Steam Table “Hotel” Pans

If you have access to a commercial sized oven, and you are producing portions of more than 12 or so, you are probably using what are called Hotel Pans, or Steam Table pans.  These pans are the workhorse of large-scale cooking, and for serving if you have access to a Steam Table or refrigerated.  But, they are also ideal for many prep and transport situations, whether you are working with commercial cooking and serving equipment or not. 

Quick Facts:

  • Steam Table Pans are generally metal, although some sizes are available in plastic.   Metal pans are made of a blend of steel, chrome, and nickel. Stainless Steel  “18-8”, which  means 18% chrome, 8% nickel, and 74% steel is considered the standard.  Increased nickel in the pan could cause oxidation and rust.
  • A full size pan is 2034“x1234” and come in depths ranging from 1” to 6”, also often referred to as “shallow”, “medium” and “deep.”   The size of the pan is usual stated including the flanges – the rims around all four sizes that allow the pan to “hang” in the steam table bay or slide into a pan rack.  The inside dimensions are generally an inch smaller in each direction.  These pans are often described as 20″x12″ which is a hair larger than the basin dimensions, and a shade smaller than the full flange-included dimensions – but close enough to describe the pan. 
  • Fractional pans come in sizes that equal 1/2, 1/4, 1/3, 2/3, 1/6, and 1/9.  See Pan Shapes and Sizes section below for more information about these shapes.  Each of these pan shapes comes in depths of 1″ to 6.”
  • Pans are suitable for freezer to oven to serving station (steam of cold table)
  • Gauge indicates the pan’s heft.  22-gauge is a standard weight, but lighter and heavier weights are available.   A lower gauge number means thicker steel – generally a better choice for heavier use situations. 
  • Disposable foil pans and pan liners are available to ease clean-up.  Disposable pans should always be used inside a steel pan for cooking heavy, soupy items such as spaghetti sauce – once heated and full of sauce, these pans can buckle when you try to take them from the oven. 
  • When someone says “hotel pan”, they are generally referring to a full-sized steam table pan. Other sizes are most often referred to just as a “fourth” or a “third.”

Shopping for Pans

Hotel Pans can be purchased from local and internet food service suppliers, including Sams Club, WebstaurantStore.com, and local restaurant supply shops.  

Various brands offer re-enforced 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.  Some corner designs are also better for pouring. 

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.

Plastic pans 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.

Major brands in steam table pans include:

Pan Sizes and Shapes

Steam tables generally have 2, 4, or more wells or bays.  Generally speaking, the size of a steam table well is always the same.  Each bay is fitted with a water  bath pan that is very deep.  And, it is into these water pans that the Steam Table pans go.  The various pans sizes are designed to fit together, in various configurations, like puzzle pieces into a single well.   

If you are just using hotel pans or various sizes for prep and storage, these configurations won’t really matter.  But, if you are serving in a steam table, you will eventually be interested in having a variety of sizes.   This Steam Table Pan Layout chart is a very helpful visual reference to how you can fit the pans together.   Why do you need more shapes and depths for your steam table?  The first big reason is if you have more items on your buffet menu than you have slots for in you steam table.  Suppose, for example, that you have a four-bay steam table, and your menu for your Wednesday Night Dinner is a Tex-Mex feast with Chicken Enchiladas, Cheese Enchiladas, Refried Beans, Spanish Rice, and Black Beans.   These five items won’t fit into four full-size steam table pans.  You would do well do use two 1/2 pans for the two bean selections, or potentially a half pan for the black beans and a 1/2 pan for the cheese enchiladas.  Generally when you start incorporating fractional pans, you will want those pans to be deep, so that you get more into the smaller footprint. 

Fellowship Dinner, Catering, Buffet

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