Bye-Bye Cold Crab Dip

Think chafing dish, and you probably envision rubbery scrambled eggs and soggy bacon at hotel brunch buffets. It’s hard to believe that back in the day, these appliances symbolized the height of gourmet gadgetry.

From ancient Greek and Roman times all the way to midcentury modern, the noble and middle classes busted out the chafing dishes at the toniest soirees—though said dishes were often actually handled by the slaves or servants.

The name of the dish itself, which sounds like something that rubs you the wrong way, comes from the French word chauffer, which means to heat. Ancient gourmets used similar devices, though in rougher materials, warmed over coals. In recent history, a chafing dish has typically referred to a covered silver dish that sits in a rack over a heating element, often a can of Sterno.

Tableside warming appliances are a necessity when you want to impress your guests with a big spread of classic cocktail fare. There’s nothing worse than missing your own party because you’re ferrying dozens of tasty tidbits from kitchen to table. Well, there’s one thing worse: cold pigs in blankets. When they’re hot, their crispy crust enrobes a juicy bite of sausage, making them a wonderful foil to icy cocktails. But when cold, the fat’s coagulated and the pastry leaden.

Thankfully you can forget about cold pigs, as well as older-style chafing dishes heated with coals, tea lights, or smelly Sterno.

Thermal Hot/Cold Tray
By OGGI, $39.99

I was excited to put the Thermal Hot/Cold Tray by OGGI through its party paces. It’s a cordless, stainless steel platter that has a gel core designed to stay hot or cold by simply sticking it in the oven or fridge. The instructions say the tray stays hot or cold for up to two hours after warming at 200 degrees Fahrenheit for six minutes or chilling for two hours.

If only that were true. The tray stays warm no longer than a hot pizza pan—which depends on how hot your food is to start with, and whether the tray is being brought out to a sunny patio or an air-conditioned room. It does remain cooler longer, similar to a frozen gel pack you’d use for a sports injury, but not even close to two hours.

While the 14-inch tray can be hand washed, its perforated surface opens directly onto its gel core, which means you’ll never get all that rumaki grease out. It seems that the designers thought having your food in direct contact with the gel pack would keep better temperature, without quite thinking through the cleaning issues.

Don’t bother using the tray for hot or juicy dishes, but for deviled eggs, it pairs perfectly.

Professional Buffet Server (Model BFS50)
By Waring Pro, $149.99

The new Professional Buffet Server from Waring Pro is an electric warmer with fitted covered serving dishes. It runs on 400 watts of power, which means it heats up fast. The brushed stainless steel housing surrounds three 2.5-quart stainless steel chafing dishes. Each dish holds 20 four-ounce servings, which is about how much caterers estimate serving to a guest at a time.

The stainless steel base also works independently as a warming tray, so you can keep baked goods toasty without them getting steamed and mushy under covers.

You can adjust the heat up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit with the chafers or the warming tray alone. You might want soup at a hotter temperature, but pasta lower, so it doesn’t continue to cook.

The server comes with two sets of lids: stainless steel with a slot for a serving spoon, and durable, clear polycarbonate. Both are heat safe, so it’s your choice whether or not you want your guests to be tempted by what’s under the covers.

Everything except the electric warming tray is dishwasher safe. Just wipe the tray clean.

UNO Warming Tray
By VillaWare, $84.49

This economical warming tray looks far more expensive than it actually is. It’s part of VillaWare’s retro-modern UNO design series of appliances. The tray’s sleek black tempered-glass top is flanked by the line’s distinctive aluminum finished handles, which stay cool to the touch. But the feature that friends and family invariably love the most is the five-inch “Hot Circle” in the middle of the tray that can reach 300 degrees Fahrenheit, while the area around it stays cooler. That way you can do things like keep your bagna cauda warmer than the roasted veggies you serve it with.

SmarTag Petite Chafer
By CookTek, $484.14

CookTek, manufacturer of fine induction cooktops, also happens to make beautiful high-tech induction chafing pans. They’re stand-alone stainless steel pots, with domed, hinged lids that stay open at a 60-degree angle for single-handed serving access.

You can use this product on any induction cooktop, but for optimum performance you need one with an RFID reader, which CookTek also makes. If you possess such a cooktop, it’s as if you have your own household help carefully monitoring your chafer. Simply set the temperature on your cooktop, then place your chafer on it. As your guests are served, the dish’s temperature fluctuates from a variety of factors, including opening and closing the lid and emptying the contents. The RFID chip in the chafer communicates its real-time temperature to the cooktop, which adjusts automatically as needed.