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Which Is Better for Catering: Chafing Fuel vs. Induction Heat

On-site and off-site caterers need reliable heat sources to effectively serve their clients' guests. With indoor and outdoor event sites and varying restrictions on open flame, it's a good idea to build in some nimbleness to your catering operation. 

Chafing fuel is an old go-to for caterers. But induction heat has enjoyed popularity growth recently, in part because of new options on the market, making it less expensive than it used to be. They're both effective heat sources that perform similar job functions, but in different ways. Let's see how they stack up against each other. 

Chafing Fuel and Induction Heat: Overview and Use Cases
 

Overview

Chafing Fuel Canisters
Chafing fuel comes in small, disposable canisters and uses either liquid or gel fuel to create an open flame. Two-, four-, and six-hour burn times are the most popular options on the market. Some canisters have a resealable lid allowing caterers to use the full burn time over the course of a few events. Just be sure to properly dispose of your canisters when you're done, taking care never to put hot or still flaming fuel canisters in the garbage. Additionally, you can find chafing fuel options with or without wicks, which help concentrate heat in specific areas.

chafing-fuel-canisters-with-action-stations.jpg
Pictured: examples of different chafing fuel canisters

 

Induction Cooktops
Induction heat uses technology where the heat source comes from the cookware or chafing dish itself instead of from the induction surface. This is because induction surfaces use electromagnetic properties to rapidly create an evenly distributed heat when it comes into contact with induction-ready cookware (which means the cookware contains iron). When that contact stops, the cookware and induction surface cool off just as rapidly because the heat source is gone. There is no open flame with induction heat, but it does have to be plugged in.  

Unlike chafing fuels that work with any metal application, induction cooktops only work with materials containing iron. Of the most common kitchen metals:
 
  • Natural (uncoated) cast iron will always work on induction
  • Stainless steel sometimes works on its own, but is often fit with an induction-ready base, so double check your stainless product to ensure it will work with induction
  • Aluminum doesn't contain iron, so it's not induction-ready unless it's fit with a special induction base, like the Heiss™ line of cookware

If you're not sure whether a cooking vessel is induction-ready, just hold a magnet to it. If it sticks, you're in business.

induction-heat-cooktop-black.jpg
Pictured: portable single induction cooktop

 

Use Cases

Chafing Fuel Canisters
Chafing canisters can be used under chafing dishes, griddle, or grill tops to warm food at catered events. They can get hot enough to cook with, but due to the way they create hot and cool spots on displayware, they're primarily used for warming food more than anything else. Caterers often strategically create hot and cool areas with chafing fuel to meet different warming/heating needs depending on what they're serving. Unlike induction and even butane cooktops, chafing canisters aren't found in traditional stove top setups. Chafing fuel can be used at self-serve or action stations. 

Induction Cooktops
Induction devices can be found in portable, single- or double-burner cooktops with glass or ceramic surfaces. Like chafing fuel, induction heat can be used to warm or heat chafing dishes, griddle, and grill tops. But induction cooktops can function just like a traditional stove top. The cooktop functionality allows caterers to cook from start to finish, expanding their service capabilities. As with chafing fuel, induction heat works well with self-serve and action station service. 


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Eco-Friendliness of Chafing Fuel vs. Induction Heat

 

Chafing Fuel Canisters
Chafing fuel canisters are disposable by design, so they're not always a top choice for eco-minded caterers. However, eco-friendly chafing fuels are widely available on the market. Sterno, arguably the industry leader, offers biodegradable fuel made from renewable resources. They're still disposable, but offer an effective alternative for instances where chafing fuel is the best fit, but you need an eco-friendly option. 

 

Induction Cooktops
Induction cooktops are a greener option because they're reusable and can last many years depending on the brand and how you care for your product. Most portable models come with an auto-timer shut-off, which helps to prevent using extra electricity if you forget to turn it off (but never leave a heat source unattended). Additionally, energy efficient options from SMART™ Buffet Ware are available on the market. 

 
 

Evenness of Heat Distribution Between Chafing Fuel and Induction Heat 

The differences in heat distribution between these two heat sources are pretty black and white:
 
  • Chafing fuel creates hot spots due to tight concentration of flame
  • Induction heat is evenly distributed

chafing-fuel-vs-induction-heat-distribution.jpg
Pictured: rendering of hotspots created by chafing fuel.

For cooking, you're better off with even heat distribution. But for display, heating, and warming purposes, you can use hot and warm spots to manage different needs for a variety of dishes. Induction can be used for the same purposes by managing the temperature level.


Transport Ease of Chafing Fuel Canisters vs. Induction Heat

Regardless of whether your catering services take place in-house, like at a hotel, or off-site, like wedding venues, transporting equipment is part of any catering gig. Considering caterers are responsible for every last piece needed for service, efficiency is key. 
 

Chafing Fuel Canisters
Due to their light weight and small size, chafing fuel is a breeze to transport whether you're going 40 feet or 40 miles away from your kitchen headquarters. Additionally, they're usually stackable, which can save even more room if needed. You don't need a special carrying case, and because the canisters are housed in metal, you can drop them without much repercussion (so long as they're not lit, of course). 

 

Induction Cooktops
Portable induction cooktops will obviously be heavier than chafing fuel canisters because they're larger and more sophisticated. Further, the weight can vary based on the design. A bare-bones single-burner design can weight just a few pounds where an induction surface attached to a wooden base makes for a nicer presentation, but will be heavier because there's more material present.

induction-heat-cooktop-with-pan.jpg

 
Induction cooktops are not usually stackable, but you can find stackable options from Smart™ Buffet Ware. If you need to move several units, you should plan on making room for each of them. It's also recommended to protect your induction cooktops while in transport because if they get dropped or jostled too hard, the glass or ceramic surface may break. If that happens, you'll likely have to replace the unit. 
 
Generally, it takes more preparation and space to transport induction cooktops than chafing fuel canisters. However, more options are coming onto the market of late where induction tables can be used for multiple options, adding to their operational value. If you plan accordingly, however, it's a doable task. Plus the food quality and presentation over a longer time frame will absolutely deliver value to your customers.
 
 


Safety of Chafing Fuel Canisters vs. Induction Cooktops

Chafing fuel uses open flame and induction cooktops do not. In and of itself, that difference puts induction cooktops ahead of chafing fuel in terms of safety. Banquet catering is gaining popularity in museums and historic buildings due to the elegant setting. But open flame is almost universally not allowed at venues like these. 
 
If a guest unwittingly puts their paper napkin or plate too close to a chafing fuel canister, it can start a fire. Because of the way induction heat works, it cools rapidly when cookware isn't in contact with the induction surface. This creates an additional safety feature because it reduces the opportunity for folks to burn themselves on a hot surface. 
 
 
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Cost Savings of Chafing Fuel Canisters vs. Induction Cooktops

Because chafing fuel canisters are single-use products, they create an on-going cost for caterers. If you use 100 chafing fuel canisters at $1.50/ea every week for a year, you're spending $7,800/year. Higher end professional, portable, double-burner induction cooktops can range from $1,000-$2,500 and can last you many years.
 
Over the course of 2 years, you could spend $15,600 on chafing fuel, and about $1,000-$2,500 on your induction range. 
 
 
 

Why Buy one Over the Other? 

When you line up the advantages, induction heat checks off more boxes than chafing fuel, but they each have their place in the catering industry. Overall, it boils down to each products performance and what you need for any particular catered event. Keeping both on-hand will help to build flexibility into your operation and serve a wider range of food and clients. 

 

Quick-Reference Chart

 
 - Yes  - In Between  - No
 
 
  Chafing Fuel Canister Induction Heat
 Open Flame  ●
Even Heat Distribution   ●
Heats Rapidly    
Cools Rapidly   
Weight   
Annual Cost of Ownership   
Eco-Friendliness     
Transport Ease     
Safety   
Works with all Metals   
(Only metals containing iron)
Good for Cooking   
Good for Heating/Warming   
 
If you'd like to learn more about action station setups for catering, we've got you covered in "Best Action Station Setups, Heat Sources, and Cooktops for Catering." 
 



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