Food Storage: Transporting hot & cold foods

For our vacation, we rented a hotel room with a kitchenette. It did legitimately save us money on breakfasts and lunches and even a couple dinners, as we were able to do a picnic dinner the night we went sailing, and supply foods for a backyard BBQ another night. (And as the room was the same price as some of the other local hotels without kitchenettes, it didn't cost us any extra there either!)

Of course, Seattle being about 30-50% more expensive for groceries than Portland/Vancouver, and seeing as we wouldn't be getting into town until after our first wedding of the trip, I didn't want to have to buy much food up there.

Enter the cooler.

Place food, insert ice, seems pretty simple. But what about if you have cardboard foods that could get soggy in the melted ice? I put a couple items in small garbage bags with good results! Unfortunately, there aren't many plastic-conscious ways of handling that, unless you want to transfer to glass containers.
The last day of our vacation, we were supplying the entree (and possibly all the food) for a friends' wedding. Lasagna seemed the easiest way to do this, as we would be getting in LATE the night before a NOON wedding at the end of a long week, so time and ease was imperative.
*Tip: Costco lasagna says it has 12 servings in it; IT ACTUALLY DOES. Do not upsize the serving much, especially if there will be any other food, they're bigger than you think. 
But a 2-hour cook time (plus some for filling the oven) and a half hour drive plus setting up before a noon wedding which wouldn't be terribly long but still.... it all meant that we needed to get the lasagna in the oven around 8am, and a way to keep it hot! We had a chafing dish, but it only had room for two of the four lasagnas we made. In retrospect that would have been plenty--but that's beside the point now. And a chafing dish can't be used for transporting.

I'm not sure how much of this is industry knowledge and how much people may have picked up from eating at buffets, but if you are restaurant industry, just skip to the next paragraph. Chafing dishes involve a rack with room for a deep pan to sit over some cans of fuel, a shallower pan for the food, and a lid. You fill the deep pan with water to create steam, which disburses the heat from the single or dual-point source of heat at the bottom. Then you put the shallower pan inside that, trapping the steam in, keeping everything over the steam bath hot. No electricity required. If you tried to transport it all set up, you would end up with lots of spilled food, spilled water, and a flying can of flame. 
Enter the "cooler".

Remember that the cooler is simply a thermal device, much like a giant ravel coffee mug. It keeps the inside temperature mostly constant as compared to the outside temperature, and you can manipulate that inside temperature as you wish. Most people use lots of ice for a cooler, but you can make it colder with dry ice. Similarly, you can keep hot things hot in it. Spoiler alert: This worked much better than even I expected.

So we baked the crap out of some lasagna. Carefully rotated it up->down and left->right to combat hot spots. We lined the cooler with a towel for additional insulation and to keep the lasagna from sliding too much. Of course, the lasagnas had foil lids, which would have collapsed under the weight of one being on top of another, let alone stacking four of them (no, we couldn't fit them next to each other, my whole life is a half inch problem). To disburse the weight to the walls of the dish, we just put wire racks and cookie sheets between them. Success! Another towel on top, and we were off to the wedding.

Here's where I would change things: We took the hot pot to make boiling water for our chafing dish and that was all fine and dandy. The chafing dish worked, but it was an unnecessary additional stressor in this case. We set the food up before the wedding, because the reception was to be starting immediately after the ceremony.

Lasagna came out of the oven at 11am. When the reception started at 2pm, the lasagna still inside the cooler was still so hot that you couldn't even hold the edges with your bare hands. At 3pm when we left, the final lasagna that never made it out of the cooler was still so hot to the touch you couldn't hold it from the bottom, or even carry it by the edges more than a couple feet without hot pads. That's 4 hours! I took an internal temperature just in case: We pulled them from the oven just over 160 degrees, and at 3pm, the final one was just over 140. We hadn't even hit the danger zone for bacterial growth yet, and could have left it out for another 4 hours relatively safely. Though cheese left out at room temp would have looked disgusting in 20 minutes, but I digress.

That's why I say the chafing dish was an unnecessary stress. I could have simply pulled out a lasagna at a time from the "cooler", and placed it on the table as people went through the buffet line. Easy peasy.

So next time you have to drive across town with a hot casserole for Thanksgiving dinner, or want to have something other than a slow cooker to keep your pot luck buffet food hot, take a second look at the thermal box you usually put ice into.

Have you been going to many weddings lately? What is your go-to pot luck dish? 


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