with 2 small insert pans work just fine. That allows us to keep 4 different food items hot.

How much water do you put in a chafing dish?

Between 1-3″ of water is right for most chafing dishes. So. depending on the depth of your steam pan and the depth of your food insert pans, you will want to fill the steam pan between 1/2 full with water and up to 3/4 full.

Bear in mind an empty food pan will tend to just float when you set it into the steam pan with water in it.

Thus, you may want to test out the fullness before the party is in effect to ensure you haven’t overfilled the pan. If you have too much water in the pan when you insert the food pan, the water will overflow over the edges of the steam pan.

Too little water, however, and you risk it all evaporating. You may find yourself having to refill the water throughout the party. This can be kind of clumsy since you’ll have to remove the hot food pans and transport the water in a pitcher.

You can use hot or cold tap water to fill the steam pan. Using hot may speed up the warming process slightly, but won’t really make a big difference.

What is Sterno?

Sterno is a brand of fuel made from denatured and jellied alcohol.

Because it’s designed to be burned directly from the can, you simply pop the lid off and light the gel inside with a lighter. It will burn until the gel fuel is all gone or until you place the lid back on which extinguishes the flame.

The Sterno brand and trademark is owned by Sterno Products, with the name originating from the original manufacturer, S. Sternau & Co.

Sterno was invented in the late 1800s. It is made from ethanol, methanol, water, and a gelling agent. It also often contains a dye that gives it a pink color. Methanol is added because of its denaturing effect. The denaturing also makes it too toxic for consumption.

A 7oz. can burns for about 2 hours. Thus, for 1 chafing dish, you might want as many as 4 fuel cans since a full-sized chafing dish holds 2 cans.

Ironically, during the prohibition era, drinking Sterno, which would be squeezed through a sieve or cloth to extract the liquid, became popular. But as we noted, the alcohol Sterno contains is denatured, so Sterno is actually poisonous and should not be consumed under any circumstances.

Sterno is a brand name, thus, there are other brands of chafing dish fuel. But like the terms Kleenex or Crock-Pot or Chapstick, the brand name has come to be seen as a generic description for any brand that does the same thing.

Other brands of chafing dish fuel include Winco Pure Heat, Power Heat, and others. Some cans contain a wick, like a candle, while the more traditional gel cans are simply designed to be lit directly.

uses for a chafing dish Kitchen Appliance HQ line of people at a row of chafing dishes

How many chafing dishes do I need?

My wife and I have 2 full-sized chafing dishes and that works just fine for small parties. If we put 2 half pans in each, that gives us space for 4 food items.

But even then I could see how it would be nice to have 4 chafers total and 8 food options.

If, however, you were hosting a large event with 100 people, you would most likely want to rent chafing dishes. For that large of a group, I would recommend having 5 full-size chafing dish frames and steam tables for your buffet line.

Then for each of the 5, I would have 4 full-sized food pans for each one (total of 20 food pans).

Of course, you would need a large facility to prepare and heat that quantity of food and possibly rent what’s called a cambro to keep the remaining pans of food warm while they wait their turn to go in the buffet line.

Can chafing dishes go in the oven?

The short answer is yes; your food insert pan, which is typically made of aluminum or stainless steel can go in the oven.

Thus if you were, for instance, making lasagna, you could bake it right in the insert pan and then remove and place it right into the water pan in your chafing dish to stay warm.

Enchiladas are another one of the best uses for a chafing dish as it too can go right from the oven to the chafer. Cut some calories in the process by not Frying the Tortillas for Your Enchiladas.

Do bear in mind the chafer itself is not designed to cook food, just to keep it warm. So always cook your food fully and then use the chafer to keep it warm.

Do chafing dishes keep food hot?

Chafing dishes are designed to keep already cooked and heated foods hot. They are not designed to cook food or reheat cold food. Always place hot food in the chafing dishes to ensure they remain in the temperature safe zone.

As we’ve mentioned, a chafing dish is not designed to cook food. It’s not even really designed to take cold cooked food and warm it up (although it will do that slightly).

Thus, the best use for a chafing dish is to keep fully cooked and hot food hot; holding the temperature the food is already at.

Chafing dishes work by using fuel (typically Sterno) to heat a large, shallow pan (called a steam pan) of water. The steam pan then heats a pan of food above it.

The food in the food pan stays warm.

Since the food is not heated directly like an oven or stovetop, the food tends to not scorch or stick to the bottom of the pan and the moisture from the steam pan tends to keep the food from drying out.

Do monitor long servings to ensure the water in the steam pan hasn’t run out, and know to replace your Sterno cans about every 2 hours.

How long can you keep food warm in a chafing dish?

Once your food has been completely cooked, it can be held in a chafing dish for up to 6 hours. The longer it stays in the chafing dish the less fresh it gets and certain kinds of food hold up better than others.

From a food safety standpoint, the food needs to be consistently at a temperature above 140° Fahrenheit to keep it safe.

The food temperature danger zone refers to when food is between 41° to 140° Fahrenheit.

In this danger zone, food is more prone to bacteria which can lead to foodborne illnesses.  Do bear in mind that it is generally considered OK for food to be in the danger zone for up to 2 hours. But beyond that, there is a risk of food poisoning.

Food items most prone to bacteria in the danger zone:

  • Beef, poultry, pork, seafood
  • Eggs or dairy products
  • Bean sprouts
  • Non-acidic Sauces

If you want more info, check out the USDA’s page on party food safety tips.

So what are the . . .

9 Awesome Uses for a Chafing Dish You Probably Didn’t Know?

1. Pasta sauces

If you have a pasta you’ve cooked, just toss it in extra virgin olive oil and keep it warm in one of the chafing pans.

Tossing it with sauce and then putting on the chafer will cause it to break down faster. It’s also a good idea to ever so slightly undercook the pasta so it has a nice firm bite that will hold up well on the chafer.

Then have 2 or more sauces in other chafers and let guests pick the sauce and the amount of sauce they want.

A yummy tomato sauce holds up great in a chafer, but even alfredo or pesto will work too.

2. Warm bread or buns

If you have chopped beef or pulled pork in a chafer, then give your guests a treat and have 1 half pan for bread and/or buns to go with it.

Is there anything more comforting than warm bread? No, is the answer you were looking for. It’s one of the best uses for a chafing dish.

3. Sauced meats

While it’s true that a chafing dish won’t dry out food as much as sticking in the oven, it will still get dryer the longer it sits. The more of the surface exposed to air, also the greater the chance of bacteria growth.

Thus, one of the best uses for a chafing dish is with meats in a sauce.

That could be beef, chicken, or pork in bbq sauce, but it could also be fajita beef strips in salsa or meatballs in pasta sauce.

4. Lasagna or other casseroles

This one is a no brainer for chafing dishes as anything that can be cooked right in the pan you then put in the chafer is so simple and easy.

Thus, any casserole and especially lasagnas are easily one of the best uses for a chafing dish.

Risotto is especially yummy kept warm in a chafer! So take a momemt and check out my post on How to Make Risotto without Wine.

5. Spinach or crab dip

Dips are also a great use of a chafing dish (although they also work well in Crock-pots).

If you are using one of the chafers for warm bread as I mentioned in #2, they can be multi-purpose and work with the dips also.

6. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, or Christmas dinners

Holiday feasts get a whole lot easier and remain one of the absolute best uses for a chafing dish.

Many dished can be cooked in the half pans and then just transferred right to the chafing dishes, freeing up much-needed oven space.

Things like stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, or wine-braised beef brisket would work extremely well. And of course, keeping 1 half pan for some warm challah would be awesome!

7. Baked appetizers

Many a party has been thrown at our house with some amazing made-from-scratch food. But you know what? Sometimes we don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to make everything from scratch.

So we buy large quantities of frozen appetizers like:

  • Taquitos
  • Mini quiche
  • Mini spanikopita

Then we bake them off and just dump them in a half pan to stay warm. Since you aren’t saucing them, you can easily combine different ones in the same pan.

8. Chocolate fondue

You can’t throw a good dinner party without dessert and a chocolate fondue in a chafing dish is quick and easy. Just add a plate of cut fruit on skewers next to the chafer and you’re good to go.

Chocolate fondue is ridiculously easy to make. Simply melt semisweet and/or milk chocolate pieces with milk, a little butter and some vanilla extract with a pinch of salt in a double boiler and whisk smooth.

Pour into the chafer and keep warm, and you’re done!

9. Chili

A great colder-weather crowd pleaser, chili is incredibly easy to make and to keep warm in a chafing dish. It’s also extremely versatile in that you can use beans or no beans, beef, turkey or other meat (or no meat).

And it’s one of those dishes that lastes better the longer it warms so the flavors will naturally come together the longer it sits in a chafer.

Final Thoughts

In this post, we took an in-depth look at the world of the chafing dish.

We explored a little bit of the history, how they work, the different styles and answered all the top questions. Specifically, though, we looked at some of the vest best uses for a chafing dish, so your next party or gathering will be a smash hit!

If you’re looking to buy any small kitchen appliance, don’t forget to check out my Recommended Products Page (click to see my page) which breaks down all my best picks by category.

I always hand select items that I either own, have used, or have researched well to ensure they are great items. I also give not only top of the line as well as inexpensive alternatives so my choices work for any budget.

As an Amazon Associate I may earn a small commission from qualifying purchases if you click to Amazon from my site and choose to make a purchase. You can read my complete affiliate disclosure for more details.

Jeff Campbell

Tara Burns

Friday 7th of August 2020

Thank you for your reply Jeff.

We decided to swap out the prawns for a beef curry instead.

Do you think it's safe to keep the rice hot in the chafers?

Many thanks and thanks for your kind birthday wishes.


Jeff Campbell

Friday 7th of August 2020

Hi Tara

Rice can be a little tricky as it's a natural place for bacteria to grow if the chafer isn't kept above 140 degrees, but too hot and it starts to crisp up. Adding something a little acidic to the rice (such as tomatoes) helps combat the bacteria growth, and making the rice a tad more moist than normal can help with it drying out. Frequent stirring helps with both issues too.

Hope that helps!



Friday 31st of July 2020

Hi Can we use chafing pans to put cooked pasta with no sauces people will choose own sauces

Jeff Campbell

Sunday 2nd of August 2020

Hi Donna

Yes! Just make sure to add plenty of olive oil (or butter, etc) to keep it from sticking. I would also stir it every so often unless you have so many guests that it's naturally getting mixed together as they serve themselves.

If it sits for a long time, I would plan to add a little more oil periodically as needed.

Thanks for being here!


Tara Burns

Friday 24th of July 2020

Hi Jeff Great article. We are planning a 50th party for my husband. We’re inviting 18 people and are going to do 2 or 3 types of curries. We’ve bought Chafers to keep the food hot.

Please can you tell me if it is safe to keep a prawn curry hot in one of the chafers for several hours and rice jn another?

I know the chicken and veg curries will be fine, I’m just a bit nervous about the prawns and the rice.

Many thanks!!

Jeff Campbell

Friday 24th of July 2020

Hi Tara

Thanks! As long as you have Sterno cans going the whole time and are able to keep the chafers hot enough to stay in the safe zone (above 140 °F) you'll be fine in terms of the food not spoiling. My biggest concern would be the texture of the prawns being heated that long as shrimp tend to taste best when freshly cooked. I might almost be inclined to cook the shrimp and then chill it and have it available on ice to add either into the hot curry sauce or on the side.

Hope that helps and thanks for being here! And happy birthday to your husband!