What Is Chafing Fuel?

Terrie Brockmann

Chafing fuel is the fuel source for an apparatus that people use for cooking food or keeping it hot, such as on a buffet line at a restaurant. This apparatus usually consists of a metal dish with a heating appliance beneath it, and manufacturers usually sell the chafing fuel in an appliance, such as a can with a wick. Wick fuels, including diethylene glycol (DEG), are thinner than gels such as methanol gels and might spill easier. Different fuels burn at different degrees of hotness, and manufacturers offer a variety of fuels for a variety of apparatuses.

Ethanol can be made from sugar cane.
Ethanol can be made from sugar cane.

These fuels include methanol, DEG, denatured alcohol and the newer plant-based ethanol. Manufacturers generally use sugar cane for most of the ethanol fuel. The gel fuels tend to burn hotter than the wick fuels, but if they are thick enough, the gels are almost spill-proof, which is safer for the users and eatery customers. Vendors offer the fuels in individual containers that sit under the chafing dish or beverage urn and in larger containers for refilling heating appliances.

Chafing fuel is used to keep buffet-style food hot.
Chafing fuel is used to keep buffet-style food hot.

In the food service industry, restaurants often need more than one type of fuel. For example, beverage urns and vessels designed to not cook the food but to keep it warm for service need a low-temperature fuel, and chafing dishes and some cooking apparatus need hotter-burning fuel. The average temperature range is 165-196° Fahrenheit (about 74-90° Celsius), and the goal is to find a fuel that will keep the food in the temperature safety range near 141° Fahrenheit (about 60° Celsius). Chafing fuels also have different burn times, depending on the manufacturer's formula and the size of the wick or burn hole. Vendors offer fuels that burn for as little as 45 minutes or as long as six hours.

Most manufacturers, because of safety concerns, offer non-spill containers that stay cool to the touch, but users still need to exercise caution when using these products. Examples of safe handling practices include lighting the fuel after the user has placed it under the apparatus and letting the container cool before moving it. A person should follow the directions from the manufacturer when extinguishing the flame, because each type of fuel appliance is different. Generally, the makers of chafing fuel advise users to not wear loose clothing or have loose hair that can catch on fire from the burning fuel.

Many apparatuses use chafing fuel. The food industry has many uses for chafing fuel appliances. Fondue pots, soup tureens, hibachis and beverage urns are examples of apparatuses that keep food warm. In the hotel industry, people use them for room service carts and portable food boxes. Campers and hikers use chafing dish fuel to cook or heat ready-to-eat foods, because they are safe and lightweight.

Historically, in the medieval era, a portable brazier containing coals or charcoal was set on a metal stand and heated the dish of food above it. The medical industry used some of the early versions to prepare medications. The advantage of chafing fuel was that food could be prepared away from the intense heat of the hearth fire. As other fuels became available, the popularity of using chafing dishes in restaurants increased. Chafing fuels have evolved over time, and in the late 20th century, manufacturers developed environmentally friendly fuels that were made from renewable resources and were biodegradable and methanol-free, as well as odor-free and smoke-free.

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