When to Replace: Hot Food Holding Cabinets

Today’s hot food holding cabinets continue to raise the bar in terms of maintaining food quality. Here is a look at some of the features and benefits of the various types of hot food holding equipment.

Hot Food Holding Cabinets: An Overview

Hot food holding cabinets extend the amount of time foodservice operators can hold food prior to serving. The practice of preparing food in advance can free up cooking equipment to perform other tasks, allowing hot food holding equipment to increase speed of service.

“Hot holding is a legitimate and often [indispensable] technique in many high-volume operations, especially for operators who experience intense peak periods during certain hours of the day,” says Karen Malody, principal at Culinary Options, a Santa Fe, N.M.-based foodservice consulting firm.

Foodservice operators can choose from a variety of units, including stationary, reach-in and roll-in rack or mobile cabinets, and upright and stackable models. Available configurations and sizes include countertop, undercounter, half-size, three-quarters size, full-size and double-wide units. Mobile cabinets typically are either half- or three-quarter size units that can fit into a truck opening. Half-size cabinets are designed to be stacked with use of a kit. Smaller models hold as little as four pans, while larger banquet cabinets can accommodate up to 160 pre-plated meals.

“Because so many of the hot holding cabinets are now available in a variety of sizes and configurations, there is an appropriate model for every operation,” Malody says.

Traditionally, this equipment employs three types of heating systems. Most units utilize convection heat, which consists of fans and blowers forcing air at different speeds. These units work well with battered, breaded and fried foods.

Cabinets using radiant heat feature a system built into the side walls and base of the unit and sometimes into shelves. These models may utilize electrical elements, heated fluids or wires. The gentle, moist heat these units produce works best for breads, vegetables, starches and other foods that need to remain moist.

The third type of heating system, controlled humidity, combines either radiant or convection heat with moist air. In many cases, the unit includes a water tank or Bain Marie, which creates moisture. A separate thermostat controls humidity so foods such as rotisserie chicken and barbecued items retain their moisture.

Operators also can choose from different grades of stainless as well as thermostatic or digital controls. Optional features for hot holding cabinets include temperature probes, rapid recovery heating systems, multi-shelf timers, casters, transport handles and perimeter bumpers.

“Typically, fast-casual restaurants offer limited service and more complex foods than classic fast food restaurants,” Malody says. “With a focus on higher quality and healthier foods, this equipment has allowed these operators to still simultaneously deliver on their quick-serve promises.”

How to Know When to Replace a Hot Food Holding Cabinet

Depending on the operation’s volume, the average service life of a hot holding cabinet is between 5 and 20 years. Here are four signs it might be time to replace a hot food holding cabinet.

Cabinet Break Down: Holes in the cabinet body can negatively affect the unit’s operation, including its ability to hold temperature consistently. 

Compromised Insulation: Any compromise in the cabinet’s insulation can create a food safety issue.

Increased Maintenance Costs:  When maintenance costs start to add up, especially for cabinets more than seven years old, the unit has likely reached the end of its service life.

Slow Recovery: If an older hot food holding cabinet does maintain proper holding temperatures or takes longer to heat up, it is likely time to replace the unit.

Hot Food Holding Cabinet Applications

Hot food holding cabinets supplement production, allowing foodservice operators to provide more efficient speed of service to customers. These units also prolong food holding, allowing other cooking equipment to be used. This is especially true with foods that require longer cook times, which will need to be prepared in advance. Here is a look at a variety of hot food holding applications.

HACCP mandates hot food holding cabinets maintain food temperatures at or above 135 degrees F. “It is important to schedule production of food that is to be held in the units in line with sensible par levels,” Malody says. ”Hot holding cabinets should not be loaded with far more product than will ever be used within a reasonable period of time.”

This means attention to sales reports, setting accurate par levels and scheduling labor and production batching intelligently. Always place calibrated thermometers in the coolest part of the cabinet, Malody advises. At regular intervals, at least every two hours, check the food with a sanitized, calibrated hand-held thermometer.

“An operator should use the cabinets only for food that consistently responds well to holding, such as casseroles, roasted meats, grilled meats and starches,” Malody says. “Improper application for the wrong items, such as pizzas or assembled hot sandwiches, [is not recommended].”

Deciding whether a humidified cabinet is appropriate depends largely on the menu items it will hold. “One would not want to specify a humidified environment to hold crispy chicken or any fried foods,” Malody says. “The opposite is true if one is holding proteins or casseroles, where moisture retention is the key to edibility and mouth-feel.”

Maintaining a Hot Food Holding Cabinet

For optimum food safety, regularly clean and sanitize hot food cabinets. Here are nine other maintenance tips that will extend the service life of a hot food holding cabinet.

Because these units are considered secondary to cooking equipment, these cabinets don’t typically get the required weekly maintenance needed to be kept properly clean. Here are a few factors to consider when maintaining hot food holding cabinets.

  • Wipe down these units daily with soap and water then rinse them to remove debris and spills.
  • Avoid using harsh chemical cleaning agents, as they can damage the cabinet’s finish and compromise its service life.
  • Polish the unit’s exterior once a week with a solution made for cleaning stainless steel.
  • Continuously wipe the unit’s interior to keep food remnants from collecting at the bottom of the cabinet.
  • Regularly check door seals and gaskets, replacing when necessary. This will keep heat from unnecessarily escaping.
  • Regularly clean water pans in the dishwasher, while washing heating system covers in the sink.
  • On a weekly basis, delime and descale models with humidity tanks, depending on use. This will prevent buildup that can compromise the unit’s operation.
  • Forced air systems require more extensive cleaning, since air extracts moisture, protein and grease from the environment.

Spec Check: Hot Food Holding Cabinets

Because there are so many considerations when choosing a hot food holding cabinet, understanding the operation and production process is paramount. Here are five considerations operators should weigh when purchasing hot food holding equipment.

Configuration & Capacity

Operators need to consider the type of pans, trays or plates they will use in the unit. Evaluate the number of pans, trays or plates and the necessary spacing to gain better insight into the appropriate cabinet size.

Application

Because operators can use hot food holding cabinets in a variety of ways, determine the type of food the units will hold, maximum holding time and whether humidity is necessary. For example, restaurants seeking to cut down ticket times will have different requirements than an operation that requires bulk food holding.

“These units cannot be mistaken for cook-and-hold units, in that food must be cooked or heated to proper serving temperatures before entering the cabinets,” says Malody. “Hot food holding cabinets absolutely are not meant for reheating food from a cold state.”

Volume

Assess the volume of food and the operation’s output to ensure specification of the correct unit. It is recommended that these units are used to hold food for shorter periods, between two and three hours, otherwise food quality may be compromised.

“These technologies allow foods to stay hot and fresh for hours in some cases, enabling operators to prepare foods well ahead of busy serving periods, and then hold them at just-cooked quality and texture, whether moist or crisp,” Malody says. “Being able to prepare food in advance of peak serving periods can be a lifesaver if throughput demands are not possible by cooking everything to order.”

Mobility Needs

For kitchens short on space, hot food holding cabinets may not remain in constant use, which means the operator may choose to store it elsewhere during idle periods. Other operators may require hot food holding for catering or other mobile feeding applications. In these instances, a mobile model may be appropriate. Mobile units provide the ability to easily roll the cabinet out of the way or transport it off site. These units typically include stronger frames, casters and flush handles for easier mobility.

Construction

Operators can choose from different materials. While stainless cabinets are more durable, aluminum is lightweight for easier transporting. Insulated and non-insulated units also are available. Powder coating in different colors and graphics for marketing purposes also are offered with some units.

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