Definition of a Chafing Dish

By an eHow Contributor

A chafing dish is a cooking implement used for preparing food away from direct heat or for keeping previously cooked food warm. The basic design involves a dish placed on a grate or tray which is, in turn, suspended above a heat source.

Chafing dishes have a long history as cooking implements. Chafing dishes were found in the ruins of ancient Pompeii, and can be seen in great works of art painted in the 15th and 16th centuries. Because chafing dishes allow food to be prepared at the dining table and because they are especially well suited to the preparation of delicate foods, they have often been associated with wealth and luxury.

The most traditional form of chafing dish involves a lidded copper or iron cooking pan designed to fit onto an accompanying tripod. By raising the dish above the heat source (hot coals in an earlier era, often a gas flame today) the tripod lessened the heat transferred to the food. Placing a tray beneath the dish was, and is, a common practice to control heat more precisely and distribute it more evenly. The fondue pot is a form of chafing dish.

A common variation on the chafing dish is the bain-marie. In a bain-marie, a conventional chafing dish is partially immersed in a larger outer pan containing water. The extra layer of water is particularly useful for regulating and maintaining a consistent temperature. Chafing dishes used by modern catering operations to keep food warm are often bain-maries.

bain marie

Cooking with a Chafing Dish
Because the main purpose of a chafing dish is to minimize heat transfer, it is particularly useful for cooking delicate dishes, such as cream-based sauces, eggs or cheese and for keeping warm dishes that burn easily, such as fish. When cooking with a chafing dish, the key is to get the dish to the desired heat before introducing food.

Chafing Dish

Modern Chafing Dishes
In some respects, the chafing dish as a cooking technology is becoming obsolete. Modern gas stoves and cooktops allow much more precise heat regulation than older electric stoves or cooking over hot coals, allowing the chef to regulate direct heat easily and eliminating the need to put space, a pan and/or a layer of water between food and heat source. It is for this reason that chafing dishes are more common today as food warmers rather than as food cookers.