Kitchen Dangerous (part 2): Don’t Burn Yourself



This post is part of the Geeking Out series which presents data-driven information on food and farming, safety in the kitchen, practical science for cooks, cooking techniques and processes and other relevant nerdy stuff that every cook should know.  For the next few weeks, we will be covering topics from the chapter, Safety 101.

Read Kitchen Dangerous part 1

In part 1 of Kitchen Dangerous, we talked about how kitchen fires happen and how they can be prevented by following simple guidelines. While accidents happen, a little knowledge goes a long way into keeping them from becoming full blown disasters.  In this post, we’ll cover what to do when a fire occurs and how to avoid getting burned by frying.  But first…

Another near-disaster

A few years into my Boston life, I decided to make chicken stock.  Stock is made simmering bones with aromatics and vegetable trims in water over many hours.  One morning, I put my chicken bones, onion, garlic, vegetable trims, spices and water in a large stockpot, planning to have it simmer a couple of hours until after lunch, when I had to leave for work. 

On my way home later that evening, it suddenly occurred to me that I may not have turned off the burner prior to leaving the apartment.  I couldn’t be sure, but it was past 8pm.  If I hadn’t turned off the burner, that meant my stock would have been simmering more than 10 hours.  I was on the bus just a few blocks from my stop when panic set in.  I mentally reviewed my actions earlier in the day, scanning for a recollection of having turned off the burner as a deep dread slowly seeped into my chest.  I could find none.  In my mind’s eye, I could see fire trucks on my street and strained to hear wailing sirens. I imagined the flames licking through the triple-decker; my roommates’ accusing eyes.

As soon as I reached my bus stop, I bolted out, ran the block home while looking for signs of smoke, sirens or neighbors congregating in excitement. Finding no fire trucks nor burning embers drifting in the wind, and the street looking as normal as I had left it earlier in the day, I gave in to relief.  I hadn’t burned down the apartment nor my neighbors!  I arrived home to find barely 2 inches of liquid left in my stockpot. Whew! Thank goodness I had left it on the lowest burner setting but more importantly, that I had sufficient liquid, having earlier filled the stockpot three quarters full of water. It also helped that my stock pot was partially covered, which slowed the evaporation.   I had averted another catastrophe.  Had the liquid dried out, my stock pot and who knows what else could have burned. And my roommates would have hated me. 

Things to remember if you have a Kitchen Fire.  Also known as:

Kitchen Fire Guidelines

1. Never use water on a grease or electrical fire.  It will only cause the fire to worsen.  Want some proof? Check out this cool video from The Slow Mo Guys.

In this demo of what not to do, a pot of oil is heated over a propane burner until hot enough to burst into flames. A cup of water is quickly poured into it and the resulting explosion, which unfolds in slow motion, is a terrifying yet impressive pyrotechnic display. Awesome!

2. If you have an electrical fire and the device causing it is found, unplug device and shut off circuit breaker.

3. Fire needs oxygen.  If your fire is in the microwave or oven, do not open the door. The oxygen rush may cause the flames to worsen.

4. If your grease or electrical fire is small enough, you can extinguish 2 ways :

  • Pour regular baking soda over the whole fire. Use the whole box!

  • Use a fire extinguisher that’s rated for grease and electrical fires

5.  If your grease fire is small enough, you can also smother it.  For pans, use a lid or metal tray. You can also use heavy blankets or a piece of clothing.  Do not remove the lid/blanket/clothing until you are absolutely sure the fire has been extinguished.  Removing too early re-introduces oxygen and may cause flames to re-ignite.  If safe to do so, take the offending item outdoors and away from other flammable items. 

6. If the fire is too large or uncontrollable, don’t be a hero.  Get out, close the door behind you (to contain fire) and call for help!

You can find more comprehensive information on prevention and handling electrical fires on sites such as Fire Rescue 1.

Rule number three: If a fire is small enough, try putting it out using the Kitchen Fire guidelines mentioned. If too large or uncontrollable, don’t be a hero, call for help.

Don’t Burn Yourself!

As a young child, I would sometimes watch my mother cook, which she only did on Sundays and special occasions.  It was not so much that I had any interest in cooking.  I just wanted to be near her.  So if I wasn’t playing, I hovered around mom.  Except when she was frying.  Frying terrified me.  I must have been hit by enough oil projectiles to understand the pain of the burn.  I would watch mom carefully drop a whole fish into the wok, but as soon as it hit the piping hot oil and the frenzy of bubbles and sharp sizzles ensued, I would cower behind her or bolt out of the kitchen.

I was afraid of getting burned by oil splatter.   This fear was exacerbated when my mother had a frying accident and burning oil landed on a finger which donned a thick gold Taurus ring, her astrological sign. The finger blistered and swelled up so quickly she was unable to remove the band.  As the digit puffed up and the ring’s stranglehold steadily increased, it became clear she could lose her finger.  My mother was crying in agony as she was rushed to emergency.  She returned home many hours later much subdued but with fingers intact.  Her Taurus ring however, had been cut in two.  I resolved to myself,  I would never fry.

Many decades later I am doing all sorts of frying.  Most often it’s shallow pan-frying, which uses a small amount of oil, just enough to coat the pan’s surface.  But sometimes, like with fried chicken or panko shrimp, I deep-fry-- the process I once dreaded where food is partially to fully submerged in really hot oil of between 350-360°F.   Following many precautions, I had finally learned to overcome my deep seated fear. I even teach an Asian Stir Fry class.  Oil splatter can still raise my adrenaline level, but I’ve since learned a trick or two to minimize painful incidents.  Looking back, there are a few things my mom could have done differently (had the cooking science been clear or the gizmos invented) to avoid her accident.

Rule number four: Learn how to Minimize Oil splatter and avoid burns when Frying

1.     Remove excess moisture from food before frying. Oil and water don’t mix.  Oil splatter is caused by water moisture evaporating in very hot oil, shooting up and taking some of the burning oil with it.  Remember the Slow Mo Guys video earlier?  Oil splatter is a micro-mini version.   This is why it’s important to blot up (I use a paper towel) as much moisture as possible from food before frying.  Dredging or lightly coating in flour is another way to sop up excess moisture. 

2.     Gently slide in or drop food close to oil to avoid a splash and quickly withdraw hand

3.     Use tongs or long- handled cooking implement to drop food gently in oil

4.     Wear mitts, preferably the silicon ones (which are also liquid-resistant). The longer the better (mine reach to my forearms).

5.     Maintain a deep frying temperature of between 350-360°F.  Much higher temperatures are unnecessary, can overcook/burn your food and will cause more active oil splatters.  If you don’t have a thermometer, keep the heat to the lowest setting where the food you’re frying still has a nice active sizzle and you see tiny oil bubbles emanating from it.        

6.   Especially for deep frying, use a wok or other deep cooking pan so you can have some distance between the oil surface and the rim of your pan. You get more protection from the walls and it narrows the splatter trajectory.   

7.   Surface area matters.  Fry in batches so you can use the smallest pan that will fit your food.  A smaller surface area means less oil to splatter.

8.   Use a splatter guard or screen.  This is a handy round gizmo that you put on top of your frying pan to keep the oil splatter contained.  Not only does it protect you, it reduces the mess on stove and nearby surfaces.

My personal protective anti-oil splatter gear:  long mitts, long tongs (or spatula) and sometimes a large lid that makes a handy shield.  Believe me, you will feel less intimidated to fry when you are this well- armed.  And hopefully as confidence grows, you’ll find we all do better with a little sizzle in our lives.

Have you ever had a kitchen fire scare? Do you hate frying? Any fire safety tips to share?  Let us know.  We’d love to hear from you.

This is the end of part 2 of Kitchen Dangerous: Don’t Burn Yourself.  In part 3, we will cover More Hot Stuff .

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