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A Guide to Choosing and Buying Chafers

by emorgan on July 2, 2009

Chafers are essential to proper food presentation and service. It’s a fixture in many buffets, whether these are catered affairs or home-based parties. In many operations involving food service, chafers are some of the most ubiquitous equipment due to their flexibility and usefulness. Whether you’re running a cafe, a restaurant, a catering business, a hotel, a school cafeteria or just want a practical way to serve and present your food, chafers can be an excellent addition to your kitchen equipment. Here is a guide to choosing and buying chafers:

What is a chafer?

A chafer or chafing dish is essentially a warming dish, consisting of a container, a basin and a source of heat. A chafer is used to hold food and maintain its ideal serving temperature. If the food is to be served hot or at least warm, the basin is filled with hot water and flame is applied underneath to keep the temperature high through steam. The food container is then placed on top of the basin where it will be heated. If the food is to be served cold, the basin is filled with ice or very cold water.

Some points to remember when choosing and buying chafers include:


Chafers come in a variety of standard sizes, with the smallest having a capacity of around 4 quarts. These units are generally referred to as half-size. Larger “full size” units are at around 8 quart chafers. Consider the amount of food you intend to serve to determine which size is best.


Chafers essentially come in several shapes: round, oval, dome-shaped and rectangular. Round, oval or dome-shaped chafers have a maximum capacity of around 6 quarts while rectangulars and squares can hold an average of about 8 quarts. Round and dome-shaped chafers can be attractive with single entrees such as whole chickens, turkey or ham. The only drawback is that they tend to eat up space at the table, particularly when used with one or more similarly-shaped chafers.

Rectangulars, on the other hand, are space savers, in that they can be lined up to maximize available room at the table. Which one you choose will depend on the type of food you wish to serve, the space available and of course, your personal preference and style.


Chafers are produced using a variety of materials, the most common of which is stainless steel. Many are also made with copper or silver plating and are accented using materials such as wood, brass, gold, sterling silver and even plastic. Glass material adds to the aesthetics of the chafer, allowing guests to view the food. If you’re worried about breakage and weight, however, the standard models with stainless steel lids will be a good alternative.

Type of Lid

Consider carefully what type of lid comes with the chafer you are buying. Many chafers come with solid lids that must be removed fully in order to serve the food, while others come with a “roll-top” lid that allows the lid to remain on the chafer, which can be pulled up and down to cover or open the chafer. Roll top chafers can either open partially (ie: 90 degrees) or fully (180 degrees). The difference is important to buffets where waiters will be serving from behind the chafer; a roll top chafer that opens to 180 degrees or a chafer with a fully removable cover is imperative. A 90 degree roll top chafer can be used in a self serve buffet where food is only being taken from one side of the chafer.

Type of heating

Most chafers now come with a heating material, usually canned heat. Some models may also use lamps with chafing fuels such as ethanol, diethylene glycol or methanol. Electric chafers use a heating plate. Electric models are very convenient to use because you only need to plug them to an outlet to run. Where no power is available or if location does not allow for an electric outlet, most chafers using flame-based heating devices are better choices. Often fuel cans cannot be ordered online due to safety restrictions.


When it comes to chafers, your buying decision will be significantly influenced by its price. Fortunately, there is a wide range of choices for most budgets, ranging from the more affordable economy series to the more expensive high-end models. Cheap chafers are usually priced from about $40 to less than $200; mid-priced chafers usually cost about $500; high-end models can cost anywhere from $800 to over $1,000.

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