There are two kinds of cooks in this world: those who love an organized kitchen, and those who are lying. We who played with Tupperware as kids and jump on any excuse to go to the Container Store know it’s all about finding the right system—one that’s modular, affordable, durable, readily available, and easy to add to. There’s nothing worse than committing to a system, only to have the manufacturer discontinue it, forcing you into mismatch mode or, worse, a complete system overhaul.
Restaurants use Cambros and hotel pans, the ubiquitous all-purpose vessels in the kitchen.
When chefs say Cambros, they’re referring to large square plastic containers that look like enormous measuring cups. Cambro is the manufacturer. Home and pro cooks use big and small versions for short and long-term storage of everything from fruit to stock to flour.
Hotel pans are, generally speaking, shallow, rectangular stainless steel pans with a flange (flat rim) that can be slid into buffet steam tables. But they’re available in a wide variety of sizes and materials, and besides being great baking pans, they serve as everything from bowls to portable drawers when inserted into a kitchen rack. Their standard sizing system, called Gastronorm, is universally modular. So if you’re using them in a steam table, one full-size well holds either one full-size pan, two half-pans, three three-pans, and so on. But you don’t need a steam table to appreciate their usefulness.
With their square shape, Cambros nest neatly and line up snugly next to each other, maximizing storage space in kitchens, pantries, walk-in coolers, and freezers. Their volume graduations make taking inventory a snap: You know how much flour you have on hand by simply looking at the container you’re storing it in. Good news if you have to make cupcakes for the Great American Bake Sale.
Chefs use Cambros for far more than dry goods-storage though—from washing raw spinach to measuring veal stock—plus pouring from a corner of a Cambro is much easier and cleaner than from a round container.
They’re available in seven sizes, from 2 quarts to 22 quarts, in three materials. At the top end is the extremely durable and highly impact-resistant yet crystal clear polycarbonate, temperature-resistant from minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit to 210 degrees Fahrenheit. Next is the less expensive opaque white polyethylene—also impact-, stain-, and chemical-resistant—but temperature-resistant up to only 160 degrees Fahrenheit. The least expensive translucent white plastic is also durable and stain-resistant, but again temperature-resistant to only 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
Lids are sold separately. They’re color-coded to match different-size containers, made of polyethylene, snap tight, and lift off fairly easily with one corner thumb tab.
All CamSquare containers and lids are dishwasher safe—though you’ll never fit the bigger models in a standard home machine.
Home and pro cooks use hotel pans as prep containers, mixing bowls, marinating pans, cutting board stands (to reduce back strain), and mise en place.
Vollrath has long been respected for its durable goods. Its Super Pan 3 models have a patented angled lip designed to lift easily out of a steam table well. Standard flat lips sometimes need the help of tongs or spoon handles wedged under the edge, which can scratch. The angle of the lip rolls drips and spills back into the pans, which are attractive enough to be used for table service.
The Super Pan 3s are available in low- and high-temperature plastic, stainless steel, and nonstick-coated steel.
The high-temperature plastic can withstand minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, for use in steam tables and microwaves, but not in ovens. The low-temperature plastic is heat-resistant up to only 210 degrees Fahrenheit. The nonstick-coated pans are heat-resistant up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, but are not designed to be used with metal utensils.
Indispensable perforated pans—what restaurants use as colanders—and covers are also available. You can even use the former to make spätzle. They’re all nestable and modular, but won’t jam or stick together, and they are dishwasher safe.
All of Vollrath’s hotel pans meet Gastronorm standards, so if you do ever need to stick these in a steam table, you know you’re good to go.