Cooking Safety

The Chief’s Corner

Fire Safety Tips from James Levine,
Fire Chief of the Upper Saddle River Fire Department and
20 year veteran of the New Jersey fire service.

No pun intended here, but let’s deal with a very hot topic:  Cooking Safety.  Though many a false alarm is inadvertently triggered by the smoke from an unattended pot on the stove or roast in the oven, the prime cause of fires in homes and of home fire injuries is COOKING!  OK, so we’re all not Emeril Lagasse.  But that doesn’t mean we should not take certain precautions whenever we cook in the home.

By now I think you probably know I like to lay down some ground rules.  That’s the way we play this game- by elucidating some key safety rules to follow.  So what need we be mindful of here?  We have to realize that most cooking equipment fires start with common household items that are accidentally ignited:  food, cabinets, grease, curtains, paper towels, newspapers, plastic bags… now you have the picture, I think.  Let’s rule number 1 down right now:  Do not allow ignitable items to be near or on cooking equipment.  This is just common sense, right?  Let me just say that apparently “Common Sense” is just not so common these days.

OK, what next? This, too, you would think is common sense, but let me tell you how many fires we see that result from unattended cooking.  This is the leading cause of home cooking fires.  So let’s state rule number 2:  Never leave food cooking on the stovetop unattended and keep a watchful eye on what you cook inside the oven.  OK, so does that mean you can carefully standby for a couple of easy over eggs, yet can leave the oven on all day cooking that Thanksgiving turkey while you watch the football game at the local high school?  NO, I said, “watchful eye” and I mean it.  Many a fire can start from grease ignited within the oven, as well as food on the cook top.  It’s a good practice to try to be Emeril, even if you don’t have his talent, at least make an attempt by staying in the kitchen as much as possible while you cook. Or you could just run the risk of having a big red truck with lights and sirens show up for that holiday meal.  Failing this, there’s always order out.

Cooking can be dangerous.  We’ve all gotten burned at some point– boiling water, splattering oil, etc. It’s all just so enjoyable to show the battle scars of preparing the family meal, right?  Let’s realize that the cooking area is a danger zone and that means we need to keep others out of it, especially children and pets.  No doubt, my wife has thrown me out of the kitchen on many an occasion as I’m “just tasting”, but she is right, it is distracting.  No cook can afford to lose concentration and get burned or burn someone else when handling a hot pot or pan.  OK, here it is, rule number 3:  Enforce a “danger zone” of 3 feet or more around the stove, keeping EVERYONE except the cook out of it.  This is for the wellbeing of you, the kids, the pets and everyone else.

Now let’s get cooking… In the heat of battle we realize that the lasagna is turning brown and it has to come out of that oven.  Do we want to risk taking it out with a wet towel or wet oven mitt?   Absolutely not!  This is asking for a painful scalding steam burn.  And let’s not invite disaster by wearing loose clothing while cooking.  Now what do we do if a fire does “break-out” on our cook top?  Let’s put on a dry oven mitt and smother the flames by carefully placing a lid on the pan or pot.  Then we turn off the burner and keep that lid on until it is cool.  Here’s rule number 4Never put water on a grease or oil fire and don’t use your fire extinguisher on an open pan fire- it can spread the flames!  You can throw baking soda on the open flames- it will usually do the job.  OK, so what if the fire is not on the range but in the oven?  Should we open it and attempt to extinguish the flames?   NO- this will only add oxygen to the fire and make it worse- and you will risk burning yourself.

And what about a fire inside the oven?  Rule number 5:  Keep the oven door closed for oven fires.  Turn the heat off and the fire will burn out.  This goes for microwave fires, too.  Call the fire department and have the unit serviced before you use it again.  And let’s be careful when opening covered food from the microwave.  Steam burns can be prevented by taking those lids off slowly.

Now that we are cooking safely, let’s turn on THE FOOD CHANNEL and watch Emeril.  Bon apatite!

Questions?  Or thinking of becoming a volunteer firefighter?  E-mail Chief Levine at: