If you’ve read our tips on hosting a stress free dinner party, you will know that when it comes to dinner party planning, I am not a laid-back person. I also obsess about keeping food warm. I have researched this to death and thought I’d share my best tips from many years of entertaining.
Plan, Plan, Plan
I know this is easy for a planner (like me) and not so easy for a fly-by-your-pants person. I plan the menu so that I don’t have to reheat or finish off everything right before serving. Plan some room temperature or cold dishes and dishes that can be successfully kept warm until serving or reheated. It’s pretty awful to realize an hour before guests arrive that you don’t have enough oven and stove space to accommodate your menu.
Serve buffet style if possible
If you have the space, buffet style in the kitchen or elsewhere is almost always a better option for keeping things warm. You can set out food in covered dishes (or covered with tin foil), on warming trays or in chafing dishes which will all keep things warm until serving. If you’re using disposable or other chafing dishes, be sure to put your food in piping hot. Chafing dishes maintain temperature. They don’t heat up food.
Make ahead and use a caterer’s instructions for reheating foods
Caterer’s put out baking and reheating instructions for their foods that we can all use to guide us in reheating our own dishes. Here’s are some great reheating instructions I found online from caterers: Bakers’s Thanksgiving reheating instructions, Balduciis for BBQ reheating instructions and general reheating instructions. And if you want to slip in a few prepared foods to your meal, here is Whole Foods Cooking and Reheating Instructions. I find these can really help with how-to’s and timing.
Think beyond the stove and oven to keep food warm
When I have a larger crowd and lots of dishes with insufficient stove top and oven space, I expand my tools for keeping foods warm. Here’s a few I’ve used successfully to keep foods warm:
- Crockpot – perfect for keeping stews, soups, stuffing and mashed potatoes warm
- Thermos – perfect for keeping gravy and soup hot. I use a coffee thermos if I need to hold a litre of gravy. If I’m serving a butternut squash soup or lobster bisque as an appetizer in mini cups, for example, I heat up the soup and put it in a thermos well ahead of time – and pour it straight out of the thermos.
- Microwave – perfect to warm up side dishes and other foods that don’t need to be crispy.
- Toaster oven – I use this very often as a small oven. Or to warm up bread.
- Heating pad – I’ve used this in a pinch on a side board to keep a serving plate of food warm after it’s served initially e.g. turkey. Tuck it between towels or place mats and hide the cord.
- BBQ – this can be used as a second oven, particularly if you are able to keep the temperature fairly steady. You can also turn off one side of a gas grill or turn off the heat completely (after the BBQ is preheated), put your dishes in covered with foil and keep the lid closed.
- Cooler – this can effectively keep many foods warm, even hot for a couple of hours. Using hot wet towels inside adds extra insulation. Coolers are also good for transporting hot foods covered in foil.
Use heat-insulating serving dishes and warm your plates
Generally, heavier dishes like ceramic will keep foods warm for longer. And use lots of tin foil if your dishes don’t have covers. A great way to keep food warm – and a nice touch – is to warm your plates before serving. Here’s a few options:
- use a warming drawer if your oven has one;
- heat plates in a 150F oven for 15 minutes;
- some plates like Earthenware can be warmed in the dishwasher – run the cycle 2 hours before you’re serving – plates will stay warm.
Serve hot gravy or sauce
Gravy or sauce can be a real savior when serving meat, chicken or turkey. If the meat is baked right in a sauce, there’s no need to worry. Those types of dishes can keep warm in a 150-200F oven for up to an hour usually. If, however, you’re slicing meat or poultry at the last minute (after resting it), it tends to get cold quickly. I heat the gravy or sauce on the stove or microwave about 15-20 minutes before serving and pour it into an insulated coffee or gravy thermos which keeps it hot for hours. The hot gravy/sauce can make a big difference.
Try the sous vide cooking method
The Sous Vide method cooks food in a specially-controlled water ‘bath’ to the exact temperature you set it for. The food can be left in the water bath for a couple of hours after it’s done in most cases.
In terms of stress-free, I give it a 100% rating. You can be totally confident that the meat will come out exactly as you intend (and super tender too). You do have to finish it off on the BBQ, broiler, pan or oven for a few minutes to get some color on the meat, but in my opinion, that is a very reasonable trade off. And because you’re applying some high heat at the very end, the meat tends to come to the table at the right temperature.
This method will not work for everything, but it’s certainly a new option in the tool box that wasn’t available in the not-too-distant past. Sous vide is particularly excellent for flank steak, pork chops, pork tenderloin, duck breast, chicken breasts, turkey breast. Make Ahead: In fact, all of these have a window of 1-2 hours where this additional time will not affect the texture and moistness of the meat.
How to keep specific foods warm for a party
Here are some tips for a few common dinner party foods. A general rule of thumb if you are refrigerating foods then reheating them: first bring the food to room temperature (30-90 minutes) before reheating. See reheating instructions above from caterers.
- Rice: I use a rice cooker where the rice will stay hot and moist for an hour or more. Alternatively, rice reheats very well in the microwave, covered, for a few minutes It’s also fine to keep it warm in the oven, covered. I suggest adding a tablespoon or two of water to keep the rice moist when reheating.
- Mashed potatoes: I use my warming ring on the stove top for up to an hour. I put a bit of extra milk/cream on top, let it sit, then fluff the potatoes up just before serving. I often serve potatoes right out of the pot. Mashed potatoes also reheat very well in the microwave for a few minutes (stir half way through). Or, they can be kept warm for hours in a slow cooker on low.
- Roasts: I let my roasts sit on the counter for up to 45 minutes with lots of tin foil covering them loosely, then I slice just before serving. You can keep them warm in a 150-200F oven or on “warm” if you have this setting, but keep checking with an instant read thermometer to make sure the temperature is not rising. I’ve also used a pan with hot water under the roasting pan which worked quite well. I never reheat meat in the microwave as it can become gray and rubbery. Serve with hot gravy.
- Turkey: (you can do this 1-2 days ahead). Once roasted, loosely cover with tin foil and let rest for 40-60 minutes (a must to retain juiciness). Slice and add to a pan, pressed close together to maintain moisture. Cover with plastic wrap pressing it all around the turkey. It can be refrigerated at this point. When ready to use, bring to room temperature for an hour. Set the turkey slices in one layer, with a bit of overlap. Drizzle hot broth over the turkey – covering about 1/8 inch of broth on the bottom of the pan. Reheat tightly covered with foil for 20-30 minutes (just until heated through) at 350F. Alternatively you can flash heat it at 450F for 7-10 minutes. Transfer to a hot plate and drizzle a bit of the broth from the pan over the turkey.
- Steaks (at least an inch thick, 1 1/2 inches even bette): Season and sear steaks on the grill or in a pan on high for just 2 minutes on each side. Transfer to a wire rack sitting over a pan (this will keep them from steaming and cooking more). A half hour before ready to serve, put the steaks in a 325F preheated oven and cook for about 10-20 minutes (depending on thickness) or until an instant thermometer reads 130F for medium rare.
- Vegetables: If roasted, keep warm or reheat in a 35oF oven for a 5-10 minutes uncovered. For beans, broccoli and asparagus, for example, early in the day I blanch them in the microwave or in salted boiling water until tender but still have a bite. Then drop them into ice water to stop the cooking, drain and leave them sit until dinner. Just before serving, I stir pan fry them with oil, salt, pepper, garlic and/or lemon for 2 minutes. And, there’s always the option of serving them at room temperature (not a crime!).
Assign people to help
Guests are usually happy to help. With you orchestrating, let people carry things out to the table and help serve. If you have someone you trust to be a sous chef, take the plunge and assign something bigger. I know this is hard for perfectionists!
Cut yourself some slack
The best tip I read recently – not really a food tip – is to cut yourself some slack . I definitely need listen to myself on this one. I mean no matter what you do, carrots or asparagus and numerous other foods are simply going to get cold in minutes once they hit the table. Let it go (I tell myself) and good luck!
This post on keeping foods warm was updated from April 2017. Please leave us a comment if any of these tips worked for you or if you have other ways to keep foods warm that you’d like to share. We’d love to hear from you.