When most people think about a kitchen, pleasant, homey images come to mind. Grandma in her apron, Mom making dinner, pies cooling on racks, the smell of bacon frying and coffee brewing.
Nice images. But look a little deeper. Open flames, scalding steam, boiling liquids, hot oils, razor sharp knives, whirling blades on machines that can shred flesh and crush bones. Toss in a few caustic, toxic, and/or potentially explosive substances and the view changes. Forget about factories and workshops. Kitchens are dangerous places.
I vividly remember being in a woodworking shop many years ago and watching a young man make all the fingers on his right hand the same length when he removed the safety guard from a router and his hand slipped. Another unfortunate fellow bypassed the safety on a band saw with unpleasant results.
Things like that – and worse – happen in kitchens every day. Using a mandolin slicer without a guard will produce the same effect as the router. And one of my own sons found out the hard way how astoundingly sharp the spinning blade of a deli slicer is. (The fingertip grew back – sort of.)
So with visions of aproned grandmothers supplanted by more sanguine images, let’s talk about kitchen safety. The physical “dos” and “don’ts” of being in a kitchen. I’m not going to address food safety issues at all. That’s certainly a part of overall kitchen safety, but it’s also a whole topic of its own.
First and foremost, whether in a big professional kitchen or a small home kitchen, don’t enter the room without your brain. If you are distracted, if you are in a hurry, if your mind is a million miles away, step back and focus on the task at hand. Or you may lose one.
Be constantly aware of your surroundings. What’s hot, what’s not. What’s plugged in and what’s unplugged. Is it on? Is it off? These are things you should always be aware of, both for your safety and for the safety of others around you.
It’s a rule in most professional kitchens that you announce yourself when you’re moving from place to place. If you’re passing behind someone with a hot pot in your hand, you say, “Behind you. Hot.” Even if you are just carrying a stack of plates, it’s important to let people know that you’re behind them. “Coming through.” “Behind you.” Whatever you need to do to make your presence known. Say you’re walking behind me with a pot of hot soup and I’m focused on the pan of hot oil in front of me. I turn around with my pan in my hand and we collide – nobody’s going to be happy. And before you say, “But I don’t work in a professional kitchen,” just think about ten people all bent on cooking Thanksgiving dinner in an average home kitchen. Same principle applies. My wife and I engage in this practice when it’s just the two of us cooking.
Don’t leave cooking unattended. You see it in the newspapers every day; somebody puts a pan of something on the stove and goes into another room to watch TV. The pan boils over or burns dry, and the next thing you know, the firemen are tearing down the burning wall of the kitchen. If you’ve got something on the stovetop, you should never be out of sight of whatever is cooking. Ovens are a little more forgiving and don’t require as much direct attention, but stuff burns in ovens, too. The only thing you can safely walk away from in a kitchen is a crock pot. Don’t leave cooking unattended.
And turn the stove or oven off when you’re through with it! Immediately. Before you forget. I once had an idiot relative stop over at my house while I was traveling. He bought a frozen pizza, cooked it, ate it, went to bed, got up the next morning and left. I came home two days later and found my oven turned on and set at 500°. Notice I said I “once” had an idiot relative stop over. Once was enough.
I gripe about electric stovetops constantly. Unless they’re glowing red, you can’t tell if the damn things are on or off. Always make it a habit to check the dials before you leave the room.
If you have a gas stove, check the pilot lights from time to time and make sure all the burners light properly. If you smell gas and can’t find an obvious source – like a pilot light – call for service.
Avoid using flammable liquids in the kitchen, especially near open sources of heat or flame. Vapors can combust even when the actual liquid is nowhere near the heat source. And always keep flammable objects away from burners and heat sources. Dish towels, potholders, recipe cards – I’ve seen ’em all go up in flames. All it takes is a moment’s inattention.
A kitchen-rated fire extinguisher is a necessity. So is knowing how to use it. Keeping quantities of salt and baking soda near the stove is a good idea. Both can be used to smother a small grease fire. NEVER attempt to put out a grease fire with water. And, please, please, please don’t try to snatch up a burning pan and run with it. It is such a bad idea on so many levels that the mere thought of it makes me cringe.
Be aware of how you place your pots and pans on the stovetop. My poor Aunt Rosie! She was browning ground beef in this great big pan. She was talking to my mom and not really watching her pan. My cousin and I were five or six years old and the tops of our heads were just about the same level as the stovetop, give or take a couple of inches. So when we chased each other through the kitchen at top speed, it was inevitable that the faster of us (me) was gonna smack right into that pan handle that Aunt Rosie left sticking out. Everybody – except the hamburger – survived. And what do we take away from this anecdote? Well, keep the kids out of the kitchen, for one thing. Stay focused on what you’re doing, for another. But of paramount importance, turn the handles of your pans inward. That incident could have turned out a whole lot worse.
And be careful, while you’re turning those handles inward, that you don’t turn them too much in the direction of another hot burner. You’re going to do it. I did it the other day with a Dutch oven. The right handle was nice and cool; the left one – too near the neighboring burner – not so much. I didn’t seriously burn my hand and I somehow managed to not drop the pot, but I cussed for several minutes. Just remember, I told you so.
Respect deep fryers and pressure cookers. 375° oil and pressurized steam can put you in the hospital in a skinny minute. Modern pressure cookers are much safer than older models, but still require a great deal of caution and care. Check the safety valves to make sure they are unobstructed and in good operating condition. Check to see that nothing is blocking the opening to the pressure gauge or to the safety plug.
Fryers can and will bite you if not properly used. When it comes to oil, more is not better. The “maximum fill” line is just that. Overfilling leads to overflowing and nothing will ruin your day faster than boiling oil bubbling out of a fryer.
Oil and water are not natural friends. Keep some distance between them. Don’t use your fryer near the sink and avoid dripping water from wet hands or utensils into the hot oil. And, of course, food submerged into the oil should be as dry as possible. Even a few drops of water or ice crystals can be hazardous. Water or ice flash instantly to steam when coming in contact with hot oil. The steam literally explodes outward, bringing boiling oil with it. You’ll get splattered at the least, doused at the worst, and hurt either way.
Always use a basket to immerse the food and use it slowly and carefully. I know the term is “drop the fries,” but don’t literally drop them.
Put foods gently into boiling water. Little splashes of boiling water hurt a little; big splashes hurt a lot.
Steam is a great medium for cooking vegetables. It’s a lousy medium for cooking hands and faces.
Steam rises out of a boiling pot when you uncover it. Lift the lid with the opening facing away from you. (Side note: When I put a hot pan or lid back on the stove or on a countertop, I’ll sometimes leave a pot holder or oven mitt or something on it to remind myself and others that it’s hot.) Same principle applies when you pour off boiling water, as in when draining pasta, for instance; pour away.
On the subject of pot holders and steam, always use a dry pot holder, oven mitt, towel or whatever when handling hot pots and pans. If whatever you’re using to protect your hand is even a little bit damp, that moisture will quickly convert to steam and scald you before you know it. And, if given the choice between a wet burn and a dry burn, I’ll take the dry one every time.
If you do burn yourself, get out of the nineteenth century and stay away from the butter. I shudder to think of how many burns my grandmother buttered in her day. At least she didn’t marinate them. I swear, I once saw a guy in the ER whose hand was badly scalded by boiling water and steam. Some idiot had poured soy sauce on it and wrapped it in paper towels. By the time the poor slob got proper treatment, the salty, brown, oozing, stringy mess that resulted was quite seriously infected.
Cold water – ice cold, if possible – is the best treatment for a minor burn. I keep a bottle of aloe-vera gel handy for use after the cold water treatment. First-degree burns generally just turn red. Second-degree burns may blister. Anything beyond that requires competent medical attention.
Make sure your pots and pans are in good repair. If you’ve got loose or defective handles, fix ’em or throw ’em out.
A priest I used to know had this frying pan with a loose handle. After he dumped his eggs all over the stove one morning, he threw the pan in the trash. The housekeeper found it there – and put it back in the cabinet. Twice. The third time he dumped his eggs, Father took the offending pan to the back door, opened the door, cocked back his arm — and nearly clobbered my grandfather, who happened to be coming in at the time. “Oh, Father! That ain’t no Hail Mary you’re saying there.” Grandpa made sure the priest never laid eyes – or hands – on the pan again. Funny.
A twelve-year-old kid I used to know – me – was heating oil for popcorn. The oil started to smoke and I picked up the pan to put the popcorn in. Yeah, the handle was loose. My hand got it. So did my wrist, my stomach, my thigh. It was a painful couple of days, I’ll tell you. Not funny.
So, I say again, make sure your pots and pans are in good repair. If you’ve got loose or defective handles, fix ’em or throw ’em out. And make sure to tell the housekeeper.
If you don’t know how to use an appliance, don’t use it. Having 911 on speed-dial will help if you decide to just figure it out as you go, but reading the instructions or asking for help is a much better idea.
If your appliance comes with a guard, it’s probably there because somebody long ago discovered the necessity for it – the hard way. Unless you want to go through life with missing digits – or worse – use the guard, even though it’s an inconvenient pain in the butt that always gets in the way.
Keep hands and fingers out of the machinery. If you have to reach in to remove or adjust something, turn off the appliance and unplug it.
As with the stove, always check the position of appliance switches when you turn them off and before you turn them on. It’s kind of surprising when that hand mixer roars to life as soon as you plug it in and before you can get your fingers out of the way.
Unplug appliances like blenders, mixers, food processors – anything with a motor – as soon as you finish with it. And make sure the switches are in the “off” position. Prevents nasty surprises the next time you plug it in.
While they’re plugged in, keep them away from water and keep water away from them. That includes wet hands. Water and electricity just do not play well together. And don’t plug them in with wet hands, either. It could be a shocking experience.
I used to work in a crappy old kitchen that was wired back when Edison first came up with the idea. With my microwave and my toaster both plugged into the same outlet, I could run one or the other, but not both. I had two other kitchen outlets – fortunately, not on the same circuit – but they were on the other side of the kitchen from where I needed them. The fire marshal would have wept if he had seen all the power strips and outlet adapters I employed. Really bad idea. I’m lucky I didn’t burn the place down. Seriously, don’t overload outlets. You might not be so lucky. Old wiring should be professionally checked for safety and load capacity.
Electrical appliances should be properly grounded. If you get a little “tingle” when you touch an appliance, don’t touch it! Unplug it and have it checked.
Any outlets installed near a sink should have “ground fault interrupter” type sockets. You know – the ones with the little “reset” buttons in them.
Appliance cords should be kept in good condition. Replace worn, frayed, or damaged cords. Avoid running cords across floors where you can trip on them and try to keep them gathered neatly on countertops so you don’t snag them with something. The fryer I use at home has a break-away cord. If something catches on the cord, it will detach from the appliance rather than dumping a couple of quarts of hot oil on my feet. I appreciate that.
Keep your appliances clean. Greasy appliances can catch fire. Toasters with overfilled crumb trays not only attract pests, they can also attract firemen.
Grinders, slicers, and mixers are designed to grind, slice, and vigorously beat things. And they are completely indiscriminate when it comes to what they are grinding, slicing, or beating. A hunk of sirloin or a bunch of fingers are all the same to them.
Your grinder or grinding attachment probably came with a nifty tool to use to push food through the machine. You probably lost it. Get another one. Or use a wooden spoon or something. Fingers are not an acceptable substitute.
Slicers have an insatiable appetite for fingers. And they are extremely adept at removing all or parts of them from careless hands. There are reasons why underage or inexperienced people are not permitted to operate slicers in restaurant kitchens. Sometimes, even appropriately seasoned people should be banned, as in when they are distracted or in a hurry. Ask my son, the nine-fingered wonder. (Just kidding; after several weeks, the fingertip healed up fairly normally.) Or the butcher at the market where my mom and I shopped when I was a kid. His distraction over his impending nuptials resulted in his bride getting slightly less than she bargained for. About two inches less on the right index finger, as I recall.
Ever watch the blade spin in a food processor or the beaters whirl at high speed in a mixer? Ever been tempted to stick your hand in there just to see what would happen? Didn’t think so. But intentionally or accidentally, the results are the same. Make sure all the moving parts are no longer moving and that the machine is not only turned off but unplugged before you go sticking your fingers in there. Otherwise….well, I hear they are doing great things with prosthetics these days.
And, while we’re on the subject of mixers, always make sure the beaters, whisks, whips, hooks, or what have you are securely seated in their sockets before you start up the appliance. You’d be amazed at how fast and far those things can fly when they turn loose. Saw one take out a cabinet door once. Good thing there wasn’t a cook’s face in the way.
Probably the biggest personal hazard in the kitchen is the knife. Too many people take them too lightly. But they are tools, not toys, and they should be treated accordingly.
First of all, buy the best knives you can afford and keep them in good shape. Cheap, discount store knives are dangerous. They can break, the handles can come off, and they are difficult to keep sharp. And there is nothing more dangerous than a dull knife.
A sharp knife passes cleanly and effortlessly through meats, vegetables, fruits – whatever. A dull knife has to be forced, and forcing takes extra pressure and when the knife slips – as it invariably will – the extra kinetic energy involved will result in the point and/or blade of the knife going somewhere unintended – like through your fingers or the into meaty part of your hand.
Hold a knife by the handle, not the blade. No brainer, right? That’s what I said to the guy who wrapped a side towel around the blade of a chef’s knife and tried to use the handle as a hammer. Right after he got out of the emergency room.
And always keep the cutting edge facing away from you. You would think a young teenager drying the blade with a dish towel would realize that. I didn’t then, but I’ve never forgotten since.
Cut away from yourself. Everybody violates this rule, especially when paring, but at least keep it in mind.
Speaking of paring, use the right knife for the job. So you think you can peel an apple with a 12-inch chef’s knife? That alleged skill will really impress your doctor someday.
Cutting boards are designed for – say it with me, now – cutting! Countertops generally are not. Cutting boards and surfaces are engineered for preserving both the integrity of the knife and the safety of the knife wielder. Not so with countertops. A damp cloth placed under the cutting surface reduces slippage and increases safety.
Don’t run with a knife in your hand. See that slippery spot on the floor? I hope so.
If you’re cutting something, your knife should be securely in your hand. If you’re not cutting something, your knife should be safely on your board. Don’t point with a knife or wave it around. You’re a cook with a knife, not a bandleader with a baton.
Set your knife down in such a way as to have the cutting edge turned away from anybody who might walk by. And make sure it’s not too close to the edge of the board or counter. If you should drop a knife or see one fall, don’t try to catch it. Better it should stick in the floor than in your hand, leg, or foot. Which is another good reason, by the way, not to wear sandals, flip-flops, or open-toed shoes in the kitchen.
Keep your knives in good condition. Repair or replace knives with loose or broken handles. Store them properly in a block or a partitioned drawer. Knives rattling around loose in a drawer are prone to being damaged as well as to doing damage to somebody reaching into the drawer.
Don’t wash knives in the dishwasher. It’s bad for the knife. Don’t drop a dirty knife into a sink full of water and other dishes. It’s bad for your hands. Always hand wash and dry your knives separately.
Wear appropriate clothing when working in the kitchen. Professional cooks wear special jackets and aprons. Aprons are appropriate for home cooks, too, but more important are some of the things that are not appropriate. Loose clothing and long, billowing, puffy sleeves, for example. They can catch in mixers and other appliances and they can catch fire pretty easily, as well. So can long, unbound hair. (Besides, it’s unsanitary.) I know you want to look nice when you serve that special dinner, but you’ll look a lot nicer unblistered and unburned with all your parts intact. My wife has a good solution; she slips out of her nice blouse and into her chef’s coat before she starts cooking the big dinner. Then she changes back when she’s ready to start serving. So you may not have a chef’s coat, but you get the idea.
And don’t forget the sensible shoes. I covered that in connection with knives, but spilling hot oil, water, or food on your bare tootsies can do more than mess up your pedicure.
Finally, keep your kitchen clean and orderly. Clutter and chaos are the catalysts for many accidents. And greasy, wet, food-spattered floors are a recipe for disaster. Wipe up spills immediately and just generally clean as you go. It makes clean-up easier and the whole kitchen safer.
Whether you’re laboring in an upscale four-star professional kitchen or in a down home four-by-four apartment galley, safety should always be on the menu.