Sometimes you need to cook way ahead of time, and learn how to keep food warm for hours before serving. You cannot predict when a huge joint of meat will be ready from your BBQ, so take heed of the following advice instead.
In this article, I outline some ways you can avoid making your guests wait for their supper, while at the same time ensuring you serve a hot meal.
The following scene has played out many times for me, and I’m sure it’s happened to many of you too.
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.
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. Let’s fix this problem!
Contents (Jump to Topic)
- 1 Time Your Cook to be Ready Hours Early, then Keep it Warm
- 2 Keeping Meat Warm for Hours Isn’t Easy — But It’s Possible
- 3 Commercial Food Warmer
- 4 Hold at a Low Temp in the Oven
- 5 How to Keep Food Warm in a Faux Cambro
- 6 You COULD Bail Out of Low n Slow: Just Cook Fresh, Serve Hot
- 7 Conclusion
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 unbeknownst 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?
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 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.
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.
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 160 °F and 170 °F 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.
Since almost 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.
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:
In order to use the ‘faux Cambro method’, you need a few items: An insulated cooler, some tin foil and two or more towels. If you don’t have a cooler, perhaps check out our guides to the best soft cooler, or our search for the best cooler on wheels if you want something more mobile and versatile.
Shortly before your meat is cooked, add a couple of gallons of hot tap water to the 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 bringing 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!
Have a cooler? Towels? Access to hot water? Good, you have all the tools necessary to build a faux Cambro.
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 many 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.
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.
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.
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.