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How to Keep Food Warm (2021)

One thing I obsess about when entertaining is serving warm food warm. From endless practice and research, I am sharing strategies – beyond the basics – on how to keep food warm with as little stress and fuss as possible.

gravy thermos representing practical tips for keeping foods warm

Plan, Plan, Plan (at least a bit)

I know this is easy for a planner (like me) and not so easy for a fly-by-your-pants person. I suggest that you at least think about choosing your menu so that you don’t have to reheat or finish off everything at the same time or right before serving.

Plan some room temperature or cold dishes and dishes that can be reheated or successfully kept warm until serving.

It’s pretty stressful to realize an hour before guests arrive that you don’t have enough oven and stove space to accommodate your menu.

A word on safety. The danger zone for foods sitting around is from 40-140F (4-60C) so keep an instant read thermometer on hand to check food temperatures from time to time.

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.

Use a caterer’s instructions for reheating or keeping food warm

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.

Crockpot/Slow Cooker

  • Perfect for keeping stews, soups, stuffing and mashed potatoes warm
  • Make sure your food is already warm/hot before putting it in the slow cooker to keep it warm.
  • Set to the “warm” setting

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. Or let guest pour for themselves.

Microwave

  • Perfect to warm up side dishes and other foods that don’t need to be crispy such as mashed potatoes, stews, rice, and many vegetables.
  • Some microwaves have a warm setting.
  • I don’t use the microwave to warm meats, fried food, chicken, fish.

Toaster Oven

  • Perfect to warm bread, rolls, casseroles (if large enough).
  • I use this very often as a small oven.
  • Use the bake setting at the lowest temperature.

Heating pad

  • Don’t knock it! 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

  • A BBQ can be used as extra oven space, particularly if you are able to keep the temperature fairly steady.
  • You can also turn off one side of a gas grill and keep the food on the non heated part.
  • Or turn off the heat completely (after the BBQ is preheated), put your dishes in covered with foil and keep the lid closed.

Cooler

  • Perfect for keeping casseroles, brisket, stews, mashed potatoes warm – even hot – for a couple of hours.
  • Heat the cooler first by pouring hot water into it and leaving it covered for 15-20 minutes. Then empty and dry the cooler. Line with hot wet towels for extra insulation. Or line with foil and then towels on top.
  • Coolers are also good for transporting hot foods covered in foil.

Rice Cooker and Instant Pot

  • Both will keep foods warm for an hour or more on the warm setting.

Chafing Dishes

  • Perfect for buffet items as they can keep foods warm or even heat them up.
  • They are essentially serving trays that sit over a hot water bath heated by sterno flames (you have to buy all this)
  • To speed up the heating, add hot water to the water trays and use larger sterno cans.

Oven

  • The oven, of course is your most common heating appliance.
  • Set it to “warm” if you have that setting which is typically 160F (70C). If you don’t have a warm setting, set it to 250F (120C).
  • Follow catering instructions above for keeping foods warm.

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/65C 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, covered, in a 150-200F (65 -93C) 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.

Sous vide cooking method

sous vide veal chops
sous vide veal chop

The Sous Vide method cooks food in a specially-controlled water ‘bath’ to the exact temperature you set it for.

Meat and poultry can be left in the water bath for a couple of hours after it’s done in most cases.

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.

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.

Serve straight off the grill

Keeping meat and poultry warm after cooking can be tricky. It’s easy to dry them out. See tips for how to keep roasts and steaks warm below. 

One option I use (not in the dead of winter usually), is to have all my sides ready and cook the protein right before serving. Yes, you have to let meat and chicken rest to keep in their juices, but but the time you get everything to the table, you should be fine.

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 or instant pot 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. 
  • When reheating rice, add a tablespoon or two of water and cover it to keep the rice moist.
  • Check out our recipes for savory rice and roasted veggies, instant pot veggie rice and curried rice with raisins.

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 warm.
  • Check out our recipes for basic mashed potatoes and root vegetable mash.

Roasts

medium rare classic prime rib reverse sear sliced on cutting board

  • 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. Or, I use the reverse sear method for prime rib (pictured above) and boneless pork roast with gravy (reverse sear) which is perfect for entertaining. 
  • You can keep them warm in a 150-200F (65-93C) 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 works quite well.
  • I never reheat meat in the microwave as it can become gray and rubbery.
  • If you do nothing else, serving with hot gravy will save the day.

Turkey

sliced turkey breast

  • (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 (176C).
  • Alternatively you can flash heat it at 450F (232C) for 7-10 minutes.  Transfer to a hot plate and drizzle a bit of the broth from the pan over the turkey.
  • Check out our recipes for bone-in turkey breast with pear chutney and grilled turkey breast.

Steaks

New York Striploin Steaks CAB

(At least an inch thick, 1 1/2 inches even better) 

  • 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 (163C) preheated oven and cook for about 10-20 minutes (depending on thickness) or until an instant thermometer reads 130F (54C) for medium rare.
  • Here’s how to grill the perfect steak

Vegetables

  • If roasted, keep warm or reheat in a 350F/176C oven for a 5-10 minutes uncovered. A good recipe for this is oven roasted vegetables.
  • 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). No big deal.

Need a few tips for hosting with minimal stress?

Check out our tips for hosting a dinner party.

 

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. 

4 Comments

  1. Very good article. I am not one who cares that much about warm food but my wife does so thanks for the tips.

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