In the restaurant business, temperature is essential for both quality and safety. To preserve flavor and minimize the risk of food poisoning, hot food should be kept hot and cold food should be kept cold.

For restaurants that offer take-out or catering, maintaining the appropriate temperature can be challenging. Fortunately, there are tools and supplies that can help. But it’s important to understand the appropriate holding temperatures for hot and cold items.

commercial food warmer

Proper Hot and Cold Holding Temperatures

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has temperature standards for hot and cold foods.

According to the FDA Food Code, hot foods must be maintained at 135 °F or above. When the temperature dips below 135 °F, bacteria can grow rapidly. The temperature “danger zone” for food is between 41 °F and 135 °F. The most rapid bacteria growth occurs between 70 °F and 125 °F. The longer food is allowed to sit in the “danger zone,” the greater the risk of bacteria growth and spoilage.

What temperature should cold items be kept at? These items should be kept at a temperature of 40 °F and below.

Restaurants have a duty to ensure that all of their food is held at a safe temperature.

food warmers for parties

How to Keep Food Warm

When serving hot dishes, it’s important to remember that hot holding equipment is not designed to reheat dishes. Rather, it’s designed to keep already-hot items at 140 °F or higher.

In addition to using the right equipment, you can help keep dishes at the right temperature by:

  • Keeping food covered (this will also keep contaminants out)

  • Stir frequently to ensure that heat is evenly distributed

  • Discard items that have been sitting below 140 °F for more than 2 hours

  • Use a thermometer to monitor temperatures

Restaurants have a number of different tools and equipment at their disposal to keep hot foods at just the right temperature.

Warming Oven

Warming ovens, or holding cabinets, are found in most restaurant kitchens. They play an integral role in keeping extra food product warm until it’s ready to be moved to a steam table or a customer’s plate.

Virtually any type of food can be held in a warming oven, from rice to vegetables and meat.

Steam Tables

Steam tables are used for front-of-house warming. They’re similar to holding cabinets in that they hold pre-cooked at safe temperatures. They’re not used to cook food or to bring temperatures back up to safe levels.

Steam tables have heated serving trays, and are generally used for self-service or buffet stations. They may have one of two types of wells: open or sealed.

Sealed wells have a covered heat source and built-in drain system. With this type of well, there’s no need for a spillage pan, so cleanup is much quicker and easier. The main drawback is that these steam tables only offer moist heat, which isn’t ideal for crispy items.

Open wells can be used for both moist and dry heating, so it’s a versatile option. However, you will need spillage pans for moist heating.

Catering Warmers

Also known as a tabletop warmer, catering warmers are designed to be portable and typically use chafing dish fuel to keep food warm.

There are also food warmers for parties that are portable versions of steam tables. They have heated trays with electronic temperature controls.

Round Warmers

Better known as soup warmers, round food warmers are ideal for keeping liquids at safe temperatures. Although they’re primarily used for soup, they can also be used to melt cheese for nachos.

food warmer container


Most warmers are designed to keep already-hot foods at safe temperatures. A rethermalizer is actually designed to bring cold food up to a safe warming temperature and keep it out of the danger zone.

Caterers love rethermalizers because they can quickly heat foods, saving them time on preparation.

Drawer Warmer

A drawer warmer is a versatile piece of equipment that can keep dishes hot and ready for serving. They’re commonly used for dinner rolls, baked potatoes and tortillas. They come in both single and multi-drawer options. Most will also allow you to control the temperature as well as the moisture level.

How to Keep Food Warm Without Electricity: Food Warmer Container

If you need to keep items hot without electricity, insulated containers are the ideal choice. These are containers that keep food hot for hours.

catering warmers

How to Keep Food Cold

It’s far easier for restaurants to keep foods cold, particularly if they don’t offer catering or self-service stations. The kitchen’s refrigerators and freezers should keep foods at safe temperatures. But what if you have a salad bar, buffet or offering catering services?

Here are a few tips for keeping food cold:

  • Never place directly on ice (exceptions include vegetables, fruits and molluscan shellfish)

  • Keep covered

  • Discard any items that reaches a temperature of 70 °F or higher

The right equipment and tools can help keep your items cold.

Catering Coolers

Coolers act as cold containers. They're insulated, and they’re designed to keep foods cold for hours. Caterers may also use a portable meat cooler to keep meats fresh until they’re ready to be cooked.

Cold and Ice Buffet Stations

Refrigerated and ice buffet stations are available to restaurant owners who want to offer cold salad bars or buffet items.

These stations typically have insulated wells that help maintain cold temperatures for longer periods of time.

Cold Chafing Dish

Chafing dishes can also be used to keep foods cold. The bottom portion of the dish can be filled with cold water and ice to chill foods.

Serving Bowls that Keep Food Cold

Delicate dishes, like salads, can be difficult to keep cold without compromising the quality and texture of the food. There are commercial bowls with ice chambers that can keep these kinds of foods cold for long periods of time.

Maintaining the appropriate food holding temperature is essential for safety and flavor. Investing in the right equipment for warming and cooling is just as important as your investment in cooking equipment.