How to Keep Food Warm for Hours Before Serving – With No Quality Loss

Your guests are here. Drinks have been had. You have the dinner table set, and all the sides are ready.

You told your friends to be ready to eat around 5:30, but now it’s quarter past six, and the tribe is getting restless. “Another 15 minutes” you assuredly tell-all, but even you don’t believe yourself.

This scene has played out many times for me, and I’m sure it’s happened to many of you too.

As the adage says, the problem when it comes to serving barbecue is “it’s done when it’s done.” A 10-pound pork butt might take 9 hours to cook, or it might take 13.

This makes planning a time to serve your guests difficult.

Close up of how to keep food warm in a cooler, wrapped in foil and towels

In this article, I’ll outline some ways you can avoid making your guests wait for their supper, while at the same time ensuring you serve a hot meal.

You need to cook way ahead of time, and learn how to keep food warm for hours. You cannot predict when a huge joint of meat will be ready from your BBQ, so take heed of the following advice instead.

Time Your Cook to be Ready Hours Early, then Keep it Warm

Essentially what you want to do, is make your food WAY ahead of time, and then keep it warm for when they arrive.

As an example, a brisket can take anything from 12 to 16 hours to cook, so set aside 18 hours to cook and rest it.

This way, if it takes the full 16 hours, you can rest it for 2 and serve. If it finishes in 12, you can rest and then keep it warm for 6 hours.

Problems arise when you start your cook 14 hours before guests arrive, and unbeknown to you – because we cannot reliably estimate these things – the particular brisket you have requires 16 hours to cook.

In this scenario, you would have to serve it 2 hours late, and that’s without any resting time, reducing the quality of your meat.

Alternatively, you could cook your meats a day or more before, and then reheat on the day? We have guides on how to best reheat brisket, and how to reheat pulled pork. But honestly, although still damn good, it’s not as good as fresh cooked on the day now is it?

Keeping Meat Warm for Hours Isn’t Easy – But It’s Possible

Keeping your meat warm for anything up to 6 hours isn’t easy.

The main danger you face is your food drying out, becoming tough, and hence being of severely lower quality compared to when you’d finished cooking it, and it was initially ready to eat.

But fear not, we have solutions!

Following are recommendations on how to keep your meat warm for hours on end, without sacrificing quality. Some professional solutions may be quite costly. However, we’ve something economical for everybody too.

Commercial Food Warmer

Restaurants and professional caterers need to be able to keep food hot, especially if the food they’re cooking needs to be prepared for some time before they expect it to be served – i.e., cooked in one location and transported to another to be served.

The reason for this is two-fold, obviously, they need to be able to serve hot food, and they need to keep food out of the “danger zone” between 40°F – 140°F. At this temperature bacteria can multiply, doubling in as little as 20 minutes.

While there are many different options for commercial warmers, the most popular would be the Insulated Food Transport Carriers made by Cambro.

Available in both electric and non-electric models, they’re able to keep food above 150°F for up to 4 hours in the non-electric models; longer in electric models.

While these units are indeed costly and impractical for the home cook, you can find them used on sites like eBay and Craigslist.

Pros

Easy to use and can keep temps for hours.

Frequently these devices are meant to be portable to accommodate caterers. That means they’re great if you want to cook at your house, then transport the meat to your final destination and still have it be piping hot when you dig in.

Cons

As mentioned, these devices run into the thousands of dollars brand new and aren’t necessarily easy to come by second hand.

Hold at a Low Temp in the Oven

While not ideal, many dishes can be kept warm in the oven. According to Alice Henneman, MS, RDN with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, you can keep foods hot in a preheated oven set to 200°F – 250°F.

Personally, I prefer between 160f and 170f as an oven temperature to keep food warm. This is way above required food safety levels, yet isn;t so high that it keeps the food cooking.

If you’re going to be keeping your food hot for an extended period, check your food frequently to make sure it stays above 140°F. If your food is getting too hot and is at risk of drying out you can turn your oven off for a period of time and then turn it back on; your food will stay hot while the oven is turned off due to residual heat in the oven.

I find this method works best for something like pulled pork. Remove your pork shoulder and let it rest before pulling then placing in a covered roasting pan with a little braising liquid – i.e., the dripping’s reserved from the meat, and place in your preheated oven.

Pros

Since most anyone would have an oven and a roasting pan in their home, this is a great standby when you don’t have a better option available to you.

Cons

The most obvious con is this method will continue to cook your food as it hot holds. A no go for foods like steaks, chicken, and brisket that will dry out and become tough. Pork though is far more forgiving.

How to Keep Food Warm in a Faux Cambro

This method, made famous by Meathead from AmazingRibs.com, involves utilizing a standard, highly affordable cooler to mimic an expensive commercial food warmer – i.e., a Cambro.

Coolers are highly thermally insulated, the very property they are designed for to keep things inside cool. However, this property also works the same for keeping warm, hot foods placed inside.

A cooler is actually good at maintaining ANY stable temperature inside, be that cold or hot. And this is what makes them so great at keeping food warm for hours.

How to Keep Food Warm in a Cooler – The Method:

Shortly before your meat is cooked, add a couple of gallons of hot tap water to an empty cooler. Close the lid for at least 30 minutes, then ditch the water.

This preheats the cooler; it brings it up to a good warm temperature ready to receive hot food. Without this step, the food you place inside would initially lose some heat brining the cooler up to temp.

Next, remove your meat from the cooker and wrap it tightly in aluminum foil, if not already done.

Now place a clean towel or two in your cooler, place your wrapped meat on top of the towels, and place a couple more towels on top and close the lid.

Your meat will stay hot for hours using this method.

I’ve taken pork shoulders out of the tinfoil after being in the “faux Cambro” for 4.5 hours, to still see steam rising off the meat it’s that hot!

Pros

Have a cooler? Towels? Access to hot water? Good, you have all the tools necessary to build a faux Cambro.

Cons

Will not work indefinitely. Eventually, your food will reach the danger zone.

You COULD Bail Out of Low n Slow: Just Cook Fresh, Serve Hot

This isn’t a joke. Lots of times I’m asked what I would do if I had a large number of people coming to my home for a good BBQ?

I would mostly steer clear of unpredictable cuts of meat like pulled pork and brisket and instead opt to grill steaks, chops, even hot dogs, and hamburgers.

How would I serve 20+ people and not serve them cold food? Easy, I’d serve it right off the grill.

Before your guests arrive, have all your sides ready. Have your salads made and in the fridge. Have anything like mashed potatoes or glazed carrots in the oven or on the stove, and ready to eat. Have your meat seasoned and ready to cook and your grill hot and ready.

Then all you have left to do is grill these quick-cooking cuts of meat and serve it as your guests take their seats.

Pros

Obviously, the most significant advantage to cooking fresh is that all of your guests will be able to enjoy their food hot, while it’s at its ideal stage. As an added benefit, your guests can enjoy the show as you effortlessly cook them their dinner.

Cons

This isn’t an option for something that is going to take hours to cook – i.e., brisket, but it will work for foods that can cook in 20 minutes or less like steaks, chops, hamburgers and hot dogs.

You’re not going to be able to enjoy the beginning of the party because you’re going to be busy cooking.

Conclusion

How do you keep your food warm? Have you ever been in a jam and had to come up with your own way to keep your food from going cold? Did you use a method similar to one of the ones listed above? Do you think it worked better than our methods?

Leave us a comment below telling us all about it so we can all learn from each other.

Happy grilling!

Mark Jenner

Hi. I'm Mark Jenner, owner and creator of FoodFireFriends.com. I grill and smoke food outdoors at least three days a week on a wide range of equipment, have done so for years, and love nothing more than cooking good food, over live fire, enjoying it with friends. The aim of this site is to educate and help others to do the same.

12 thoughts on “How to Keep Food Warm for Hours Before Serving – With No Quality Loss”

  1. Loving the faux cambro idea. I need to cook some brisket at home this sat, that I want to take to my brothers who is a 5 hour drive away. Do you think the brisket will stay warm enough for that? Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Ben.

      I wouldn’t like to personally guarantee it, as there’s many variables. How big your brisket is, how good the insulation of your cooler is, the weather and temperature outside, etc. Personally, I would be happy to do so and am pretty sure it will still be warm and not have dropped into the ‘food safety danger zone’ in that time, but mileage may vary.

      If you follow the process to the letter, yes. By which I mean: Have the cooler full of HOT water, to pre-heat it and hence take less heat away from the meat. And once the meat is off the grill, wrap it in foil, wrap it in towels, put in the cooler, and then set off on your journey. You want to be ready to go as soon as the meat as ready. This will give you the best chance.

      Have you considered coking, sealing and reheating? It may not be QUITE as good, but you can at least be sure it’s safe? Cook your brisket a day early, portion it off and seal it with a vacuum sealer, or watertight zip lock bags, and put in the fridge. In each, put a bit of the cooking juices from the pink butcher paper or foil if you wrapped, perhaps a small (couple of tbps) bit of beef broth if you have no juices. Transport chilled in a cooler packed with some ice.

      At the other end, reheat in a sous vide manner. If you have no sous vide equipment, I assume you have thermometers *every grill enthusiast does), you can just reheat sous vide in any big enough container on the stove, keeping the water at the right temp by controlling the gas / electric and measuring the water with your thermometer. Aim for 60c / 140f water temp, and cook until the brisket is that temp throughout. It will take a few hours, so prepare for that.

      Mark.

  2. Hi,

    For the Faux Cambro method, instead of using my cooler, couldn’t I just get my oven warm, then turn it off, and wrap my meat like it’s going into a cooler, and let it rest in warmed oven? Would it stay warm that way, as ovens have some insulation to keep the heat trapped in?

    Thanks,

    Jimmy

    • Hi Jimmy,

      In theory, sure, this MIGHT work. I do have two issues with it though:

      First is that some ovens only go as low as 90 / 195f (maybe 80?) and at this temperature it would actually carry on cooking somewhat if it holds this temperature for any length of time, potentially taking your cook past the perfect doneness that you strived for in your cook.

      Secondly, my oven tends to cool down relatively quickly when turned off to be honest. I mean, it’s far from instant, but certainly waaaay more heat is escaping when compared to a sealed cooler. So I don’t think it would be as effective as the faux cambro method. It would be better than keeping your meat wrapped on the side and placed in nothing, but I’m certain the faux cambro would hold it warmer for longer. You could mess around firing up your oven on a very low heat for a few minutes every half hour or so, but really it would just be easier to use a faux cambro and be completely hands off

  3. What do you think is best for 2 buts, 5 pounds each, that are done after 16 hours of smoke and PERFECT, but won’t be served for 10 hours?

    • Hi Chris,

      10 hours? That’s too long to ‘hold’ without applying additional heat, which will cook it further. SO for me, it being pulled pork, I would pull it, add whatever sauce or liquid I was going to, portion it off into airtight sealable bags, and then refrigerate. When it’s time to serve, I would then reheat sous vide / in a pan water. Pork butt is very forgiving to this kind of treatment, and there will be no discernable quality loss, mostly due to the high fat content and added liquids at pulling time keeping it very moist.

  4. I just need one hour to keep burgers warm. What do you feel is the best method?

    • Hi Judi,

      What’s the exact situation? Are you outside with a grill, inside with an oven etc.? Usually, because burgers are so quick to grill, you would just cook them as needed, or cook up a few and keep them on a warming rack on your grill, or in an indirect zone away from the heat source, or a cooler section if using a griddle. You could wrap them a few piled together in tin foil and keep them somewhere hot (again, requiring a grill, or cooler section of a griddle). But as they are generally speaking so small and thin, they are hard to keep warm for any length of time.

  5. Here is what I want to do but I am not sure if it’s ok. I routinely cook brisket and pork shoulder, then when done I leave it in the butcher paper, wrap it in celophane so it won’t leak, then wrap it in aluminum foil, then wrap in towels and put it in a cooler. This works for a good 4 to 5 hours. but what I would like to do is once I pull the meat, wrap it the same way in cellophane and aluminum foil and then vacuum seal the bag and out the meat in a sous vide set to 170 degrees and hold for 6 hours. I figure that the meat is cooked to 200 degrees and the sous vide is 170. So the meat won’t cook anymore but its temp will drop slower and never get below 170. Does this sound like a viable option?

    • Hi Kevin,

      It’s viable, you can certainly do this, but it will continue to cook in the sous vide, just very slowly is all. What effect it would have after 6 hours sous vide at that temp I cannot say, but it will continue to cook.

  6. Avatar
    David the smoke meat man....I

    I have an electronic smoker and it works great for me…..you just set the temp above 140° f and your done

    • That works 🙂

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