How Not to Light Your Kitchen on Fire (and What to Do If One Starts)

Using baking soda to put out a grease fire

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Talk to any professional cook and they'll regale you with horrific tales of out-of-control flare-ups and third-degree burns. One time, for instance, I watched a restaurant coworker melt the skin off his face while trying to relight the pilot light on an oven—unfortunately, he didn't take into account how much gas had built up in it before he struck the match. Another cook standing five feet away had singe marks on his flame-retardant chef's coat. Luckily, my colleague healed fully.

When I asked Sasha what kitchen fire stories he had, he launched into several, but the highlight was probably the one about a huge plastic bucket of duck fat that was placed on a shelf too close to a stove. The plastic melted and a tidal wave of duck fat splashed down onto the cooktop, exploding into flames. Somehow no one got hurt, the fire was put out, and everyone managed to clean up the grease in time for service.

These stories are morbidly entertaining only in retrospect because they all had more or less happy endings, but, of course, there's nothing humorous about the potential dangers of fire. There are too many stories out there that don't end well, and no one should be laughing about that.

Instead, we should be prepared, especially because homes are usually much less well-designed to deal with fires than commercial kitchens, which are required to have aggressive fire-suppression systems and flame-retardant materials. According to a 2010 study by the National Fire Protection Association, "41 percent of home fires started in the kitchen area and caused 15 percent of the home fire deaths and 36 percent of the reported fire injuries."

I know more than the average person about how to deal with kitchen fires, but I'm in no way a fire-safety expert, so I called up the Fire Department of New York and spoke to Lieutenant Michael Kozo, a 15-year FDNY veteran, for his expert opinion.

One of the first things Kozo impressed upon me was just how little time we often have once a fire starts. "You have 30 to 45 seconds to put out a fire before it's out of your control," he told me. "It's not a lot of time." Given that, every second counts. If we panic, if we stand there frozen in uncertainty, or if we can't remember where to find the supplies we need to fight the fire, it'll be out of our hands before we know it.

Thinking through a fire scenario in your own home before the fire happens can help you use the little time you have and may make the difference between a flare-up and a life-altering blaze. Here's what to do, starting with preventative measures, moving on to trying to fight the fire yourself, and finally how to handle a situation that has spiraled out of your control.

How to Prevent Home Kitchen Fires

Install Smoke Alarms and Make Sure They Work

Technically, smoke alarms don't prevent fires, but they're still a preventative measure. Install them now; have your life saved later. You can read the FDNY's complete smoke-alarm tips here, but in a nutshell, you should be sure to get alarms that double as carbon-monoxide (CO) detectors, and make sure they're UL-rated, installed properly, and well-maintained.

Don't Leave Food on the Heat Unattended

According to Kozo, unattended cooking is one of the leading causes of kitchen fires. "We get it: Everybody has a hundred things going on—watching TV, someone's texting, there's someone at the door, you're watching the kids, and in the midst of this you're trying to cook. Next thing you know the food is on fire." I feel like he's describing my life as he rattles off this description of a life with too many distractions, but his point is clear. "If you're going to cook, then cook, but if you're going to do five other things, don't."

Then I ask Kozo about recipes that require overnight cooking in low ovens. There's always a risk, he says, but not nearly as high as unattended stovetop cooking or leaving home while the oven is on. "I wouldn't recommend leaving the oven on and going to work for the day. But if it's a recipe that calls for a slow cook and you're home, that's not as much of a problem."

Beware of Kids in the Kitchen

As a new parent, I'm as excited as the next person to get my kid in the kitchen as soon as possible. There's nothing wrong with that, but we need to make sure our enthusiasm for exposing our children to cooking doesn't get in the way of common sense. Kitchens are dangerous places and injuries can be severe, even deadly.

Kids, especially small ones, should never be underfoot when you're actively cooking, and pot and pan handles should always be turned away from you (knives should also be well away from the counter's edge). Aside from the immediate risk of burns if a child were to grab a pot full of scalding liquid and pull it down on themselves, there's also the added risk of a fire—spilled oil can instantly go up in flames.

Keep Flammable Materials Away From Heat Sources

A paper towel that's too close to a kitchen burner flame: dangerous

Cooking can get messy quickly, and countertop clutter easily builds. Be mindful, though, of what you have sitting close to the stovetop itself. A poorly placed paper towel or other flammable object can catch fire even if it isn't making direct contact with the flame.

Wear Appropriate Clothing

There's a time and place for breezy silk robes and feathery boas, but it's not in the kitchen. Loose clothes and excess fabric increase the risk they'll accidentally ignite. (Cooking naked, while very comfortable, is also risky, but in another way entirely.)

Similarly, clothes that are loose or have strappy elements are more likely to get snagged, accidentally pulling pots off cooktops. In the Serious Eats test kitchen, an unnamed staffer recently wore a very nice mechanic's jumpsuit. Only problem was the towel hoop on one of the jumpsuit's legs caught a cabinet door handle as this person walked past, ripping the door off its hinges.

Monitor Cooking Temperatures

Everyone knows about an oil's smoke point, but what's discussed less often is the much dramatically named flash point. (I feel like there had to be at least one '80s movie with that name [Editor's note: Yes, yes there was.]) The flash point, though, is a pretty scary thing—it's when the oil is hot enough to burst into flames all on its own. For this reason, you should always be mindful of the temperature of your oil when frying foods.

While you can spot-check your oil temp with a basic instant-read thermometer (see our review of affordable ones here), the easiest way to keep an eye our your oil temp throughout the cooking process is with a probe thermometer that clips onto the side of a pot. We've looked at many of the top models on the market and have shared our favorites at a variety of price points in our in-depth probe-thermometer review.

Clean Your Kitchen

There are a lot of reasons to keep your kitchen spic and span (we also have plenty of advice on how to do it). It discourages vermin, reduces the risk of cross contamination, and makes it just a little less flammable. Flammable, you say? Yup, that fine layer of sticky vaporized grease coating poorly maintained cabinets and equipment can help a fire spread even faster than it might otherwise.

Know Where Your Fire-Suppression Supplies Are, and Know How to Use Them

A box of baking soda, good for many things, including kitchen fire safety

The big no-no in most kitchen fires is to douse them with water, since the majority of cooking-related fires involve either grease or electrical appliances. Water will often only make a grease or electrical fire worse. Instead, you want to smother them, depriving the fire of oxygen and, hopefully, putting it out.

The best ways to smother a fire are to either cover the flames with a lid or baking sheet (especially if the fire is contained to a pan), or dumping a box of baking soda on top. It's a good idea to be aware of where the lids, baking sheets, and baking soda are in any kitchen, so you can grab them quickly without having to search frantically while the flames grow.

Another option is to use a fire extinguisher, but Kozo is careful to warn that a fire extinguisher will help only if you have the right kind and know how to use it. "A lot of maintenance goes into having one," he says. "Once a month you should be testing it to make sure the gauge on top is in the green to ensure you have enough pressure."

Kozo also says to make sure to buy an ABC fire extinguisher. The A stands for ordinary combustibles like wood and paper; B means it can be used for all sorts of liquid fires like grease and gasoline; and C means it's rated to combat electrical fires. Using the wrong extinguisher on a kitchen fire can make things much worse.

He also advises getting one that, like the smoke detectors, has a UL rating, which ensures the device meets minimum performance standards. The best size for home use is between three and five pounds, small enough to fit into most home kitchens, yet large enough to stand a chance of being effective.

Just as important is knowing how to use a fire extinguisher correctly. Stand too close and the force of the blast can spray flaming grease all over, spreading the fire more quickly. According to Kozo, you should stand "eight to 10 feet from the fire when using an extinguisher." He adds, "That's the beauty of an extinguisher—you don't have to get close."

When you do try to put out the fire with an extinguisher, the acronym to keep in mind is PASS: Pull the pin. Aim at the base of fire. Squeeze the trigger. Sweep side to side. "A lot of people don't even pull the pin," says Kozo. "They're in a panic, not trained, not familiar, and now they're picking it up and the kitchen is on fire."

Aiming at the base of the fire is particularly important. "We see it a lot: The fire starts to reach the cabinets, and people want to protect them, so they start trying to put the fire out near the cabinets. By the time they get to the pan, there's a good chance the extinguisher is empty." A three- to five-pound extinguisher gives you about eight to 15 seconds of action before it's spent, so you want to make sure you aim it at the source of combustion, not at the flames themselves.

Know Your Escape Routes

This may seem obvious—of course I know where the exits are in my home. But just last night I was chatting with my wife about fleeing our apartment in case of a fire, talking about the front door, the fire escape, and how we might be able to safely drop to the ground from our second-floor windows. Then she mentioned another escape point I hadn't even thought of. It's not that I didn't know of it, but it wasn't top of mind.

And that's really the point: In a high-pressure emergency, if something isn't well within your awareness, you may not think of it in the very moment you need to most. So consider your own home, its layout, and what your options might be. If the time ever comes, you want your response to be immediate and automatic.

When to Call 911

There's no easy answer here. I think we're all reluctant to dial 911 when we still think we have a situation we can handle, and if that's really the case, you may not need to call 911. Small fires can be dealt with without calling in the cavalry. But it's important not to let doubt about whether you can control the fire, or any potential embarrassment about overreacting by calling 911, get in the way of making that call.

"What I recommend, if the fire just got started and you're standing there witnessing it, is to pick up the phone and call 911, then grab the extinguisher and try to put it out. Worst case is we get there and you've already put the fire out," says Kozo. He goes on to point out that sometimes fires that seem to have been put out may still be a threat.

"There's always a possibility an ember could get behind your wall. Let us come and check it out. We have thermal-imaging cameras that detect heat. We'll point the camera at the wall, and if we don't see heat coming from behind the wall, we'll assume everything is okay. If we see heat, that's when we'll poke some holes in the wall. A few holes in your wall compared to your whole kitchen on fire . . ."

If the fire is clearly out of hand and you haven't called 911 right away, you should call as soon as you've evacuated and are safe.

How to Safely Put Out a Kitchen Fire

Putting Out Stovetop Fires:

  • If You Can, Turn Off the Heat Source: According to Kozo, you want to shut off a fire's source of energy as quickly as possible, as long as you can do so safely. This will depend on where the fire is and where your burner control knobs are. If you can't safely reach the knobs, don't try.
  • Smother With a Lid or Baking Soda: Try to carefully slide a lid or baking sheet over the fire or dump a box of baking soda on top, both of which will deprive it of oxygen and, hopefully, kill it.
  • Or Use a Fire Extinguisher: Stand eight to 10 feet away and remember PASS (Pull the pin, Aim at the base of the fire, Squeeze the trigger, and Sweep side to side).
  • Consider Escaping and Calling 911: If the fire is out of your control, it's time to run and call 911 (if you haven't already).

Putting Out Oven Fires:

  • If You Can, Turn Off the Heat Source: Just like a stovetop fire, if you can safely turn off the oven, you should do so.
  • Keep the Oven Closed: An oven is already a contained space, so keep the door closed and wait for the fire to burn itself out in there. Opening the oven door to check on it is the worst thing to do.
  • If Fire Escapes, Try Baking Soda or a Fire Extinguisher: If the fire gets outside of the oven, you can try to put those flames out with baking soda and/or a fire extinguisher.
  • Consider Escaping and Calling 911: Once again, the moment you realize the fire is bigger than you can safely handle, it's time to run and call 911 (if you haven't already).

What to Do When a Kitchen Fire Is Beyond Your Control

  • Grab Your Family and Run: If the fire is beyond what you can safely manage, time is critical to escape. Grab your family and run. Do not try to salvage any belongings; your life is at stake.
  • Close All Doors Behind You as You Flee: Fleeing a fire is terrifying, but this is a moment that you need to be mindful of one thing: Closing all doors behind you along your escape route. Some of the worst fire tragedies have happened because people ran but left doors open behind them, allowing the fire to spread throughout the building much more quickly. Closing doors physically isolates the fire, and it buys more time for others to escape and for firefighters to get it under control.
  • Alert Neighbors Only If You Can/Should: If you live in a building that is not fireproof (check with your building or municipality to find out how it's classified), your neighbors are at risk. If you can safely alert them, you should, but don't let that get in the way of your own safe escape or the urgent 911 call. If your building is fireproofed (in NYC, that's typically buildings higher than seven stories), you should not alert them, since the building is designed to prevent a fire from spreading; in this case, your neighbors are generally safer where they are.
  • Call 911: As soon as you're safe, call for help (if you haven't already).

Tips for Special Cooking Gear

Grills, Turkey Fryers, and Outdoor Cooking Equipment

Adding lit charcoal to a grill

Grills and other outdoor gear should, first and foremost, be used outdoors. Try to put the equipment on a level, noncombustible surface, with nothing combustible (buildings, tanks of gasoline, bales of hay) too close by. Turkey fryers should be used with extreme caution (see our guide here).

Always be mindful of how you build a fire in a grill. Despite years of professional experience, I almost lit myself on fire last summer. I was staying at a vacation rental with a charcoal grill, and the nearest store only sold self-lighting charcoal. I hadn't used the stuff in years and had forgotten just how volatile it is. After getting the initial briquettes lit, I tipped the bag of charcoal over the fire to add more briquettes. The lighter-fluid vapors in the bag ignited from the heat of the charcoal below, and before I had time to react, I was holding a flaming sack of briquettes. I dropped the whole thing on the grill and nervously waited for the six-foot inferno to calm down. It wasn't the stress-reducing vacation I'd been imagining.

Propane Tanks

Demonstration of safe distance between propane gas tank and turkey fryer set up

I have what I would describe as an irrational fear of propane tanks. I can't help but imagine a spark backtracking up the tube and into the tank, setting the whole thing off like a bomb. Kozo reassured me that there's nothing to fear. "There are more safety features on those things than ever before. In order for the flame to make it back into the tank and blow it, a lot of things have to go wrong."

Still, it's important to follow best practices to reduce the risk of an incident. In addition to using well-maintained hoses, there is a recommended sequence for shutting off a propane tank when you're done using a gas grill. "We recommend turning the tank off first, before turning off the grill burners," says Kozo. That way any remnant gas in the tube can burn off, helping to bleed the line. If you shut off the burners first, that tube connecting the tank to the grill remains full of gas, which could cause a problem later.