Cooking Requires All Your Attention
As I write this, it's cooking season. People cook more around the fall and winter holidays than at any other time of the year, with Thanksgiving being the biggest cooking day and also, according to the National Fire Protection Association, the peak day for cooking-related fires. Overall, the association cites unattended cooking as the leading cause of kitchen fires.
The NFPA says that cooking-related fires are the cause of 46% of home fires that resulted in 19% of the home fire deaths and 44% of the injuries. Two-thirds of cooking fires started with the ignition of food or other cooking materials. Ranges or cooktops accounted for the majority (62%) of home cooking fire incidents. Unattended equipment was a factor in one-third of reported home cooking fires and half of the associated deaths. And frying dominates the cooking fire problem.
And here are some statistics from Liberty Mutual Insurance that help explain the NFPA figures: Forty-Two percent of the people the company surveyed said they had left the kitchen to talk or text on the phone, and 35 percent went to use the computer to check email while food was cooking. Nearly half said they have left the room to watch television or listen to music.
Wow. That's it: just “wow.” I can't bend my brain in the direction it would take to be able to light a fire in a room and then walk into another room to do something else. But obviously people do it every day. And, like the real life crash dummies who text and drive, they wind up paying for it and, in many cases, also charging somebody else for their stupidity. I read not long ago about an imbecile who got liquored up and tried to cook. After he passed out drunk, his kitchen caught fire and killed him. And it also cost seven other families in the eight unit apartment building their homes.
Cooking is like driving a car or flying an airplane: it requires all your attention. You are literally playing with fire. Personally, I'm not comfortable lighting the oven and walking out of the room, much less turning on a stove top burner and walking away. I'm even leery of slow cookers: intellectually, I understand they are designed to be left unattended, but viscerally, I find it hard to do. You can call me paranoid, but it beats calling the fire department.
So, Number One fire safety rule is stay in the kitchen while you're cooking. That doesn't strictly apply to all forms of cooking, I suppose: obviously, if you're baking a cake or roasting a turkey or simmering a pot of stock, it's okay to leave the room for a few minutes now and then. You're not going to stand there constantly for three hours watching your bird cook. But staying in the room and remaining focused on task is vitally important if you're frying something.
As noted in the NFPA statistics, frying dominates the cooking fire problem. I honestly think people ought to have a license to fry. Or at least they should be required to take a safety class. I mean, you have to take Driver's Ed before you can drive a car and you have to take hunting safety classes before they'll let you go out and take potshots at Bambi. Shouldn't people be obliged to have some basic knowledge pounded into their heads before they're given matches and flammable substances? You can't just rely on common sense because so many folks are so uncommonly senseless. How many houses or garages were burned down in your community last Thanksgiving by idiots with turkey fryers?
Here's some basic knowledge for safe frying:
Don't overfill your pot, pan, or fryer with oil. Most deep fryers made for home use have a “max fill” line etched into the metal. Don't ignore it. If you're not using a dedicated deep fryer, use a heavy, deep pot, like a Dutch oven, or, for shallow frying, a heavy, deep skillet – cast iron is best – and make sure you leave plenty of room for whatever food you're cooking. Cold oil should never come anywhere near the top of the pot or pan because hot oil is going to bubble up when you add food to it. It's a law. It's going to happen. And if you have too much oil in the pan, it's going to bubble over. And when it bubbles over, 99.9% of the time, it's going to catch fire. Grease or oil fires are incredibly dangerous because the fire's fuel source is a liquid that can splash and spread and keep burning as it adheres to surfaces, clothing and skin.
I have a fire extinguisher right next to my stove. It's the best option if a fire breaks out. If you can get a lid on whatever's burning, that usually does the job. Salt will knock down most cooking fires. So will baking soda. Flour, however, will not. Counterintuitive as it seems, water is seldom a good solution to extinguishing a cooking fire. If you have an electric stove, it's not a real swift idea to throw water on it and if you're dealing with a grease or oil fire, water will just rapidly and randomly spread the flames around. And the first thing to do with any cooking-related fire is turn off the heat source. You can't put out a fire that's being constantly fed from a gas jet or an electric coil.
The worst thing you can do if a fire breaks out in your kitchen is panic. I was in the kitchen once when some butter leaked out of a pan in the oven and caught the interior of the oven on fire. Smoke was billowing out of the oven and flames shot out when the door was opened. Well, in the first place, don't open the door! Turn off the oven and the oven itself will contain the fire. That's what ovens do. But instinct says “open the door and see what's going on in there.” And while other people in the room were jumping around and yelling the obvious – FIRE!! – I grabbed a box of salt and threw a couple of handfuls on the flames. No more fire. I would have gone for the extinguisher next if I had needed to, but by keeping my wits about me, I was able to put out the fire. And I saved the dish.
Back to frying safety, watch your oil temperature. You want it to be a maximum of somewhere between 375°F and 400°F. Use a thermometer and don't rely on “wait until it smokes.” When oil starts smoking, it's ready to combust. Using oils with a high smoke point, like canola, peanut, safflower, or sunflower oils, can help, but even they will burn if overheated.
Don't drop wet food into hot oil. It's a boil over waiting to happen. Dry your food as much as possible before dropping it in to fry. And be extra careful with frozen food, too. Ice crystals are just frozen water.
If you're frying something on a stove top in a pan or a skillet, keep the handle turned in. A quick bump to an outward facing handle is all it takes to overturn a pan and potentially start a fire.
And, of course, don't leave a fryer or frying pan unattended.
While frying and hot oil are the most egregious offenders when it comes to cooking-related fires, there are other factors to consider and avoid.
Keep your kitchen neat, clean, and organized, particularly around the stove. Having junk piled around your stove, especially flammable junk like paper, plastic, and cloth, is a good way to make the acquaintance of your local fire department. Fires start all the time when dish towels, potholders, and oven mitts are left too close to burners. A woman in the town where I live burned down her kitchen when she turned on the “wrong” eye of her electric range and caught a bag of potato chips she had lying on the stove on fire. I hate an electric cooktop for just that reason: it's way too easy to turn on the “wrong” burner. We used to keep those decorative burner covers around until we toasted about the tenth set of the damn things and said, “no more.” It's also smart to keep heat-producing appliances like toasters and toaster ovens, coffee makers, etc. away from walls and curtains.
And keep your stove top clean. Gross as it sounds, I've seen stoves covered with caked-on grease. I couldn't keep a kitchen like that, but them I'm a clean freak. However, it shouldn't take a freak to figure out that if you've got potentially flammable crap coating your cooking surface, sooner or later it's gonna go up in flames.
My mother used to be horrible about “drying” things in her oven. She'd throw stuff like wooden spoons in there “to dry.” I'd come along and flip on the oven and....... I can't tell you how many wooden spoons I cooked over the years. Tupperware does not do well in a 350°F oven, either. Bottom line: don't store stuff in the oven.
I mentioned the drunk guy. Drinking and cooking don't go together any better than drinking and driving. Same if you're taking/doing sleep-inducing drugs, or if you're just really, really tired. Statistics show that 42 percent of victims of cooking fires died in their sleep.
Keep your smoke alarms in good working order. Check and replace the batteries regularly. And don't get aggravated and yank the batteries when the poor thing does its job and goes off while you're smoking up the kitchen. Nearly a third of the people surveyed by Liberty Mutual reported having intentionally disabled their smoke alarms while cooking. Reposition the unit, if necessary or look for one made specifically for kitchen use. It's still gonna start shrieking if you incinerate a steak or something, but at least it won't go off while your trying to make toast. I did both and added an exhaust fan for good measure. Now I have to really try to make my smoke detector scream.
Avoid overloading your electrical outlets, especially in older kitchens. Back in Grandma's day, about the only electrical appliance in the kitchen was a toaster. They didn't wire older houses to handle microwaves and toaster ovens and food processors and blenders and.....you get the idea. And heat-producing appliances like toasters, fryers, coffee pots, waffle irons, electric frying pans and the like all come with specially rated cords. Don't use a common extension cord with a heat-producing appliance. Replace any frayed or cracked electrical cords immediately and never use an appliance or extension cord with a cracked, loose, or damaged plug.
Going back to those NFPA statistics for a minute, the association says clothing was the first thing ignited in less than one percent of fires, but that clothing ignitions led to eighteen percent of home cooking fire deaths. So catching your clothes on fire is not very common, but when it happens, it's usually very bad. There's a reason cooks and chefs dress the way they do and while I'm not saying you have to don a chef's jacket to cook a burger in your home kitchen, you shouldn't wear loose, froofy clothing with long, puffy sleeves and such. You might look really pretty and fashionable floating around the stove in your flowing organza party dress but if you drag one of those silky sleeves through a lit burner, you're gonna make a lovely candle. My wife and I frequently cook in other people's homes during the holidays and we always wear something practical to cook in and bring something nicer to change into for the meal and socialization that follows. Sometimes it's a pain but it's never as painful as becoming a human torch.
And finally, keep the kids and the pets out of the kitchen while you're cooking. I'm a big proponent of teaching kids to cook, and that's one thing. But having them running and playing in the kitchen is quite another. Trust me: been there, done that. I was about seven and was chasing my cousin through the kitchen. My aunt was in violation of the previously mentioned “handles in” rule, and when my cousin and I went barreling through, I clipped a frying pan handle with the top of my head and sent the contents of the pan flying everywhere. Fortunately, nobody got burned and nothing caught fire. But don't chance it. Same goes for pets. Besides being unsanitary, pets around cooking are unpredictable. Fido or Fluffy jumps up on you or in your path while you're working at the stove and it's probably not going to end well.
If a fire starts in your kitchen, you can try to put it out but don't be an idiot. If you've got something burning in a pan, throw a cover on it or throw baking soda or salt at it. If the fire is a little bigger, hit it with a fire extinguisher, remembering the PASS procedure: Pull the pin, Aim low at the fire, Squeeze the trigger, Sweep the flames from side to side. If that doesn't work, call 911 and get out of there. Once a fire leaves a pan and starts climbing the curtains and the walls, there's not much you can do about it and you'd be astonished by how quickly ceilings and wood cabinets go up in flames. You can probably control a small fire yourself, but leave the big fires to the people with the big trucks and hoses.
Enjoy cooking season, my friends, and stay safe.