How to Create an Off-Site Catering Menu: Choosing Foods that Hold & Travel Well

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For a start-up caterer, developing a menu is very different from developing a restaurant menu. In addition to ensuring that the food will taste delicious and fit within the business concept, a caterer must be careful to choose food items that will travel well and hold up in a chafing dish.

In This Article You Will Learn:

  • Which foods are proven to work and which foods do not work
  • Tips on how to make tricky foods turn out well
  • Precautionary advice to prevent easy foods from going wrong

Tabletop supplies at a Chinese restaurant

Why to Steer Clear of Certain Foods

There are a variety of reasons that certain foods almost never work well for a catering operation. Certain recipes require last-minute prep work that is not feasible for most caterers. Some food will dry out over time. Other foods have a very narrow window in which they are perfectly cooked, but will become overcooked after sitting too long in a chafer or warmer. Still others will simply smell bad after sitting for too long.

Then again, every rule has an exception. You may be able to use some tricks to bypass the standard transport or holding methods so you can get the food just right. See the following chart for a list of foods that usually do not work well, as well as tips on how you can make it work despite the obstacles.

Why Certain Foods Are Perfect for Catering

While some foods will overcook, dry out or lose flavor over time, other foods retain flavor very well, never dry out and rarely become overcooked. These foods should have the first shot at making it onto your catering menu. However, even these foods can go wrong if you make a mistake. The following chart offers tips on foods that are known for being easy to transport and cater, as well as precautions to make sure they live up to their reputation.

Risotto is infamous for congealing or becoming mushy after sitting in a chafing dish or warmer.Cook the risotto on-site to-order, either on an induction plate or portable butane stove. This is the only surefire way to present an acceptable risotto.

Foods to Avoid Catering Off-Site

Hot seafood items

Reason to Avoid
Fish easily becomes overcooked in a chafer or warming cabinet. And after seafood sits at warm temperatures for a while, the whole site will adopt an unpleasant fishy smell.
Exceptions
To get around this rule, try hot crab cakes or fried oysters. Or you can grill salmon or other fish on-the-spot.

Hot pastas

Reason to Avoid
After being reheated or warmed, pasta is likely to dry out and become overcooked.
Exceptions
Try casserole-style pastas like macaroni or lasagna. Or boil the noodles on-site and add the sauce just before placing it on the buffet.

Fried Foods

Reason to Avoid
Fried foods are notorious for becoming cold and soggy during transport.
Exceptions
The safest solution is to fry on-site. The alternative: cool the fried food in a blast-chiller before transport to avoid condensation in the container. Transport the food in a porous container or one with ventilation holes and reheat it in an oven at the site. Use a fried food warmer or a steam table pan with a slotted or perforated lid for better ventilation at the buffet.

Rice

Reason to Avoid
When reheated or held in a chafer for a long period of time, rice dishes can sometimes dry out or become mushy.
Exceptions
Try cooking the rice on-site, in a rice cooker, or pilaf-style in a food pan in an oven. To prepare, you can transport the raw rice in the food pan with the correct amount of water.

Prime rib, lamb, and most other red meats

Reason to Avoid
Many red meat dishes must be cooked and sliced just before service in order to have the perfect consistency. If you let a piece of meat rest too long, it will grow cold. But if you cut it too soon, it will release the juices and dry up.
Exceptions
Chill slightly underdone seared or grilled items before transport, and finish them off in an oven in your vehicle or at the site. Then slice them at a carving station. Or, use a portable outdoor grill, outdoor charbroiler or outdoor griddle on-site to make sure they are perfectly cooked.

Hot vegetables

Reason to Avoid
Hot vegetables that are reheated or sit too long in a warmer, oven or chafer can easily become overcooked.
Exceptions
Instead of cooking your vegetables until they are tender, leave them a little crispy before transport and holding. Hot, crispy vegetables are still yummy, but overcooked ones tend to turn into mush.

Foods that Work for Catering Off-Site

Soups & Chili

Reason it Works
You cannot overcook soup, and you cannot dry it out. If you cook it longer, it will just get thicker, and you can always add water to thin it out.
Precautions
At a full- or partial-service buffet, watch out for that crusty lining that can gather at the top of your kettle or marmite. Stir frequently to avoid it.

Braised foods

Reason it Works
These moisture-rich foods will retain heat and water very well during transport and holding.
Precautions
Do not leave the chafing dish cover off for very long, or be sure to frequently cover it in its own juices.

Oysters on the half shell

Reason it Works
These can be raw or chilled, and are unlikely to cause a fishy smell.
Precautions
Make sure you invest in a bulk oyster shucker and some extra labor, or your oysters will be more trouble than they are worth.

Chicken

Reason it Works
As many caterers have discovered, chicken reheats very well and is difficult to overcook.
Precautions
Make sure your chicken is well-seasoned or served with a tasty sauce. Otherwise it will seem like a bland or boring menu item.

Filet mignon

Reason it Works
Filet mignon is the most tender piece of beef, and is usually prepared rare, so it is unlikely to become overdone in a warmer or become tough during transport.
Precautions
Because the meat has very little fat content, it could dry out easily. Consider wrapping it in bacon or grilling or frying on site to prevent moisture loss.

Roasted or mashed potatoes

Reason it Works
Prepare them creamy to begin with, and mashed potatoes will not dry out. They will just become thicker.
Precautions
Watch out for the hard, crusty residue that may be left on the side of a food pan. Scrape it off and discard it before serving.

BBQ

Reason it Works
Barbecue sauce will keep the BBQ chicken or pork moist, and these meats are hard to overcook.
Precautions
If you market your barbecue as “crispy,” be wary of putting it in a covered chafing dish or steam table, as it could become soggy.

Curries, stir fries and other Asian dishes with sauce

Reason it Works
The sauce will keep the food moist and the spiciness can sometimes mask any potential problems.
Precautions
Be careful. As the dish slowly cooks from warmth in a chafer or an insulated carrier or warmer, the sauce will reduce and gradually become spicier.

Mexican food

Reason it Works
For tacos, fajitas and many other Mexican and Tex-Mex foods, the ingredients can be kept separate and put together at the buffet line.
Precautions
At a build-it-yourself taco, fajita or burrito bar, every ingredient must be well-seasoned, perfectly prepped and attractively displayed, or it could look like the caterer didn’t do much work.

Rolls and breads

Reason it Works
Dinner rolls, breadsticks and soft bread require no heating or cooling, so transport is a cinch.
Precautions
Make sure to keep your baked goods covered or in an air-tight container during transport. Otherwise you could end up with hard, stale bread. If your bread dries out, reheat with a little water to re-moisturize on-site.

As your catering business grows, and you gain practice, you will be able to use your own experience to determine what kinds of food travel well and which foods still taste good after sitting for hours in a warmer. Until then, you may want to use these tips as a guide before you put an item on your menu that will fail to hold up to travel, reheating or chafing.

Illustration by the talented Roman Martinez for FSW


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