Chafing Dish Buying Guide

Chafing Dish Buying Guide for Commercial Kitchens

One of the great joys of travelling is staying in a hotel that serves buffet-style meals. Dining out becomes an adventure as each lift of the chafing dish lid or peak through a glass cover reveals another appetizing specialty, hot and ready to eat.

Behind the scenes, a great deal of thought and planning goes into purchasing this essential piece of equipment. What type of chafing dish -- size, shape, style and material – is appropriate for each menu item? What type of lid do guests prefer and what type of fuel best suits the location?

The chafing dish itself, from the French verb chauffer (to heat), is a simple contraption designed to keep cooked food hot. It traditionally comprises a frame, lid and a shallow pan filled with water. The frame is perched on legs or sits atop a rack or platform with room underneath for a heat source. Whether the heat comes from a can of fuel or an element, the rising steam it creates gently heats the stainless or ceramic food pan, added just before service, keeping the food warm, moist and safe until every guest has been served. The lid helps keep the steam in until it’s removed by staff or guests.

As you’ll see, there’s much to consider to find the right chafing dish or row of dishes for your operation, whether you run a buffet-style restaurant, hotel, banquet hall, catering business or simply enjoy entertaining at home.

Buffet table of chafing dishes

Chafer Shapes and Sizes


The king of chafers and the most versatile, a rectangular chafing dish is usually long enough to require two openings for fuel, ensuring even heat distribution. It’s commonly used for a main course or for large portions of pasta or cooked vegetables. Most hold 8 to 9 quarts (7.5-8.5L) or a full size food pan. Or substitute two half size food pans and serve two types of appetizers, sides or desserts under one lid.

Parts of a chafing dish



Though it can hold just as much food as a rectangular chafer, an oval chafing dish has a sleek, modern look that adds elegance to any buffet table.

Oval chafing dishes


Round chafing dishes are typically smaller than rectangular or oval models and hold between 4 and 7 quarts (3.8-6.6 L) of food. Depending on their size, they’re popular for appetizers, side dishes, sauces and desserts. Round chafers usually require just one fuel source to keep food hot.

Round chafing dishes


Square chafing dishes are much less common, perhaps because their small size means more constant refilling on a busy buffet line or breakfast bar. Fill with a side dish or appetizer and nestle among larger chafers.

Half-size chafers are usually square or rectangular and hold 4 to 5 quarts (3.8-4.7 L) of an appetizer or side dish.



These deep, round cylinders are easily recognizable on the buffet table holding oatmeal at breakfast and soup at dinner. They’re also ideal for stew, chile con carne, gravy and other sauces.

Soup Chafers

Types of Chafing Dish Lids and Covers


This type of cover, flat or dome-shaped with a handle in the centre, lifts right off, exposing the food beneath. For a guest attempting to lift the cover with one hand while holding a hot plate in the other, this can lead to some awkward moments. With luck, the restaurant will have purchased a stand to keep the cover safely stored during service. Lift-off lids are most useful when handled by staff, not guests.

Lift off chafing dish lid/cover


While it resembles a lift-off cover, this lid is attached to the chafer with a hinge, making it simple to open and close. Hinges can have steps at 45 and 90 degrees.

Roll Top

Roll top lids or retractable lids are a dream to use. A handle in the front lets the guest easily open the lid with one hand. If needed, a locking mechanism keeps the lid open for self-service. Some roll-tops open a full 180 degrees for two-sided service.

Types of roll top chafing dishes

Glass Top

A glass top cover or window gives servers and guests a clear view of the food inside without lifting the cover. This keeps food hotter, since the lid isn’t being opened constantly, and makes it easier for guests to choose their meal.

Glass lid chafers

Chafing Dish Power


• A classic chafing dish uses one or two small cans of fuel to heat the water pan and keep food hot for two to six hours.
• Choose between a gel or a liquid with an ignitable wick, available in traditional or stem.
• Some cans come with resealable screw-top lids. All are convenient, portable, inexpensive and safe for use indoors or out.
• For a green choice check out propylene glycol fuel, which is biodegradable and contains no harmful chemicals.
• Chafing fuel lets you set up anywhere since it doesn’t require electricity.
• Useful accessories include a fuel holder, which keeps the can securely in place, and a wind guard to shield the open flame outdoors.


• If electric outlets are plentiful, or if you need a heat source for a long period of time, consider an electric chafer.
• Though there are no open flames to worry about, make sure nobody trips on an extension cord.

Electric chafers


• An induction chafer, which works on electromagnetic technology, also requires access to an electrical outlet.
• Special induction plates can be installed in a buffet line with the induction chafers placed on top.
• As well as being extremely safe to use, induction chafers provide consistent, evenly distributed heat yet stay cool to the touch.

Induction chafers

Chafing Dish Finish and Trim Options

·•Chafers made from 18/8 or 18/10 stainless steel will last longer, retain heat better and be less susceptible to dents and scratches than thinner materials.
• A shiny mirror finish, while opulent, attracts fingerprints, requiring a regular swipe with a microfibre cloth.
• A smooth satin finish adds a cool, modern look without the shine.
• A matte finish is functional and affordable.
• A dimpled hammered copper look adds warmth and elegance to a catered wedding dinner.
• To up the wow factor, choose a shiny gold or more muted brass trim on handles and legs or a line of polished chrome around the edge of the chafer.
• To keep chafing dishes looking new and prevent scratches, caterers in particular should invest in padded chafer boxes when they have storage and transport considerations.

Written by Cynthia David

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table of chafing dishes