Restaurant serving equipment comes in standard sizes for efficient and easy use. Manufacturers design cooking and serving equipment that fits these sizes neatly. Chafing dishes, or chafers, are setups that include deep pans to hold hot water and keep food-holding pans at proper serving temperatures. The insert pans used to hold the food are known as "hotel pans" or "restaurant pans." Full-size inserts are 12 inches wide and 20 inches long. They may be 2, 4 or 7 inches deep, although the 4-inch size is most common.
Fractional sizes of hotel pans are available if you aren't serving enough food to fill up a chafer's full-size hotel pan. Fractional-size hotel pans are especially convenient when you're serving a variety of menu items to a smaller group of people. Smaller inserts come in one-half, one-third, one-quarter, one-sixth and one-ninth pan sizes. However, the smaller sizes can be difficult to manage because they don't always comfortably balance on the sides of the deeper holding pans.
Full-size chafer hotel pans that are 4 inches deep hold about 8 quarts -- or 2 gallons -- of food. Half-size pans hold about 4 quarts, or 1 gallon, while 6-inch deep full-size pans hold about 12 quarts. However, the volume of food that you actually use to fill the pan may vary relative to the viscosity of your menu items. When you're serving a stew with plenty of liquid, it doesn't make sense to fill a chafer to the brim because it will be messy to serve.
Although most chafers come in standard restaurant equipment sizes and shapes, less common sizes are available as well. Round chafing dishes tend to hold about 6 quarts, and smaller half-size units with half-size pans hold about 4 quarts. If you buy an uncommonly sized chafer such as a round unit with a custom pan, you may have difficulty finding replacement pans, or extra pans for holding backup, surplus food.
Timing and Chafer Size
The size of inserts you choose for your chafer should depend on the number of people you are serving and the span of time over which service will occur. If you're serving 50 people who will line up and get their food in 10 to 15 minutes, it makes sense to use larger pans and fill them. If you're serving 50 people who will eat over the course of two hours, use smaller inserts and fill them regularly to keep the food fresh.
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