The steam table is a necessary piece of kitchen equipment for keeping foods hot during service, but it can easily turn your perfectly cooked vegetables or fried foods into mush. Steam tables are, by design, moist cookers. They use heated water underneath the food trays to keep foods hot and safe for serving. When the lids are closed, the temperatures inside the steam table can rise and will continue cooking foods at a low heat. By taking extra precautions you can keep your vegetables and fried foods crisp and presentable for each plate.
Undercook your vegetables. This is particularly necessary when serving delicate vegetables such as asparagus, which can turn limp fairly quickly. Blanch these vegetables in very hot, salted water until they turn bright green and then take them off the heat. Rely on the the steam table to soften the vegetables a little more.
Cook small batches. If you cook a full 4-inch hotel pan of sliced carrots or cauliflower, those vegetables on the bottom of the pan will be closest to the heat and could become mushy by the time they are served. Cook enough to get through 30 plates at a time. This may require a cook to stay on top of the service, but the diners will appreciate the effort.
Serve vegetables in 2-inch pans. Using these shallow serving pans will keep the batch small. The pan also will sit higher above the heat, lessening the impact of the steam on your vegetables.
Oil the bottom of the pan and stir the vegetables lightly before placing in the steam table. This will help keep them from sticking on the bottom of the pan and provide a light barrier against the heat. Stirring butter or oil into rice also will help keep the grain from absorbing too much liquid in the steam table.
Elevate fried foods from the bottom with a drain rack, commonly used for keeping bacon from swimming its own grease. This technique also will work for fried chicken, wontons and other breaded foods.
Do not cover fried foods with the steam table lid. Keeping the lid off fried foods will decrease the amount of moisture and preventing it from seeping into the breading.