Anyone who has ever hosted a dinner buffet or had a caterer come in to his or her home to serve a hot meal is probably familiar with chafing dishes. They are large serving dishes in which food is kept warm. The pans are either placed on top of racks or platforms or sit on legs high enough for a can of fuel to be placed underneath. The can has a cover that lifts off to expose a substance that looks like wax but that is actually jellied alcohol fuel. The fuel is lit and placed underneath the dish in order to keep the food warm.
Chafing dishes come in a variety of sizes and materials. The types seen most often at home buffets or casual catered affairs are long and rectangular. They are usually made of stainless steel and contain a long, deep well for holding food. This long pan is placed inside a tray that has 1 or 2 inches (2.54 to 5.08 cm) of water covering the bottom to keep food from burning. The dishes are placed on wire racks that stand over the cans of fuel.
A more elegant affair might call for round, ornately decorated chafing dishes. These are generally made of silver, and instead of wire racks, they sit on a platform with tapered legs. These are typically more esthetically pleasing than those provided by the casual caterer.
Chafing dishes are convenient because the food is kept warm and the party's host or hostess can mingle with the guests without having to worry about food on the stove or in the oven. Every now and then, someone will have to give the food inside the pans a quick stir to equally distribute the heat, but burning is rarely an issue.
Believe it or not, these serving dishes are steeped in history, and ancient ones have been found in the ruins of Pompeii. These early warmers relied on hot coals to keep food warm since the other alternative, a roaring flame, would have been too much. They were usually made of brass or copper.
People who are interested in hosting a buffet and who would like to keep food warm often find that chafing dishes are the way to go. In many cases, the food can be cooked earlier in the day and placed in the dishes just before the guests arrive. By the time people are ready to eat, the food will be warm. Even people who are not a frequent entertainers may find value in having these serving dishes in their homes.