The Difference Between a Food Warmer and a Chafing Dish

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Understanding the difference between food warmers and chafing dishes is a key to operating like a pro in the kitchen in restaurants, households, and buffets. You may be wondering if the two have a difference considering their corresponding purposes.

Well yes, each has its own special qualities that make them worth the purchase. Have you ever been to an event and watched as caterers skillfully tend to guests keeping them satisfied by serving plates of warm appetizing meals?

Chances are they’ve been using a number of chafing dishes or food warmers to keep food heated.

What is a Food Warmer?

A food warmer is a kitchen appliance that holds and keeps cooked meals hot at consistent temperatures over several hours before consumption. There are different types of food warmers which include:

Countertop Warmers
Drawer Warmers
Heat Lamps
Steam Tables
Heated Banquet Cabinet
Strip Warmers
Heat Merchandisers

What is a Chafing Dish?

A chafing dish also called a chafer is a kitchen appliance with different layers used to keep cooked food heated up to the point of consumption. Chafing dishes are not to be used for cooking any meals. Chafer is classified as buffet ware but not cookware.

How Hot Do Chafing Dishes Keep Food?

Chafing dishes hold and keep pre-cooked foods hot at approximately 140˚to 185˚Fahreheit. Try not to go below 140˚Fahreheit because that is the appropriate temperature to ward off bacteria.

Comparison Between a Food Warmer and a Chafing Dish

Now that we’ve reviewed what is a chafing dish and a food warmer, let us compare the two and their differences and similarities based on four factors.

Heat Source

Chafing dishes have been known to use different heat sources such as chafing fuel and induction or electricity. Food warmers, on the other hand, have electrical heat sources and other methods to keep food warm nonelectrically.

Chafing dishes can keep food heated for up to 6 hours, while food warmers can maintain heat for up to 8 hours.

Chafing Dish Heat SourceFood Warmer Heat Source
Chafing fuel is held in a small canister or gel burner which is ignited and placed under the chafing dish. The burning fuel heats the water pan and radiates heat throughout the food pan.

Electric chafers are constructed with a power cable and a knob to control the temperature changes. It operates similar to a regular chafing dish but is electrically heated.

Induction chafers use electricity to heat copper coils creating a magnetic current that heats the chafing pan and the food.
Food warmers like insulted thermoses keep food warm nonelectrically using the heat from the food prepared to maintain high temperatures.

Food warmers that are heated electrically are manufactured cordless and also with plugs for use with power outlets.

Warming trays for instance use a cord to keep plates of food warm while others have a detachable cord that charges to tray and lasts for an hour.

Shape and Size

Chafing dishes and food warmers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and each is built to hold various food items in large or small amounts.

Chafing Dish CoversFood Warmer Covers
8-9 Quart chafers are usually rectangular and hold main course meals.
5-6 Quart chafers tend to be round and square and can be used to hold anything.
4-5 Quart chafers are the smallest and are square or circular shaped.
Countertop food warmers range in size between 3 quarts and 6 gallons with oval, circular and rectangular shapes.

Commercial food warmers can be up to 33 quarts or more and are mostly rectangular shaped except for commercial soup warmers which are circular.


All chafing dishes use covers or lids to trap heat and moisture within foods. However, not all food warmers use covers.

Chafing Dish CoversFood Warmer Covers
Different chafing dishes have a variety of covers. These include:
Dome covers can easily be taken off using the handle attached.
Retractable covers have a front handle which is used to roll back the covers to facilitate easy sharing and serving of food.
• The Glass top covers are similar to the dome cover but transparent.
Food warmers that use lids tend to have dome covers or lift-off covers.

These include but are not limited to buffet serves, stream tables, and commercial food warmers.

Heat Lamps do not use covers when warming foods.


Chafing dishes are extremely portable and are perfect for buffets and catering at large banquets and other events. Food warmers like countertop food warmers are portable, however larger appliances like warming drawers, heat merchandisers, and heated banquet cabinets are less portable.

Can You Cook with a Chafing Dish?

No! Chafing dishes were not made to cook or reheat food you immediately took from the refrigerator. The heat a chafer produces is insufficient to cook food at a high temperature.

However, the stainless-steel food pan can be used in the oven for foods like baked chicken, mac & cheese, potatoes, casseroles, and other recipes you might like.

After removing your pan with food from the oven, slip it into the chafing dish and it will keep it heated for hours.

For huge family gatherings and picnics, this is a great idea to put the chafer food tray immediately into the chafing dish after removing it from the oven. Be cautious and never put the chafing pan on your stovetop or over an open flame.

What Are the Best Chafing Dishes?

Chafing dishes are a kitchen essential for the successful operation of a restaurant and catering business. They are the key to holding and keeping appetizing meals warm at parties, hotels, dinners, and buffets.

There are dozens of chafing dishes available but take a look at three of the best chafing dishes you can purchase.

  1. TigerChef 8 Quart Stainless Steel Chafer
  2. Protex Silex Food Buffets
  3. Sterno Buffet Chafer Set

I am one of the contributors of this site, completed my bachelor of arts from NYU. I love my passion for anything art, culinary, and of course traveling and the different cuisines.

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