Guide to Chafing Dishes


What Foods are Best in a Chafing Dish?
Not all food items maintain optimum serving conditions in a chafer, so be sure to plan your menu accordingly. Click here to learn what foods are best in a chafing dish and what foods to avoid.
Chafing Dish Tip
Want to keep items, such as grilled cheese sandwiches, warm without cooking or toasting them? Try lining the bottom of the chafer with fresh herbs. They smell great and protect food from direct heat!

Chafing dishes, affectionately known as chafers, are used to keep hot food hot while displayed on a buffet table. Chafing dishes utilize a water pan, which fits into the frame of the chafer and is filled with about a half inch of water. Once the water pan is in place, food pans are placed securely over it, leaving no gaps at the edges. The water pan is then heated by either a sterno candle or an electric source, and the heated water in turn keeps food hot and ready.

Because of this easy-to-use operation, chafing dishes are a caterer’s best friend. However, just as on a grade school playground, one should be careful when choosing one’s best friend.

Here are some traits to look for:


Chafing dishes come in a variety of shapes, the two most common being round or rectangular. Round chafing dishes are best for side dishes and sauces, while rectangular chafing dishes are typically used for main courses. Other shapes, such as half-round or oblong chafing dishes, can be purchased based on a caterer’s particular buffet style preferences.

Rectangular Chafing Dishes

Typically used for entrees, and they use between one and two canisters of chafing dish fuel, also referred to as scanned heat.

Shop Rectangular Chafing Dishes

Round Chafing Dishes

Typically used for desserts or side dishes. They provide the most even heating, as all sides are equidistant from the central heat source.

Shop Round Chafing Dishes


Soup Chafing Dishes

Provide a more elegant option for catering than soup kettles. They range in capacity from 7-11 quarts and keep soup piping hot.

Shop Soup Chafing Dishes

Lid Design

Chafing dishes are available with three different lid types.

  • Roll-top lids

    Chafing dishes with roll-top lids are ideal for buffet displays, as customers do not need to hold the lid or set it down as they serve themselves.

  • Hinged lids

    Chafing dishes with hinged lids are typically designed so that the hinge does not allow the lid to flip over and land on other buffet items. Hinged lids also feature a locking mechanism so that they can be locked in the open position. For these reasons, these chafing dishes are also excellent for buffet setups.

  • Removable lids

    Chafing dishes with removable lids are generally less expensive than hinged or roll-top chafers. However, these chafing dishes can make creating a seamless buffet setup difficult, as customers will need to hold the lids or look for somewhere to set them, or the food will have to be left exposed.

Lid Tips

Removable and Roll-top chafing dish covers are best-suited for buffet display. Chafing dishes with hinged tops can be difficult to arrange in a buffet, and when handled by guests have the potential to create a mess.

Power Source

Fun Quote!
Chafing Dishes in the 19th Century”Oh, what has become of my children three?” My mother then inquired of me.”One’s on exhibit as a talking fish;The other was served in a chafing dish.”Yo ho ho, the wind blows free,Oh for the life on the rolling sea!-from The Keeper of the Eddystone Light

(Disclaimer: FSW does not recommend serving children at your next catering event.)

Chafing dishes are manufactured with two possible power sources.

  • Electric heat

    Electrically heated chafing dishes are best for events in venues with strict fire codes. These chafers also have the added distinction of never running out of fuel. However, the negative side to electric heat is that there must be an outlet nearby, and caterers often do not know if this will be possible before the day of the event.

  • Canned heat

    Canned heat uses chemicals to create a flame and is placed in a holding area below the dish. These chafers are more portable than electric chafers and give operators the type of adaptability often essential in the catering business.

From 19th century fish tales to 21st century buffets, the chafing dish is a tried and true companion for any professional catering business.


About Author

Sara Henderson

Leave A Reply