For the most part, the greatest risk one takes when cooking a recipe is producing an inedible meal. That being said, cooking usually involves heat or fire, knives, and hot metal — all things that can potentially be dangerous. And whether you’ve experienced it yourself or heard tales from others, burns, cuts, and trips to the ER do happen. This causes, for some, a real fear of certain equipment or cooking methods, and in turn, the refusal to use them. I for one have yet to take out my mandoline from the cupboard since the Great Thumb Slice Disaster of 2010.
But with a healthy dose of caution and proper technique, there’s no need to fear your broiler or chef’s knife. And today, we’ll face some of the most dangerous-seeming kitchen tools and maneuvers, learn how to use them correctly and safely, and welcome them (and recipes that use them) back into your culinary rotation.
Fear #1: Cutting Yourself With a Knife
If you cook, chances are you’ll at some point experience a nick or a cut from a knife, which usually comes from moving too fast, cutting while distracted, or a myriad of other issues that can be easily prevented with proper handling. Meaning that, yes, while this tool is by nature sharp, it really doesn’t have to be dangerous.
Solution: Practice Proper Knife Skills
So what are proper knife skills? Safety starts with setup — i.e., having a sharp knife, and cutting ingredients on a cutting board stabilized with a rubber pad or a damp paper towel underneath. Then, make sure to hold the knife and hold the ingredient correctly, keeping your digits safe and intact.
When using a knife, start out slow as you practice your cuts, especially when learning how to handle tougher, odd-shaped foods like butternut squash. And finally, store knives safely and wash them with care — instead of putting knives haphazardly in the sink to wash later, place them (handle up!) in a cup to avoid dipping your hand into a soapy sink full of sharp blades.
Another important tip to avoid accidents and anxiety is to have a professional sharpen your knives for you, which only needs to happen once or twice a year. But if you’re ready to face the sharpening stone (and feel like a bad-ass chef), use this step-by-step guide to safely edge your knives. Then, use a steel to keep it sharp the rest of the time.
Fear #2: The Dreaded Mandoline
The mandoline is by far the most commonly feared cooking tool. (And with good reason.) The blades and teeth are extremely sharp, which enables them to make paper-thin slices and exact julienne cuts. And if you’re holding ingredients by hand, you can also quickly go from slicing a potato to slicing your fingers.
Solution: Use Your Finger Guard (and Go Slow)!
But don't fear the mandoline. Get both efficiency and safety by purchasing a model with a hand or finger guard and moving slowly and steadily.
Fear #3: Hot Pans
Whether you’ve had too little coffee or are juggling too many dishes at once, there’s potential to have a momentary lapse in judgement and grab the handle (or side) of a hot pan or baking sheet, without an oven mitt. I am especially guilty of this when I bake something in a skillet, place it on the counter to cool, and then forget moments later that it came straight out of the oven.
Solution: Set Out Oven Mitts Before You Start Cooking
One way to avoid this mistake is to keep oven mitts close by the oven at all times and, if you do bake something in a skillet, place the oven mitt over the hot handle once it is out of the oven, until it cools.
Also, choose oven mitts that cover the majority of your forearm and give you digit dexterity, to help stabilize your grip (especially when lifting heavier cookware) and prevent burns from the oven racks.
Fear #4: Pressure Cookers
Like many of my friends, I have a pressure cooker that sits unused in the cupboard. Why? I’m afraid of an explosion. Have you heard a pressure cooker release steam? It sounds like imminent disaster. But I’ve also watched plenty of people use them with ease, the only result being ridiculously tender food in under an hour. Not a bomb of potatoes and chicken parts. So clearly, it’s time overcome pressure-cooker anxiety and put this tool to work.
Solution: Use a Modern Model and Read the Instructions
To safely use a pressure cooker, start by purchasing a newer model; a hand-me-down might not have all the safety improvements that have been added to current versions (like locking handles and safety valves). So splurge a little for the sake of safety.
Then, read the instruction manual to understand how to properly clean and store your pressure cooker, keeping valves unclogged and gaskets from drying out. Choose a pressure-releasing method that’s best for your model and recipe. And finally, tip the pot away from you when removing the lid to avoid contact with the hot steam.
Fear #5: Deep Frying
The fear around hot oil is very real. With temperatures over 350°F, hot oil can sting, burn, and yes, cause fires if used improperly. But by applying caution and know-how, you can crisp and fry without any dangerous splatter.
Solution: Be Prepared and Stay Dry
First, make sure to have a fire extinguisher on hand. Then, remember that oil should never mix with open flames or water. Because the oil is highly flammable, if it comes in contact with the flames from your stove, it can quickly go from frying your chicken to frying your kitchen. To avoid oil spills, do not overfill your deep fryer or pot or skillet; leave space for the oil to rise when ingredients get added. And fry in small batches.
As for water, when it comes in contact with hot oil, it vaporizes into extremely hot steam (think: bad, bad burns). It can also cause oil splatter (more burns), and in the case of grease fires, cause the oil to splash and flames to spread (house burns). So be sure to keep water far away from oil and flames, drying off pots before adding the oil and drying off ingredients before frying them.
Next, use a thermometer to heat the oil to the the correct temperature and keep it consistent. Be sure to use a slotted spoon or tongs (no plastic!) to carefully lower, flip, and remove ingredients from the oil. Always let excess oil drip first into the pan before transferring it to a towel-lined plate or sheet (remember: no contact with flames). And if you want to further avoid triggering smoke alarms and lingering smells, simply take the frying operation outdoors.
When the frying is finished, let your deep fryer (or heavy pot or skillet) completely cool before cleaning. And check out USDA’s tips for more information on proper frying procedures.
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How'd we do? Did we hit most of the kitchen fears you have while cooking a meal? Tell us if there are others that hold you back!