Spec Check: Hot Food Holding Cabinets

Hot food holding cabinets hold food safely for long periods of time, utilizing technology that helps retain food quality.

All types of foodservice operations use these units to stage hot food, supplementing production and facilitating more efficient speed of service. Since these units hold food at safe temperatures, they can free up cooking equipment to help operators increase production without having to add anything. Adhering to HACCP guidelines, these units can hold food at more than 135 degrees F to decrease the potential for bacterial growth and foodborne illness.

Due to their quality, design and energy efficiency, many of today's hot holding equipment pieces raise the bar with regards to quality retention and prevention of food degradation, says Karen Malody, principal at Culinary Options, a Santa Fe, N.M.-based foodservice consultant. "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. The food retains its just-cooked quality and texture, whether moist or crisp."

Although operators can use hot holding cabinets for a variety of products, ranging from meats to vegetables to starches, some units work better with certain foods than others. For example, humidified models work better with menu items that tend to dry out quicker, such as bread and barbecued meat.

Cabinet sizes vary from small portable units that accommodate 2 hotel-size pans to full-size units that can hold up to 32 sheet pans to large banquet models that can accommodate up to 160 pre-plated meals.

Operators generally specify these units by size. Cabinets come in countertop, undercounter, half-size, three-quarter size, full-size, and double-wide types. Operators can choose from reach-in or roll-in models, depending on the application.

The operation's volume and production process will determine the most appropriate interior configuration. These units accommodate sheet pans, steam table pans, roasting pans, wire baskets and wire shelving for pre-plated meals.

Operators can choose from a variety of cabinet construction materials, including stainless steel, aluminum or a combination of both materials. While stainless represents an easier to clean, higher density material, aluminum can be less costly and is more lightweight for easier transporting. Operators also can choose from solid, Dutch or windowed doors. Models offer either digital displays or solid-state thermostats.

When specifying, operators can choose from three types of heating technology. The most common option, convection, utilizes fans and blowers to force air into the cabinet at various cubic feet per minute. These cabinets work best when holding battered, breaded and fried foods.

Hot holding cabinets with radiant systems utilize heated fluids or wires. Heat radiates from the side walls, base and sometimes shelves. This gentler heat works best with vegetables, bread and other starches that need to retain their moisture.

The third heating system incorporates either convection or radiant heat along with humidity from a water tank or bain-marie built into the cabinet's base. This creates a controlled humidity environment to hold moist foods, such as those that are barbecued or baked. The humidification feature also helps maintain food quality by balancing the environment's moisture, ensuring that food retains its natural juices.

While mobile cabinets used for catering are 120 volts with 15 amp service, some cabinets operate on 220 volts with 20 amp service. The greater the electrical power, the faster the cabinet's heat recovery will be.

"The fast-casual segment has been able to utilize hot holding to gain efficiency due to the promise of quick throughput," Malody adds. "These units' performance and efficiency allow fast-casual restaurants to create multiple holding environments without compromising food quality or safety during busy hours that demand quick assembly of menu items. Typically, fast-casual restaurants offer limited service and more complex foods than classic fast food restaurants. With a focus on higher quality and healthier foods, this equipment has allowed these operators to still simultaneously deliver on their quick-serve promises."

Specifying Considerations

  • Prior to specifying a hot holding cabinet, it's important to assess the operation's menu and type of service. Will the cabinet aid with high-volume bulk food holding, with much of the items prepared beforehand, held and then dispersed as needed? Or will the cabinet help expedite service by serving as a short-term holding option that frees up cooking equipment? Will the cabinet be stationary, transported off site for catering or moved to another kitchen location when not in use?
  • Determine approximate holding times when considering cabinet heating systems. Radiant cabinets can hold food longer in some applications, since the air in convection units can dry out some food types quicker.
  • The types and quantity of pans the operation will use will factor into the unit capacity the operation requires. Also consider pan spacing and the dimensions of the unit.
  • Units functioning as banquet cabinets need to be less than 36 inches wide to fit through doorways.
  • Appropriately size mobile cabinets to fit through doors and truck openings. Typically, these units are either three-quarters or half-size models.
  • Specify wheels or casters on mobile units for use. The larger the wheel, the easier the cabinet will be to push. Consider the floor surface and wheel density to ensure easy transport.
  • If staff will transport the cabinet in cold temperatures, specify an insulated unit.
  • Operators looking for space-saving versatility should consider stacking two half-size cabinets.
  • For stationary applications with varying volume and food holding needs, cabinets with universal angle interiors hold both steam table and sheet pans.
  • Assess the kitchen's electrical layout and capacity to ensure it is wired properly for the cabinet's location.

 Considering Features & Options

  • Although hot holding cabinet options vary by manufacturer, there are a number of add-on features that are worth considering.
  • Temperature probes monitor food to help operators adhere to HACCP regulations.
  • Rapid recovery heating systems on some models provide better performance and added energy efficiency.
  • Multi-shelf timers assist operators in monitoring heating times of various food items simultaneously.
  • Cabinets geared for transport will include casters, transport handles and perimeter bumpers that provide more efficient mobility.
  • Remote functionality allows operators to record times and temperatures for HACCP requirements.
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