When you're cooking multiple dishes or several batches of the same dish, it can be tough to have everything ready at the same time. Keeping the first dishes warm in the oven is one way to serve a hot meal to everyone. Knowing how to keep food warm in the oven safely ensures everyone can enjoy a meal and feel good afterward.
Food Safety Considerations
Holding food at a warm temperature isn't just about making the food taste good. It is also about food safety. Temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit are considered the "danger zone" for food where bacteria grows quickly. That bacteria can result in illness. In just 20 minutes in the danger zone temperature range, the bacteria in food can double.
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After you've cooked your food, anything that's served hot should stay at a minimum internal temperature of 140 degrees. If your oven doesn't keep the food at the minimum safe temperature, you increase the risk of rapid bacterial growth. Always keep the safe food temperature range in mind no matter how you keep food warm.
When you use the oven for warming, you need an oven-warming temperature that keeps the food hot enough to stay in the safe temperature zone without overheating or drying it out. Heating the oven to 200 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit is usually a safe option to ensure it stays at the minimum internal temperature. Monitor the temperature with a food thermometer so you know if you need to turn the oven heat up or down.
How long can you keep food warm in the oven? Food should be fine in the heated oven for 15 to 20 minutes with no issues. The longer you keep the food in the oven, the greater the chance of it decreasing in quality. It's tough to keep food warming in the oven for too long without it drying, getting hard or otherwise becoming less appetizing.
As long as the food maintains a minimum temperature of 140 degrees, you're reducing the chances of bacterial growth. However, it's best to keep the warming time as short as possible. This lets you serve safe food that tastes as good as it did when you first cooked it.
Preparing Food for the Oven
Always make sure your food is in an oven-safe container. If you bring home hot take-out food, that might mean transferring it to a baking dish. For food cooked in a skillet, you may need to transfer it if the skillet isn't oven safe.
Covering the food with aluminum foil helps protect it from the drying heat and helps lock in moisture. Seal the foil tightly around the edges of the oven-safe container. Putting the reflective side down toward the food can help reflect the heat back to the food to help keep it hotter.
Other Ways to Keep Food Warm
You can try other methods to keep your food warm. Using a crockpot to keep food warm works as long as it stays at the minimum 140-degree internal temperature. You can also use chafing dishes, warming trays and similar appliances that help you get a consistent temperature.
A trick some people use is keeping food warm in a cooler by covering bricks in foil and heating them in the oven at 300 degrees for 20 minutes. You should line your cooler with brown paper bags or newspaper to protect it.
The one potential drawback to this method is that you can't simply turn up the heat if the food starts to drop below the safe temperature zone since you're relying on warmed bricks to provide heat. Always monitor the food temperature if you use this method, especially if you plan to keep the food there for very long.
- United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service: "Danger Zone"
- University of Nebraska Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources: Keeping Foods Warm While Other Foods Get "Done"
- Whole Foods Market: Serving Prepared Foods Safely
- Good Housekeeping: A Head Chef's Top Tips on Keeping Your Food Warm
- Southern Living: How to Keep Food Warm at a Tailgate