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There are a variety of serving dishes that can be used for formal and informal dinner services. Bowls and platters of various sizes exist that can be used for different foods. Smaller dishes, some specially designed to hold condiments or sauces for the guests, can be placed at accessible points within a dinner setting. Heavy earthenware casserole dishes can be used to serve the food and can double as a baking dish. Certain serving dishes are actually made to be dramatic and are designed for the presentation of one particular type of cuisine, although these are rare.
A platter is the most basic of serving dishes. It is a wide, flat surface that can hold many types of food along with the appropriate garnishes. They can come with a high, domed lid used to keep the food warm until it has reached the table. A serving platter can be made of nearly any sturdy material but most often are some type of metal.
A close partner to a platter, tureens are serving dishes that are designed for liquids such as soups. These are generally large bowls made from metal or ceramic that can be footed or have some support to keep the hot basin from touching the surface of the table. Many come with integrated spoons that match the color or design of the main tureen, although this is not always the case. A tureen is often seen during very formal dinner services in which there are defined courses.
Smaller serving dishes can often be found on the table during a meal. These include items such as gravy boats, which are usually long and low spouted cups that hold thick gravies or sauces, sometimes with a filter built into the spout to remove any solids. Relish dishes are thin plates designed to hold diced condiments. Vinegar and oil bottles are frequently seen during salad courses, topped with special stoppers that have a thin tube to allow the liquid to be drizzled over the food. A butter dish can be present on a table, as well, being a rectangular dish with a fitted lid to keep the butter inside fresh.
Special serving dishes are usually the result of years or decades of meals involving a traditional cuisine. In some areas of the world, entire cuts of meat can be placed on a special wooden rack that is taken to a table, holding the meat at a steep angle so the server can make accurate slices. Salad bowls are designed to resist the oil of the salad dressing and also prevent damage to the serving instruments and the bowl itself while the salad is being tossed. Other specialty dishes include elegant cutting boards with drainage around the edges to catch juices as they leave the meat and pots that have a lighted fire underneath to cook food at the table or keep a fondue hot.
Soup tureens look great, but unless you routinely make soup for a large crowd, they're too big and take up way too much room. They're primarily show pieces, as far as I'm concerned -- a lot like big punch bowls. You don't need one in a home. They're great for a church kitchen, but most people don't need one in their homes.
I have a glass cake stand and the domed cover flips over and sits in the foot of the pedestal and makes a punch bowl, but that's for a small party, like 10 or 15 people. Doesn't hold that much punch, but it's definitely a multi tasker, so that works.
I got a new set of earthenware casserole dishes, and it's the best purchase I've made in years. All of my casseroles were getting to where they looked like they'd been through a nuclear disaster, and these cook great, and also look so nice for serving. I can take them to a potluck and not be ashamed of how my dishes look.
My set even came with two insulated casserole caddies, two serving spoons and a bread napkin! It was a great investment, and well worth the $35 or so I paid. I got a great deal and I've used those dishes a lot. They've paid for themselves many times over.
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