Kitchens are inherently dangerous places if proper caution is not exercised. What isn’t hot is often sharp, and what isn’t sharp is often in need of a thorough cleaning. With a little common sense, though, working in a kitchen can be both efficient and safe.
Be aware of your surroundings, the tools and techniques you use and the likelihood of a trip to the emergency room will drop dramatically. Here’s our top eight ideas for a safer kitchen, separated into Methods and Tools:
Method 1: Not Enough Cleaning
This one seems straightforward for any work in the kitchen. Clean hands are the beginning to preparing anything. Soap, hot water, and vigorous scrubbing for 15-20 seconds is the industry standard- and applies whether you’re just starting, have touched raw meat or poultry, your face, or any unsanitized surface (like the floor).
All tools should be thoroughly scrubbed with hot soapy water or put through a dishwasher cycle. In particular, cutting boards can harbor bacteria, so after washing they should be flooded with a mixture of one tablespoon of unscented bleach to one gallon of water. Let sit for several minutes, then rinse and pat or air dry.
Method 2: Not Separating Foods Properly
Also easy to implement with a little planning, separating foods properly will help prevent food-borne illness in the home. This method can be divided into two disciplines. Firstly, use separate plates to hold raw and cooked meats (this is especially easy to mix up during barbecue season).
Dredging your perfectly cooked steak or chicken through raw juices allow bacteria to recolonize your food. Secondly, use separate cutting boards and knives during food preparation for raw meat and vegetables. Again, this prevents the transfer of potentially harmful bacteria.
Method 3: Not Cooking Foods Properly
Patience is rewarded with the best results when cooking. A common mistake for the time-crunched chef is to overload a hot pan with ingredients– which has a couple consequences. Vegetables will turn out mushy and not crisp when crowded because the pan’s temperature drops suddenly; this leads to an inferior end product.
More seriously, an overloaded pan of meat will stick and not sear properly. The drop in temperature will often not allow the meat to reach a proper state of ‘doneness’ before it is served.
Another issue stems from heating oil to its smoking point. Not only does this break down beneficial compounds, it also produces harmful ones. Oil should be heated till it shimmers, so attention and observation are important for the best outcome. Taking one’s time seems to be the best bet for both quality and safety standards. For a handy meat cooking reference guide, check out: http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/mintemp.html
Method 4: Not Chilling Foods Properly
In order to maintain freshness and safety in many foods, proper refrigeration is essential. When shopping, meat should be bought last and wrapped in plastic bags. In particular, make sure your package is cold to the touch, that the plastic is taut with no tears, and that the ‘best by’ date is acceptable.
If your trip home from the grocery store lasts longer than 30 minutes, a cooler with ice packs is your best bet to keep meat safely cold.
Raw meats should be stored at 40*F or lower for safety standards, and refrigerated or frozen immediately upon reaching home. If going in the fridge, a tray should be placed under the meat to prevent bacteria-laden drippings. Meat destined for the freezer should be repackaged in freezer bags and labeled in order for correct rotation of usage.
Similar care should be taken with storing leftovers, where large amounts should be split into shallow sealed containers and used within 3-4 days. Frozen meat should never be thawed at room temperature, as this gives harmful bacteria a chance to flourish. Instead, all defrosting should occur in the refrigerator.
If time is an issue, frozen meats can be safely cooked in a regular oven by adding 50% more cooking time. For more cold storage information see: http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/index.html
Problem Tool 1: Nonstick Pans
Pans coated with nonstick surfaces are both incredibly useful and popular. When used mindfully, they can help produce healthy meals for a long time. Nonstick coatings, however, were never meant to be used at high heat. If overheated, these types of pans can release toxic fumes that have been linked with liver damage and developmental problems.
Frighteningly enough, an unattended nonstick pan can reach temperatures in excess of 800*F in five minutes if unattended- so caution is recommended. With that in mind, plastic or wooden tools should be used exclusively with nonstick pans to prevent scratches. These small gouges can also release perfluorocarbons into the food being cooked.
Problem Tool 2: Pyrex
Pyrex glass might be one of the single most useful inventions of the twentieth century- but it does have its limits. While being a superior surface for baking, Pyrex was never designed to withstand the heat produced under a broiler. When overstressed by heat, Pyrex will shatter and create a most impressive mess in your oven. Metal is a much better option in this case.
Problem Tool 3: Blenders
As an all-purpose kitchen tool, the blender is extremely versatile- but requires attention to detail. Of primary importance- and this cannot be stressed enough- READ THE INSTRUCTIONS.
Blenders are the cause of thousands of trips to the emergency room every year, most of which could have been avoided with a little knowledge and common sense. Injuries from blenders are either burns or cuts. When blending hot liquids- like puréeing soup- ensure that the top vent is open but covered with paper towel.
Blending hot liquids causes steam to build up and often results in a painful minor explosion when the lid is removed. Cuts commonly occur during cleaning. Blenders should always be unplugged before maintenance to prevent accidental activation.
The blades- when removed according to the machine’s manual- should not be carelessly tossed into cloudy soapy water. Random sharp items in dishwater is an automatic invitation for an unfortunate laceration.
Problem Tool 4: Knives
This category also includes graters, mandoline slicers, meat grinders, and garbage disposals. Care should be taken when using any of these tools, for as useful as they are, they require respect. Sharp items should never be submerged in soapy water, but should be washed immediately to avoid accidents.
Careful maintenance of knives also is of prime importance; ironically, one is more likely to cut one’s self on a dull knife than a sharp one. Properly sharp knives cut smoothly and in a controlled manner, but dull knives will slip and catch in dangerous and unpredictable ways.
Keeping focused and staying on task while working in a kitchen is best. It not only produces the best food in the long run, it also ensures your ability to enjoy it with all your fingers intact and in your own home. A small amount of simple discipline with storage and preparation will go a long way to maintaining the health of both you and your family in the long run.