Steam Table Pans
Equipment Education: Steam Table Pans
Standard Weight Stainless Steel Pan
Steam table pans are workhorses of foodservice kitchens. And operators' options for the pans are almost as abundant as the foods the pans can hold.
Traditional stainless steel pans have long dominated the market. Their ability to go from freezer to oven to steam or refrigerated tables makes them ideal for operations as varied as fine dining restaurants or central kitchens employing cook-chill systems. Made with varied levels of steel, chrome and nickel, the pans are produced in multiple grades, with 18-8 (a blend of 18% chrome, 8% nickel, and 74% steel) the standard. Other blends are available, but too much variance from the norm can cause problems. Too much nickel in a pan, for instance, can cause oxidation and rust.
Gauges indicate pans' heft, and while 22-gauge is a standard weight for the foodservice industry, lighter and heavier weights are available. The lower the gauge, the thicker the steel, so lower-gauge pans are often a good choice for busier kitchens, while operators with less volume may prefer more economical high-gauge pans.
Manufacturers further add years to their products' use life by re-enforcing rims and corners with impact-resistant designs that prevent denting and bending.
Changing the angles on pans' edges and corners allows manufacturers to increase the strength without having to thicken the metal itself. These result in more expensive pans, but provide enough of a quality difference to make the additional cost worthwhile for many chefs.
Heavy Weight Stainless Steel Pan
"I'm big on everything being neat and want straight edges on my pans," says Chef Jim Cohen of the Terrazza Lounge at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. "The reinforced edges and rims are important; I appreciate things that endure and fit together."
"They last much longer and don't warp or change shape," agrees Chef Leonard Schwartz of Zeke's Smokehouse in Los Angeles. "It's worth it to spend more on a better quality product."
Manufacturers also offer anti-jamming elements'tapered edges or lugs that prevent pans from sticking together when stacked-allowing easier storage and ending the pan tug-of-war that no one has time for when preparing for service.
As with any cookware, non-stick surfaces are popular. Another option for ease in cleanup is disposable pan liners, which come in several sizes and can be especially useful for kitchens that need to reuse pans quickly.
Steam Table Pan Liner
These and other options can add a lot to the price and manufacturers take that all-important factor into consideration when marketing stainless steel pans. Although proponents of imported pans appreciate the lower prices offered on products made overseas, they must also check for product quality, making sure their vendors do not use "re-roll," a recycled steel material that is less durable than the new steel American manufacturers use. The gastronorm standards adopted in Europe and relationships with long-time vendors help in this area.
While stainless steel pans are made all over the world, America is a hub for manufacturing plastic pans, which are available in clear or black polycarbonate or amber or black polysulfone. Polycarbonate pans can withstand dishwasher temperatures, but not the higher heat of a steam table or oven, so are best used for storage or at cold stations. Polysulfone pans, or PSU, can handle up to 375°F, but should be used in convection rather than traditional ovens, as hot spots can damage them.
As with any product, operators must balance their own needs and costs when making purchasing decisions. Smaller lightweight pans, such as 9-pans or 6-pans, take less abuse than full or half-sized pans and allow operators to save money through buying less expensive versions. Many operators also find that a combined stock of stainless steel and plastic pans allows them to separate equipment inventories for each station, and lets employees organize production according to hot or cold temperature needs.
In the end, quality remains paramount. "It's not so much the heating up and cooking down, it's when you take things back to the dish room that you have to worry about damage," says Chef Marc Marelich, general manager for Bon Appetit Foodservice at eBay, San Jose, Calif. "That's where the quality comes into play."
"What lasts is what's important," agrees Jim Cohen. "When you buy quality, you only cry