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I have a couple of lidded ceramic dishes with an electric element that are designed for hot holding food. While they are very effective, the major downside is that I need to have a trailing power cable running to my dining table.

Professional chafing dishes seem like a good equivalent, but these are expensive to buy and the fuel canisters are an added cost.

Tealight food warmer

These tealight food warmers seem an ideal compromise, but how effective are they? Will they keep food above 63C or are they just a sop towards hot holding best practice?

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    Hi, we already have a general "how do I keep it hot" question, cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/45865/…. As your question body seems to concentrate on tealight-fueled solutions, I changed the title to be specifically about them, instead of closing as a duplicate
    – rumtscho
    May 22, 2023 at 13:42
  • A lot depends on how much food they have to heat, and for how long.
    – GdD
    May 22, 2023 at 13:56
  • maybe try to find some "party" chafing dishes, where I live you can get those for a few dollars, and fuel for a few more.
    – Esther
    May 22, 2023 at 14:06
  • somthing like these from WebstaurantStore. Even the ones that say "disposable" can be reused.
    – Esther
    May 22, 2023 at 15:48
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    @ChrisH I've never put stew in there, only pasta and similar items, but I imagine it would be fine. The chafing dish is definitely strong enough, so the question is if the foil tins are strong enough when being supported on all sides. And this does require a water bath, with a full-size tin of water underneath some half-size tins
    – Esther
    May 23, 2023 at 13:36

2 Answers 2

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In the context of serving things domestically, those candle-heated food warmers can be good. But they might not keep the temperature uniformly high enough for long enough.

It depends on too many things:

  • The size of dish (per tealight)
  • How insulating the walls of the dish are. Wrapping an oven cloth/tea towel around the sides only is a good idea not just to keep some heat in but to protect people's hands from the hot dish, especially if they might need to steady it.
  • Whether you leave a lid on
  • The start temperature
  • And of course the time

If you're worried, you'd need to stir every so often (even though taking the lid off to do so lets out heat) and use a probe thermometer to check. In catering situations even with many of their heated serving solutions, monitoring is also required.

Note that an electric chafing dish (of a similar size to a pan that would cover that 3-candle warmer) would draw a few hundred Watts - but that's a maximum and they have a thermostat. Tealights give around 40W of heat each.

There are a couple of downsides:

  • I've had trouble with localised burning over the candle.
  • While you shouldn't be keeping food hot for long enough to burn out a candle, if you do have to change them, it's a hassle dealing with them, finding somewhere else to put the hot dishes, etc.
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    another big one is the 'insulation' of the food itself. mostly liquid dishes will transfer heat around much better than a lasagna, for example.
    – eps
    May 22, 2023 at 16:01
  • @eps good point. I assumed something stirrable, which would include some small solids (new potatoes for example) but convection will also play a part
    – Chris H
    May 22, 2023 at 16:51
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    ... Lasagne would be pretty much guaranteed to burn on the bottom unless you rigged a water bath
    – Chris H
    May 22, 2023 at 16:53
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The professional chafing dishes don’t directly deal with the localized burning issue. They typically heat a pan of water, and then have the food suspended above the water, so the food is only heated indirectly.

You can do this with the candle burners, but they’re typically sized for 9x13 pan, so you might need to find appropriate sized dishes that can nest with a gap in between to hold the water.

All of the candle burners that I’ve seen held two candles. Often, it was because there was a device that let you control a flap from the side that could be used to snuff out the candles. I think I’ve put 4 or 6 inside them (its been a few years). The larger issue is that for really long events, you have to remove the food to open them up and replace and relight the candles. Chafing dishes are wide open on the bottom, so you can easily get in there to replace the alcohol or gel fuel.

Some other options that you may want to consider:

  • butane or propane powered hotplates, which take bottles of gas. (Easily controllable, but some of the expense issues of chafing dishes; can also be used for camping / when the power goes out to cook)
  • place some towels, trivots, or other insulation down, then hot bricks or cast iron griddle, then your food to keep warm. (Can’t control as well, or refresh easily)
  • Electric devices (warmers, griddle, crockpots, etc), but tape down the electrical cords. Plug in the cord to the wall, leave a little bit of an extra loop at the wall, then tape it down. Run it as straight as you can across the floor to the table, then take 2” or 3” gaffers tape (5cm / 7.5cm?), and run it straight over the cord, then press it down on each side to secure it to the floor. Gaffers tape holds well (even to short carpet), but doesn’t leave sticky residue like duck tape. Wrap up the rest of the loop leaving your enough to plug in your devices, and tape it to a table leg. (Always leave the extra loop on the table side, in case you need to reposition the table)
  • If you’re not going too far with the electrical cord, you can also get rubber devices to run cables under/through (search for “extension cord cover” or “extension cord protector”), but they’re a little more of a tripping hazard as they can be an inch (2.5cm) or so high. They’re less flexible than tape as they’re of a fixed length, but reusable and relatively inexpensive ($10-15 for 6foot (~180cm) sections
  • There are also companies that sell integrated extension cords with protectors (such as Electriduct brand’s “Low Profile Electrical Power Extension Cord Cover”). They’re more expensive and even less flexible, but they’re very convenient.
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    A note of caution on traditional alcohol-fuelled chafing dishes - the flame can be hard to see, and topping them up can lead to a flashback if they're not out and cold. That's why replaceable burner cans are often preferred. Otherwise, snuff, wait until cool, then refill.
    – Chris H
    May 22, 2023 at 14:17
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    @ChrisH Indeed - here around cheese fondue is popular in winter and people regularly get bad burns or even die because they tried to refill a hot alcohol burner (even if the flame is out, if it's still too hot it can ignite). In the last decade or so gel packages have taken over that aren't so much of a fire hasard.
    – Nobody
    May 22, 2023 at 20:57
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    Agreed on the ‘can’t see the flame’ problem. If you’re using chafing dishes with the various ‘canned heat’, there are two things to look for: wick vs. not (alcohol vs alcohol gel), and the burn time (anywhere from 1 to 6 hours; the gel ones are usually rated for 2 hrs, but last a little longer). It’s bad when you don’t pay attention at the store and get 2hr assuming they’re always 4 or 6 hour. The pre-measured cans are convenient (relatively), but generate a lot of waste, also note that you can extinguish and re-cap the wick ones, but you risk evaporation over time
    – Joe
    May 23, 2023 at 8:56

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