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The Science Behind Holding

Reliable holding equipment preserves quality, keeps food ready to serve, and allows employees to prepare for peak hours while offering additional benefits (click here to read our blog about how kitchens can “buy” extra operations time with heated holding solutions). Getting the most out of your holding equipment is easier said than done, which is why it is important to understand the science behind it.

One of the first things every aspiring chef learns is that cooking is a function of time, temperature and moisture. This is also true of holding with a few important differences. When food is cooked it undergoes rapid and continuous change as it is subjected to extreme conditions. The finished or “done” state is simply a point to be reached along the path of change. To maintain this state for any length of time requires conditions that are much more subtle in relation to those of the food itself. Ideal holding conditions are those that cause very little in the way of further dynamic changes in the food and prevent changes from taking place naturally. Most simple heated cabinets can do this for short periods. However, different foods react differently to periods of extended holding. Most fried and baked products, for instance, tend to dry out. Other foods become soggy as excess humidity builds up from covered dishes or “wetter” foods and forces the re-absorption of oils, juices or sauces that were released during cooking. The structure and flavor of casseroles, hot sandwiches or other multi-textured foods will begin to breakdown as drying and absorption affect ingredients differently.

Size and cut makes a big difference in how long meats, poultry and fish can be held. Large whole or half joints, which are typically cooked in a slower process, usually hold well. The combination of crust and high ratio of volume to surface area make it easier to preserve flavor and texture in a heated holding environment. For this reason, also, thick fish steaks can be held longer than thin fillets, which do not hold well at all. With proper humidity control, longer holding times improve the flavor and consistency of certain meats, such as ribs. What is essentially a low-temperature, slow-cooking environment continues to breakdown proteins in a gentle way, making the meat more tender. The absorption of seasonings and sauces into the product in this case, enhances the desired flavor and texture. With the number of variables in play, the goal of holding—to suspend the results of cooking at their peak indefinitely—remains elusive. But the benefits of being able to hold a wide range of foods for hours rather than minutes would be significant.

The below chart shows popular menu items grouped by common holding temperature ranges.* Items in the same temperature range can generally be held together. Holding times will vary depending on the durability of the item and humidity in the cabinet. The Humidity column shows ideal relative humidity. With a controlled humidity holding cabinet, much longer holding times can be achieved.

*Based on Henny Penny HHC 900 and SmartHold holding cabinets. Results will vary for other manufacturers.

At Henny Penny, we provide holding equipment and support to some of the world’s largest restaurant chains — and we’re proud to manufacture everything in-house, right down to the control panel. Click here to learn more about the line of holding equipment that gives operators the options they need and the quality they expect.

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