Hotel pans are food pans used for food storage, holding and serving. They are used in many facets of the restaurant and catering industries. Hotel pans sometimes referred to as “steam table pans,” “service pans” or “counter pans.” As you might imagine, hotel pans are often used in steam tables to hold food for serving. They are also used in chafers as a key part of catering.
Hotel pans are a kitchen favorite because of their ability to go from refrigerator, to prep line, to holding cabinet and finally to the serving line. They are known for their versatility and durability.
But there is more to learn about hotel pans. How did they get that name? Are their different types of hotel pan? What are they used for?
Let’s explore the answers together!
Why Are They Called Hotel Pans?
The origin of the name “hotel pan” is a bit of a mystery. The common wisdom is that the term comes from Europe (probably France). In days gone by, hotel operators would have designated meal times for their guests. This practice is still commonly observed on cruise ships. You might have heard someone say that they have “the early seating for dinner” meaning that they are designated to eat at the earlier of two specified meal times.
Because these hotel operators would designate meal times, they needed to serve large groups of diners at the same time. To do so, they needed to prepare and serve food in large quantities. And they needed a durable pan to accomplish all this. Hence, the hotel pan was born.
The name lives on even outside the hotel and hospitality industry. Hotel pans are used by restaurants and caterers as a key part of their prep and serving lines. The term “hotel pan” has become a familiar shorthand way to refer to a group of (mainly) rectangular pans used for food service.
Hotel Pan Standards
Over the years, hotel pans have settled into several standards including their dimensions and depths. A full size hotel pan is 12 inches by 20 inches. This size is important because it is also used by equipment manufacturers as they design things like steam tables and prep tables to accommodate these standard size pans. Steam tables are set up like a grid to hold numerous pans in any number of configurations.
In such a grid, a full size hotel pan would take up one entire section, either vertically or horizontally depending on orientation. But a number of smaller pans can be used in that same space to separate foods.
Full size pans fit directly into the well of the steam table (the recessed portion that is filled with water) and are held by the lip of the pan resting on the surface of the steam table itself. But when smaller pans are used, adaptor bars are used to span the opening and provide a place for the lips of the smaller pans to rest upon.
By using different sizes of pan with adaptor bars, the configuration options are nearly limitless.
Another standard you will see is related to the depth of a particular pan. You might see pans referred to as “100,” “200,” “400,” “600” or “800.” This numbering system comes from old manufacturing practices of referring to items by their stock number. But what it means today is an indicator of pan depth. A 100 pan is approximately 1 inch deep. A 200 pan is approximately 2 inches deep (it’s actually about 2 1/2 inches deep). And the pattern follows from there.
Not all pan dimensions are always available in all depths but knowing both the dimension and pan depth will help you plan your configuration accordingly.
The last standard to be familiar with is the gauge of the stainless steel used to craft the pan. If you have familiarized yourself with our Stainless Steel Guide, you will already know that lower numbers indicate a higher quality of steel. In the restaurant industry, a 22 gauge steel is the standard for most hotel steam pans. You can get pans in both higher and lower quality. A 20 gauge pan is noticeably heavier and more sturdy than a lower gauge pan.
Economy pans can be the right choice for light-duty uses or in cases where weight is an issue. For example, caterers who need to carry pans from an offsite kitchen to a serving location may opt to use lighter gauge pans.
Before you rush off to buy the cheapest hotel pans you can find, you should be aware that cheaper pans come with some potentially hidden costs. Because these pans are of lower quality, you can expect them to have a shorter lifespan. And even when they are in use, if they bend or deform, they can add to your energy costs and potentially shorten the life of the equipment with which they are used.
Not to mention the fact that cheap pans often get bent edges and mangled corners that can detract from your food presentation. Get the full scoop on “The Real Cost of an Economy Pan.”
Variations of Hotel Pans
You may be forgiven for thinking that hotel pans are just boring, rectangular pieces of stainless steel at this point. But there actually are some variations of hotel pans that are worth noting.
First, pans can also be made with perforations to allow steaming or to allow for drainage.
But hotel pans can also be made out of a variety of different materials. These include polycarbonate plastic, melamine, polypropylene plastic (BPA free) and cast aluminum. Plastic models can be used for both hot or cold foods depending on the design. There are even models designed specifically for very cold foods.
But if you are really feeling adventurous, you can opt for pans that defy the traditional rectangular shape. Vollrath makes a line of Super Shape pans that can really liven up your food presentation on a buffet line or catering table.
These creatively shaped pans can still fit into standard fixtures, but offer a variety of complementary shapes add some variety to your presentation.
Hotel Pan Accessories
The most popular accessory for a hotel pan has to be a lid or a cover. Lids and covers come in many different configurations (like a domed lid) and have several unique features like hinges. Lids also come in different material types depending on whether the cover is meant for food service and/or holding or is intended for food storage in a refrigerator.
An Old Fashioned Name with Modern Relevance
It doesn’t matter if you use them in a regular restaurant, a large buffet line, or in your own catering business, hotel pans will remain a staple of the foodservice industry. Now that you have familiarized yourself with all the options, you are ready to shop! Feel free to use the table below to help guide you to the perfect hotel pan to meet your individual needs!