Yeeeooowch! Kitchen hazards can be a painful learning experienceFlames! Sharp edges! Deadly bacteria! Sounds like the next Hollywood blockbuster, but you don’t need to leave the house to encounter this peril. These dangers lurk in every home. Anyone planning to enter a kitchen should read these cautionary tales closely and learn how best to escape the frightful trip to the emergency room or, worse, the dreaded call to an insurance agent.
Burn, baby, burn
We’ve all burned something in the kitchen. Perhaps it was intentional (like a flambé) or perhaps not (like toast). Tom Ries of Lusby, Md., burned something several years ago while preparing bratwurst and french fries for dinner: his whole house.
Ries was home alone grilling bratwurst outside and deep-frying french fries inside. “I put the oil on the stove and turned it on high because I was behind,” Ries said. “Don’t ever put oil on high.” He stepped outside to check the grill, and when he came back the stove was in flames.
“Flames from the stove popped around and started to burn the cabinets,” Ries said. “It was an old house; everything burned quickly.” He ran for his fire extinguisher two rooms over, and though it appeared full, it didn’t work. “The handle was broken. I called 911 just before the phone lines melted.” Fortunately, no one was hurt.
Upon hearing Ries’ story, Jennifer Kassel, a home economist at Dierbergs School of Cooking, and Nicole Shuman, culinary management instructor at L’Ecole Culinaire, both made the same suggestion: Never leave oil on the stove unattended. “It is always safer to use a deep-fat fry machine with a thermostat and cool-touch fry basket,” Shuman said. Tight-fitting lids, salt and baking soda will all help put out a grease fire. Never use water.
Kassel added, “If you have a fire extinguisher, make sure you know how to use it and check the expiration date.”
Margaret Onken of Kirkwood also had a stove-top fire recently while making lamb chops. She was in a hurry and grabbed a small saucepan to brown the chops. “I usually add a little wine,” Onken said, “but I didn’t have any so I decided to try Metaxa,” a Greek brandy with very high alcohol content. “I poured it over the chops and whoosh – the whole pan went up in flames.”
Kassel considered Onken’s fire and said, “If she had used a larger pan the flames may not have been so high. And unless you want something to flambé, take the pan off the stove or turn the stove off and then add the alcohol. Alcohol of any kind – wine or spirits – poured into a hot pan will flame.”
Shuman suggested not pouring the alcohol directly into the pan. “Measure out what you need because that flame could make its way up the free pour back into the bottle, at best causing a burn, at worst causing a small explosion.”
A small explosion is something the Ems family of Kirkwood experienced in the microwave. “My son was preparing Easy Mac,” Keri Ems said, “and he forgot to put water in the bowl before putting it in the microwave. We smelled something awful burning. The noodles were on fire; they burned onto the bottom of the bowl.” Both Kassel and Shuman said microwaving a bowl of dry pasta, like microwaving an empty container, is always a bad idea.
Both professionals also agreed that kids need supervision in the kitchen. “Go over preparation instructions repeatedly with kids,” Shuman said. “First show them, next time do it together, third time let your kid do it alone while reciting the instructions to you and then maybe they’re ready to cook alone.” Kassel suggested establishing a safety zone around the oven and stove. “Let your kids know they need to stay a certain distance [away] while food is being cooked. Try making a game out of it; every time you take a pot off the stove shout ‘freeze’ and then ‘unfreeze’ once the pot is in a safe place.”
Such a game might have saved Roseanne Ebert of Ridgewood, N.J., from second- and third-degree burns when she was a child. “I was around 2 and a half and was running around my grandmother’s small kitchen. My younger brother was in his high chair, not strapped securely, and was beginning to slide out. My grandmother was taking a pot of boiling-hot chicken soup off the stove and dropped it while rushing to grab him. I got doused in the soup.” Her severe burns required immediate medical attention.
Moving a pot to safety can be tricky. Sarah Vickers of University City was recently baby-sitting and cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen. She was unable to locate a potholder after she realized the cookware handle was hot. “I used a tea towel, which I thought was dry. When I grabbed the pot with the towel, I quickly realized the towel was damp, but as I was halfway to the sink there wasn’t much I could do,” Vickers said. She was unable to use her index finger for a week.
Burns such as these should be run under cool water until the pain subsides, then covered loosely with a sterile gauze pad. “If you must use a towel instead of a potholder, make sure it’s clean and dry,” Shuman said, “but I recommend silicone pads. They’re great for high temperatures, and if the silicone is damp, you won’t get burned.”
It cuts like a knife
Fires aren’t the only hazards in the kitchen. Knives and food processors can cause harm, too. Nancy Murray of St. Louis was crushing garlic for fajitas and decided to imitate the method she’d seen on a cooking show. “I placed my brand-new chef’s knife sideways over the garlic and slapped the flat side of the knife to crush the garlic. The blade flipped upward into my wrist,” Murray said. Home alone, she knew enough to make a tourniquet to stop the bleeding and lie down on the floor when she felt faint. “I called my husband from the floor, and he rushed me to the hospital,” said Murray. “I needed over 50 stitches. I never used that knife again; I invested in a garlic press.”
Kassel and Shuman both recommended trying knives before buying them. “Make sure it’s a knife you can control,” Kassel said. “A standard chef’s knife is 8 inches, but for women a 6-inch chef’s knife is more manageable. Always use the right-sized knife for the task.”
And don’t try to copy celebrity chefs at home. “You can’t hit a home run like Mark McGwire,” Kassel said. “So what makes you think you can be like Emeril?”
Ems, unlike Emeril Lagasse and other professional chefs, was cooking in flip-flops one evening and found out how dangerous that can be. “I was changing the blade on my food processor and dropped it on my foot,” Ems recalled. “It wouldn’t stop bleeding so my neighbor, a nurse, sent me to the emergency room. I needed eight stitches.”
“Wear shoes, wear shoes, wear shoes,” Shuman said. “Protect your feet so if you do drop something the damage will be minimized.” Kassel added, “Handle food processor blades with care. Always try to pick them up by the handle or the perimeter on the flat blades. Wash all your sharp stuff together at the end of cooking so no one gets cut by an unexpected blade in a sink of soapy water.”
If you do get cut in the kitchen, apply firm, direct pressure with a clean cloth and elevate the wound over your heart, if possible. Once bleeding stops, wash the cut with soap and water, apply antibiotic ointment and cover it with a clean, sterile bandage. If it’s still bleeding after five minutes, go to the emergency room.
Bacteria, viruses and germs – oh my!
Every kitchen is filled with biohazards; mine is no exception. I don’t wash my sponges or kitchen towel often enough, I eat 10-day-old deli meat, and I’ve been known to improperly handle raw meat. I guess I won’t be having many dinner guests for a while. Kassel and Shuman intervened on my family’s behalf and gave me suggestions on cleaning up my germy ways. “Kitchen towels should be thrown in the laundry after one day of use,” Kassel said. “Kitchen sponges can be dampened and microwaved for one minute or run through the dishwasher to kill germs.”
“Never reheat leftovers more than once,” Shuman said. “And heat them to 155 degrees for at least 15 seconds. Food temperature needs to stay below 41 degrees or above 135 degrees, otherwise bacteria are likely to multiply.”
“If your food has an expiration date, use it or toss it by that date,” Kassel said. “If it has a sell-by date, use it or toss it within a week of that date. Highly perishable food items, like a package of bologna, should be used within seven days of opening.”
Shuman added, “When possible, use color-coded cutting boards for different raw meats and veggies. If not, wash the knife and the cutting board between raw meat and veggies. Wash them in very hot water or put them in the dishwasher.”
And for cooling that large pot of stew, chili or soup, the pros recommended taking the hot food out of the pot and dividing it into smaller shallow containers. “Heavy-duty zipper bags are great for this,” Shuman said. “Make sure to use a permanent marker to put a date on the bag, too.”
It’s safe to go back in the kitchen now. But be prepared for anything. Kassel concluded, “A few minutes invested in planning and thinking through your procedure will save a lot of grief.”