A chafer or “chafing dish” consists of a container (in today’s market usually metal and sometimes ceramic) held on a stand over a heat source (candle, electric, or solid fuel like Sterno). More often than not, a larger dish is filled with water like a bain-marie or double boiler, into which a smaller container or containers with food are fit to prevent the food from burning while keeping the food warm.
While modern chafing dishes can still be used to delicately cook food, almost all items labeled as a “chafer” are primarily used to keep food warm. There are many different sizes of chafers and it is best to match the size to the amount of food one is trying to keep warm. In the restaurant business the standard size chafer will fit a 200 pan or hotel pan (12” x 20” x 2”). This is helpful because these pan can be switched out for ½ steam pans or 1/3 steam pans giving you 2-3 items in one chafer. Another helpful item is a roll top lid or brackets the lid can sit in when the chafer is open for service. There is nothing worse than opening the lid to the chafer and having nowhere to put it down. Be aware of the heat source and have it match the situations in which the chafer is to be used. Most commonly solid fuel (like Sterno) is used, if this is to be used make sure the chafer comes with fuel holders that have adjustable tops that can be closed off to regulate the amount of flame and to put the flame out when the event is over. If a smaller chafer is used sometimes candles or tea lights are used while this works it leaves soot on your dish and one has to deal with the wax dripping under the chafer. Electric heat sources are nice especially in a home situation where children are present, but a draw back is electric heat sources seem to keep cooking the food items as much as keeping them warm, much like a coffee pot on an electric warming plate. Electric heat sources are just not practical in a restaurant, guest trip over cords, venues change and power sources are too far away, etc… Chafers that can be broken down (taken apart with ease) are key to keeping things clean, they may look pretty but if they are hard to clean they are less likely to be used.
Chafing dishes and chafers come in a huge range of prices and styles. One can spend as much as $650 to as little as $35 (stainless 8qt economy chafer) for a quality chafer. Look at its functionality, dose it facilitate what you need it to do, as well as look pretty? Does it have the heat source you want? Is it the right size for the amount of food I normally serve? Are there handles on the sides I can use to carry the container over to empty out the water? Is there a handle on the lid? Do I like the look of it? Answering these questions will help you choose a chafer that will not only fit the use you need it for but also match your personality. do you want a removable lid or roll-top chafer?
Chafing dishes are by no means a new idea, they have been found in the ruins of Pompeii and in the inventories of 16th century England and 17th century America. In 1520 Hernan Cortez reported to Charles V the way Montezuma was served meals in Tenochtitlan, “the table was loaded with every kind of flesh, fish, fruits, and vegetables that the country produced. As the climate is cold, they put a chafing-dish with live coals under every plate and dish, to keep them warm…” (Frank Schloesser, The Cult of the Chafing Dish 1905). Traditionally chafing dishes where used to cook delicate dishes such as fish and eggs and where the worlds first “crock pots”. In the 1800’s there were cookbooks dedicated to such cooking endeavors and contained such recipes as “Eggs à la Finnoise, Buttered Lobster and Cheese Fondue”.