A chafing dish is a metal cooking or serving pan on a stand with an alcohol burner holding chafing fuel below it. It is used for cooking at table or as a food warmer for keeping dishes at a buffet warm. Historically, a chafing dish is a kind of portable grate raised on a tripod, originally heated with charcoal in a brazier, and used for foods that require gentle cooking, away from the "fierce" heat of direct flames. The chafing dish could be used at table or provided with a cover for keeping food warm on a buffet. Double dishes that provide a protective water jacket are known as bains-marie and help keep delicate foods, such as fish, warm while preventing overcooking.
The Roman politician and writer Cicero described a "kind of saucepan of Corinthian brass", writing "This simple and ingenious vessel possesses a double bottom, the upper one holds the light delicacies... and the fire is lit underneath". Fragments of ceramic chafing dishes are common in the archaeology of medieval city sites, such as York, England. Chafing dishes in the form of charcoal-burning braziers are familiar in 17th-century American inventories almost from the start. François Pierre La Varenne, Le Cuisinier françois mentions the use of a réchaut in a recipe for champignons à l'olivier. In describing the Velasquez genre painting, sometimes art historians not handy in the kitchen describe her as frying eggs in her earthenware dish. In 1520, Hernan Cortez reported to Charles V the manner in which Montezuma was served meals in Tenochtitlan: In England silver braziers without handles, upon which a dish would be set, are mentioned in the reign of Queen Anne; wooden balls kept the heat of the charcoal in the pierced container from being transferred to the table surface. Dish-crosses and the chafing dish with a handle were introductions of the reign of George II. In the American colonies, "One chafing dish" was inventoried among the silver at Abraham de Peyster's death in New York, 1728, though only two colonial New York examples are known to survive. In a light form and heated over a spirit lamp, a chafing dish could also be used for cooking various dainty dishes at table— of fish, cream, eggs or cheese— for which silver chafing dishes with fine heat-insulating wooden handles were made in the late 19th century, when "chafing-dish suppers" became fashionable, even in households where a kitchen maid prepared all the ingredients beforehand. Specialized chafing-dish cookbooks appeared from the 1880s. A book of chafing-dish recipes printed for the silversmiths, Gorham Manufacturing Co. in New York,, featured a brief history of chafing dishes, followed by proper instruction for use, suggesting its novelty. Fannie Farmer's Chafing Dish Possibilities was published in Boston in 1898.
Modern chafing dishes are made of light metal or ceramic casseroles with handles. Standard uses of a chafing-dish in restaurants are finishing the sauces of dishes such as pressed duck and fettuccine Alfredo or in presenting flambé dishes such as crêpes Suzette and Steak Diane. In homes, it can be used to prepare and present dishes at table which must be kept hot, notably Welsh rarebit and cheese fondue. The home version sometimes includes a cover. Home and restaurant chafing dishes have gone in and out of fashion, notably in the 1940s, 1960s, and 1970s. In institutional and catering use, chafing dishes often consist of large, covered rectangular pans, sometimes disposable, held in a rack or frame over water heated by an alcohol burner as a kind of steam table for keeping food at a buffet warm. They are not used for cooking or reheating food.