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The Origin and History of Bain-Marie

If you’ve ever been to a self-service restaurant, you may have noticed a tall, metallic structure commonly used as a centre island. This structure has a heating or cooling layer in the middle where dishes are placed in metal containers to keep them warm. They come in various sizes and designs. The equipment used depends on where the food is being sold or served and the kind of dishes offered.

This metal structure is called bain-marie, a French term that directly translates to ‘Mary’s bath’. The name was inspired by Mary the Jewess, an alchemist from Ancient Greece credited as the equipment’s original designer or inventor. 

Maria or Mary is a popular figure in alchemy, as history places her at the forefront of chemical development and inventions in Alexandria, Egypt, between the first and third centuries. Apart from inventing the water bath equipment, she’s credited for creating hermetic sealing and the chemical compound hydrochloric acid.

What is a bain-marie?

Alchemists first used the original bain-marie to apply indirect heat to substances for medical or scientific purposes. The equipment’s main feature is hot water to transfer heat to a second vessel containing cooked or processed substances. The indirect heat protects the ingredients from heating up too quickly, getting burned, or drying out. 

The same technique is used in the modern bain-marie, though it’s now manufactured in various forms and designs to cater to different uses. The equipment is also known by many names, including double-boiler, bain-marie food warmer, and water bath. 

The modern bain-marie

A bain-marie can use wet or dry heat to keep food warm. With moist heat, the lower layer of the equipment must be filled with water and heated to ideal temperatures using a burner built within the structure. Then the stainless food pans will acquire heat from the hot water and transfer it to the food they contain.

The same technique is applied to dry heat-type bains-marie, with the only differences being the heating component used and the absence of water. Dry heat bains-marie use electrical heaters to heat the bottom of the food pans directly. The direct heating process increases the temperature faster, cutting the time it takes to warm food while improving energy efficiency. 

Based on food standards set in New Zealand, the ideal temperature for serving hot dishes is 60°C or hotter. However, some foods dry out faster than others, so it’s essential not to keep food on the bain-marie for longer than four hours.

Cold bain-marie

While it’s initially a piece of heating equipment, modern bains-marie can keep food cool, crisp, and fresh for longer. There are bains-marie specially designed for cold food or items that are ideally served at lower temperatures. 

Cold bains-marie can be called other names, depending on how they’re used. For instance, you may encounter the terms ice-cream cabinets or ice-cream display freezers, salad bar, or cold food display. All these names refer to the same equipment, though they may have different designs or appearances.

The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code outlines the importance of displaying potentially hazardous foods at safe temperatures. It means that if you display cold fare on your bain-marie, the equipment must maintain a temperature of 5 °C or colder. Doing so will prevent spoilage and bacterial growth, which can be hazardous to health if unsafe food is consumed. 

Potentially hazardous foods contain uncooked and cooked animal protein, such as meat, fish, and eggs. This category also includes dairy, nuts, rice, and pasta. If you’re going to display these items on your bain-marie, they must be consumed within two hours to ensure food safety.

Meanwhile, ready-to-eat food can be kept at the same temperature for four hours and remain safe for consumption. 

Bain-marie structures

You can find various designs at a bain-marie warehouse where the display equipment is commonly sold. Freestanding bains-marie are widely used in restaurants, shops, catering services, and other venues where a food aisle is suitable. 

You can also check out smaller countertop versions of both hot and cold bains-marie, which are ideal for smaller spaces. Some bains-marie are even designed to hold one dish at a time. You’ll usually see them in buffet displays. 

Lastly, there’s small kitchen equipment that functions as double boilers, commonly used for melting chocolate and other food preparations. 


The bain-marie has been around since ancient times, and it continues to be a helpful piece of equipment, now famous for food display and storage purposes. You can find hot and cold types, which come in various designs and sizes. Get your own bain-marie now and enjoy the convenience and efficiency it can offer your home or business.