City Kitchen Safety
How To Avoid and Treat Kitchen Accidents
A few weeks ago my sweet husband, Mark, volunteered to make dinner. While he will jokingly refer to himself as The City Dishwasher, in fact he is an able cook and would do more if I didn't monopolize our small kitchen. Among his specialties are steel cut oatmeal (that he toasts first in a tiny bit of canola oil) with fresh blueberries, fabulous bacon and perfectly cooked over-easy fried eggs that he serves with pan-cooked tomatoes, and salmon fillets poached in a fragrant court bouillon (his is made with water, white wine, a little lemon juice and lots of black peppercorns).
This particular dinner offer was for the salmon. I had been very busy with work so it was a gift to have the night off. But there was an unexpected cost to this dinner: when removing the fish from the pan, he spilled some of the boiling poaching water on the top of his foot resulting in a rather large third degree burn.
He is now fine. Thanks to good doctors and some patience on his part for all the special care one must give to treating a serious burn, he's gradually getting back to wearing shoes and his regular gym routine.
But the accident reminded me how dangerous our kitchens can be. In the case of my fish-poaching husband, the mistake he made was not so much the spilling. It was being barefoot.
When I went to culinary school, we all showed up for our first class, dressed in yet-to-be stained white chef jackets, eager to start making sauces. But in a case of delayed gratification, that first full day of class was instead spent on safety, including the prediction that by the end of the course, at least one person would head to the hospital either from a cut or a burn. And they were right. Someone did.
It doesn't matter if you're working at the flaming grill station in a steakhouse or in your small city kitchen, these are places where accidents can and will happen.
So at the risk of prompting you to have that same "I know this stuff" annoyed reaction as I had on my first day at The French Culinary Institute, here are tips for making your home kitchen a safer place and what to do if an accident happens.
Preventing Kitchen Accidents
- Wear shoes. Even a soft loafer or sturdy slipper will give you some protection against spilled hot water or oil and dropped knives. Mark commented to me after his accident that he had never noticed that I always wore shoes in the kitchen. I do.
- Sharp knives are safer than dull ones. There's a risk from having to bear down on a piece of chicken or a tomato only to have the blade slip. Sharp knives give you more control and control means fewer accidents.
- When walking around with a knife, hold it with a straight arm pointed downward, toward the floor (this is a lesson taught on the first day of cooking school). You don't need much imagination to think about what can happen if you walk around holding a knife at a 45-degree angle to your body and then someone unexpectedly comes your way.
- Put a damp paper towel under your cutting board to keep it from slipping.
- Whether sharpening or washing your knives, keep the blade pointed away from you.
- There's a basis for the investment adage, "don't try to catch a falling knife." It makes sense when playing the stock market and also when you're in the kitchen. Just stand back and let it drop.
- Don't use a damp kitchen towel to grab anything hot. The moisture will turn to steam faster than you can let go.
- Keep the handles of pots and pans turned inward on the stovetop.
- Don't overfill pans. And if you have one of those fancy back-of-the-stove pot fillers, remember that this faucet may let you fill the pan where it will be cooked, but you'll still have to eventually carry it to the sink to empty it.
- Oil and water do not mix. If you have an oil fire, don't try to extinguish it with water. Instead use salt, baking soda or if the fire is contained in a pot, cover it -- this will remove any oxygen and the fire will die. Having a fire extinguisher on hand is also a good idea.
- When you lift the lid from a steaming pot, open it away from you so that the steam escapes without giving you a face-full of scalding heat.
- When adding an item into a pan of hot fat, start in the farthest area of the pan to minimize spatters; the first addition will lower the hot fat's temperature and so anything else you add will spatter less.
- Keep water and bits of wet food like bits of chopped parsley off the floor to prevent slipping.
- Be conservative when using cutting appliances like blenders and food processors. Don't put your hands into one that is running and clean the blades cautiously.
- If you are using an oven-proof pan both on the stove-top and in the oven -- such as a cast iron pan for browning a steak then finishing it in the oven -- keep a potholder on its handle whenever it's out of the oven as a reminder to you that it's blazing hot. I learned this one the hard way.
Treating An Accident
These are the basic ways to treat a burn or cut. But I'm no doctor so use your sense and don't take any risks if something is serious -- get yourself to an emergency room. For lesser accidents:
- First degree burns redden the skin and may hurt briefly but aren't serious. Run the skin under cold water and treat the burned area gently.
- A second degree burn is more serious and more painful -- this is what you usually get from a scald. Treat it as a first degree burn with cold water or an ice bath. If a blister forms, do not pop it as the blister will help protect the underlying skin. Apply antibiotic ointment and keep it covered with a bandage.
- A third degree burn requires medical attention both immediately following the accident and also afterwards to prevent infection and to monitor the healing, including scarring (this was an issue with my husband's foot as the scar was at risk of interfering with his ability to walk).
- Wash with soap and water and use a clean cloth to apply pressure to stop bleeding.
- If the bleeding doesn't stop after a few minutes it may need stitches. Continue to apply pressure and make your way to an emergency room.
- Treat cuts with antibiotic ointment and keep covered with a clean bandage. If you're going to continue to cook with a cut, add a rubber glove or finger cover to the bandage to protect both your cut and the food you're making.
Kitchen Safety Trivia
The original design of the now traditional chef's jacket was motivated by safety. The long sleeves protect our arms and their little hairs from being scorched. The jacket is double-breasted so to protect the chest when leaning over a flame or into a blasting-heat oven. The neckerchief catches drops of sweat that can bead on your skin after hours of being in a hot restaurant kitchen. A kitchen towel is tied at the waist, under the apron's strings, to be handy for grasping hot pots. The hat keeps your hair from falling into food. The cuffs add protection to the hands and wrists.
And Mario's orange clogs? A bit of sartorial personality for one of the most important parts of any chef's work clothes: sturdy shoes that protect against a dropped pan or knife or yes, spilled boiling water.
My dear Mark's foot is on the mend. But he now jokingly tells anyone who will listen that he can't even boil water.