One of my culinary school instructors used to start each class by yelling: "Safety doesn’t happen by accident!" He’d come around the kitchen to remind us to use proper knife technique and to be careful when using a can opener to avoid cutting ourselves, tell us how to use our sleeves for protection from burns, and encourage us to work mindfully to avoid making a mistake in haste. These were some of the most boring lessons in culinary school, but my instructor’s repetitive instructions have stayed with me, almost like earworms, annoying, but catchy: "Be aware; take care!"
Accidents happen in home kitchens, too, of course. And there are even more potential dangers if small children or pets are underfoot. But the same rules apply: It’s better to avoid injury than worry about how or when to rush to the emergency room. Preparation and focus is everything. Here, we’ve collected all of our best advice for avoiding injury while in the kitchen. Some of it may seem very obvious, but, like my chef-instructor used to say, "If you don’t want to get hurt, stay alert."
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Start With a Safe(r) Kitchen
Everyone’s kitchen is different, and will have different potential dangers, so know your kitchen. Here’s where to start:
- Ensure that your smoke alarm and CO alarm are operational and up to code.
- It’s best to use grounded outlets for all kitchen appliances.
- There’s no universal rule, but check appliances of all sizes after 10 years to ensure their buttons, knobs, and switches are in working order, and their electrical wiring is intact.
- Do your cabinet doors and drawers close automatically—thereby staying out of the way as you cook—or stay open and in the way? If they stay open, make a mental note to be consistent about closing them after use to avoid bumping into or tripping over them.
- Does your stove have a ventilation hood over it? If not, can you open a window to help keep the kitchen well-ventilated?
Finally, before you start to cook, it’s always a good idea to make sure your work area is clean. A good friend of mine who rarely cooked used to use her kitchen as extra storage space. Drawers were full of paperwork, and countertops were cluttered with pill vials and odds and ends. When she started cooking more regularly, I told her all that clutter had to go!
- Clean and dry counters prevent unwanted cross contamination.
- Clean and dry floors ensure you don’t slip.
- Make sure your stovetop is clean and clear before using it, and make sure your oven is empty and clean before you turn it on.
Watch Kids and Pets Carefully
In general, it’s best to keep kids and pets out of the kitchen while you’re cooking, especially if you’re making something elaborate and don’t have time to keep an eye on small visitors. Of course, cooking with your children can be fun and valuable. Just make sure you're both paying close attention, especially when handling anything sharp or hot.
"My friend's cat loves to leap into the cabinets and fridge whenever there is an open door," Maggie says. "This can be a dangerous interruption especially if you're dealing with hot stuff. I've also tripped over people's dogs hovering underfoot."
Dress for the Occasion
I once made the mistake of wearing shorts in the kitchen while making chicken stock, failing to consider what could happen if it spilled or splashed. It did, and I spent most of the rest of that day running cool water down my legs and feet. The burn wasn’t unmanageable, but it could've been a lot worse. There’s a reason restaurant cooks and chefs have a uniform: Long pants and long sleeves serve as protection; a hat or hair covering prevents hair from getting in the food; and sturdy, covered-toe, slip-resistant shoes keep your feet safe. You needn’t wear a uniform at home, but we do recommend wearing pants and a shirt.
As our culinary director Daniel, says, "Don’t cook naked! ... or do, but be careful." And definitely think about wearing shoes—just in case you drop a knife, kitchen shears, or a pot of boiling soup.
Also keep in mind that loose, drapey clothing, long necklaces, rings, and loose hair are all going to make cooking much more difficult. They might also catch on fire, get caught on something sharp, or fall into the food you’re cooking.
Cooking uses all the senses, including sound, so we don’t recommend cooking while wearing headphones. But if you’re wearing headphones, wireless or not, make sure they’re secured so they don’t fall into whatever you’re cooking, or get caught on knobs or handles.
Don’t Start Fires
Whether you have a gas stove or electric, the kitchen is a highly flammable area: "I'm ashamed to admit just how many smoldering towels and potholders I've had to douse in the kitchen sink over the years. Thankfully, I developed much safer habits in culinary school," EIC Niki says.
We covered fire safety at length in our extensive guide on how not to set your kitchen on fire. In general, though, keep the following tips in mind:
- Don't let flammable things—such as any kind of fat or cooking oil, any kind of paper or packaging, or any sort of aerosol spray cans—sit near an open flame or heat source.
- Don’t leave food on the stove or in the oven unattended. Set timers to help you remember when to check on food in case you have to leave the kitchen for any reason.
- Know where your fire suppressant materials, such as baking soda, are. If you don't own a fire extinguisher, get one; if you already do, make sure it’s in working order and that you know how to use it.
Avoid Cutting Yourself
Handle Knives and Other Blades With Care
The Serious Eats office can boast six severed fingertips and two trips to the ER for stitches in the last few years—and many of us are pros! For home cooks, a knife is is probably the most important tool in a kitchen, and learning the best way to handle knives is the easiest way to avoid cutting yourself. It might seem paradoxical, but keeping your knives sharp is one of the best ways to avoid cutting yourself. Dull knives can slip on food or require the use of more manual force while cutting, and both situations are fast tracks to an accident.
- Store your knives safely. Knives should be kept clean and dry in storage, with the blades protected, not loose within a drawer.
- Don’t walk with knives pointing out—hold it at your side, pointing down—and never run with a knife in your hand.
- Don’t leave a knife dangling over the edge of a cutting board or work surface.
- Never leave a knife in the sink, particularly with other dishes. Not only is it bad for the blade, but anytime a knife is accessible to your hands but visually obscured, your chances of an injury skyrocket.
- Stabilize your cutting board so that it is not wobbly and it does not slip beneath you as you cut.
- Never cut toward yourself.
- Learn basic knife skills—especially how to hold a knife and the food that you’re cutting—to avoid slips and cuts.
- Make sure you're using the appropriate knife for each job before you start.
"Always remember that a knife is a slicing tool," Sho advises. "If you are trying to use your weight or brute-force your cut, you're using your knife in a way that has a high chance of ending with a trip to the ER—like the time I filleted my left index finger while trying to strip the skin off a slab of pork belly. Rather than making small slicing cuts to separate the skin from the fat cap, I tried to simply exert more pressure and push the knife through the fat—which it did, traveling through the pork fat and skin and then on through my finger's skin, fat, and flesh, exposing a length of bone that took 18 stitches to sort of fix."
Finally, a word of warning when cleaning your knives—and this goes for anything with a blade—always wash them with blades facing away from you, as a sharp knife can slice through a kitchen sponge.
Don't Underestimate Can Openers
Can openers, whether manual or electric, are frequently blamed for cuts because most of them leave sharp metal edges in their wake. Always rinse off the tops of cans you plan to open with a can opener, and follow the manufacturers instructions for use. This always includes taking care when prying a can's lid off, so that neither the jagged edges of the can nor the lid get caught on your skin. And when you're done with it, be sure to dispose of the can and its lid safely. Depending on the model of can opener you have, you may be able to slide the lid inside the can after rinsing, and recycle it with no sharp edges exposed.
Don't Cut Corners With Mandolines
Mandolines are slicing tools designed for speed and accuracy. And most of them are very, very good at what they do. Unfortunately, due to their combination of ease and speed, they’re also exceptionally adept at cutting off fingertips. I got my step-father a mandoline as a gift a few years back, and after using it for a week he called me and asked, "Why did you get me a machine that cuts off fingers and thumbs?"
So, as every manufacturer and countless others have said: Use the hand guard or wear a metal mesh glove when using a mandoline. And, get comfortable with leaving that last nub of carrot, fennel, or union unsliced—you can always save it for stock.
Use Appliances With Blades Safely
It’s common sense, but worth a reminder: Do not put your hand near a moving blade! A less obvious reminder is to also keep your fingers away from a stationary blade, particularly when it's still connected to electricity. "I was using an immersion blender to make some puréed spinach for tinting my fresh pasta and wound up with a bunch of greens trapped in the base of the blender," says Niki. "Without giving it much thought, I swiped the spinach pulp out with my fingertip—just as muscle memory kicked in and I turned the immersion blender on with my other hand. I had to get about eight stitches and I still don't have sensation in that fingertip. The strangest thing is that after it happened, I heard from other folks who had done the same thing, so this cautionary tale does actually extend beyond yours truly."
The moral? Always unplug blenders, food processors, or any other type of chopper before going near the blade. As with kitchen knives, take care when washing the blades of your appliances, as they can be sharp enough to slice through a dish washing sponge. Finally, be sure to store the blades within the bowl of the appliance or carefully covered.
Handle Breakable Glassware or Dishes Gently
Be careful when washing dishes to avoid slipping and dropping anything breakable. If you have a hard stone or ceramic sink, consider getting a rubber mat to help prevent breakage in case you drop a glass while washing or rinsing. “I have a friend who was washing a large serving platter in her sink and it broke on her hand,” Daniel says. “Her laceration was so bad it cut an artery in her hand and she had to be airlifted to the hospital.”
Always check that a dish is oven- or microwave-proof before subjecting it to heat, and be very careful if you leave glassware near your cooking or prep area, as it could fall and break, and shards of glass could get into the food. And while we're on the topic, never ingest food that may contain even the smallest shard of broken glass.
How to Avoid Burning Yourself
First, don’t start a fire. Or, if you do, know how to contain it, and when to call 911. While the occasional burn is virtually inevitable when you’re a serious home cook, there are some basic precautions you can take to minimize the frequency of burns and likelihood that they’ll be serious if or when they do occur.
Whether you have a gas or electric stove, it’s important to remember that it can get very, very hot. Even if you’re only using one burner, depending on the type of stove, the whole thing can get hot enough to burn you with one touch. This is especially true of the small stoves that you’re likely to find in less spacious kitchens.
No matter what kind of stove you have, never leave a burner on high heat unattended. “One time I came home and a pan was preheating on the stove, and my husband was asleep on the couch…” Operations Manager Kristina says. “He's unfortunately done it again a few times since then, never asleep, but let this be a lesson to never preheat pans and walk away!” Other stovetop tips:
- Never, ever walk away from oil or sugar as it's heating.
- If you’re making a stew or soup or something that needs to cook for a long time at a low temperature, set a timer so you remember to check it often, and set it on a back burner, out of the reach of kids and pets.
If you have a stove with faulty pilot lights, take care when lighting them. Visually confirm when a burner is lit, and that it remains lit when you’re altering the heat, as the flame can sometimes go out when on a very low setting. Don’t leave the gas on for longer than 10 seconds if it’s not lighting; turn it off briefly to allow it to disperse before trying again. Similarly, you should regularly check that the stove’s knobs are in the off position so they don’t leak gas into the air.
Pots and Pans
Everyone's pots and pans are different. Hot pots can cause surface burns, hot liquids that splash can cause more complex burns, and hot steam can burn so bad. “One of my worst burns ever was a steam burn, just from lifting a lid off a boiling pot of water. The steam shot up and engulfed my hand, and it left the weirdest burn pattern where the skin on the back of my whole hand was burned on the downward side of every vein and bone, but not on the upward side, since the raised topography of my hand created little protected zones just above each ridge and bump,” Daniel says.
- Some pot handles get hot and some don't; know your equipment, and always keep a potholder handy.
- Be attentive to handles and how they’re positioned; don’t leave them jutting out or in contact with other hot vessels, where they can get knocked into or burn small children.
- Open lids away from you, and watch out for steam when doing so.
- Don't forget that the pan on the stovetop was just in the oven.
- Always, always, always use a folded up kitchen towel or pot holder when grabbing something hot.
- Make sure your kitchen towel or pot holder is completely dry before using it to lift something hot. Anything wet will conduct heat rather than blocking it, potentially causing you to drop a vessel and/or burn your hands.
Fear of frying is incredibly common. Unfortunately, letting that fear govern how you fry can cause accidents. First and foremost, don’t drop your food into the oil from as far away as possible. Though it may seem that'll keep your fingers safe, it'll actually cause the hot oil to splash or create violent bubbling, which can easily burn your skin. Instead, always carefully lower food, such as chicken cutlets, into hot oil or any hot liquid as close to the oil’s surface as possible and away from you. If you’re pan frying or deep frying, remember that the oil level will rise when you add ingredients, and assess the volume accordingly—if hot oil overflows out of your pan, it can quickly catch on fire.
While Baking, Roasting, or Using the Broiler
Ovens are great because they contain their heat in a neat little box. On the other hand, everything you put in them will get incredibly hot, so beware.
- Position your oven shelves prior to heating the oven, and make sure your baking pans or dishes will fit in the current oven configuration. It's a lot easier and safer to adjust these things before the oven is hot.
- Watch your wrists and forearms when reaching into and out of the oven, as the ovens door and edges will all be ripping hot.
- When baking pies or cakes, bake them over a lined sheet tray to avoid letting anything drip onto the bottom of your oven, where it can collect, burn, and possibly catch fire. This goes for meat roasts, too, which can release large amounts of fat that can run off and onto the bottom of the oven, or even collect in the pan and get hot enough to catch on fire.
- Take care when using your broiler. When a direct heat source, whether it’s a flame or an electric conductor, is just a few inches from food, it will cook quite quickly. Never leave food unattended in the broiler.
When Using Baking Dishes
Like pots and pans, metal oven vessels will always get hot in the oven. Depending on their thickness and whether they’re reinforced, they can also warp when going from extreme hot to cold or the other way around. Glass baking dishes are made from tempered glass, which is designed to withstand a range of temperatures. That said, depending on the type of tempered glass they’re made from, glass baking dishes can break under certain conditions. This is also true of some earthenware and ceramic dishes. "Thermal shock from cold to hot and hot to cold are big risks," says Gritzer. Avoid putting hot-from-the-oven baking dishes on cold or wet surfaces, and vice versa.
When Using Appliances With Heating Elements
Always be sure that the venting hole in your pressure cooker is clear of obstructions before closing your pressure cooker lid. This is a warning included in every pressure cooker's instructions, and for good reason: If that venting hole is obstructed, pressure will build to unsafe levels in the cooker, which will trigger the appliance's primary safety measure: namely, the rubber safety gasket will blow and all of the super hot liquid in the cooker will be ejected through a tiny hole, which means it'll spray all over your kitchen. And that's if you're lucky enough to not be in its path.
"This happened to me about two weeks ago when I was making chicken stock," Sho says, "And aside from the truly terrifying sound it made, it made an apocalyptic mess of my kitchen. I had to clean my countertops, my floors, the space behind my oven... I even had to clean my ceiling. Luckily I was about 10 feet away when the gasket blew. If I, or god forbid, my kid or wife had been standing within six feet of the cooker, we almost certainly would have sustained some serious burns."
Finally, don't forget that microwaves can make dishes very, very hot, and if they’re covered, the steam underneath will be burning hot, too, so take care.
Although the kitchen can be dangerous, it’s easy to learn how to practice operational and cooking techniques that will keep you in one piece, unharmed, and out of the ER. Just remember what my culinary instructor used to say: "Better to be safe than sorry!"
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