In the Nick of Time
If your local fire department offers home fire-hazard assessments, sign up for one. Professionals often spot things that others take for granted.
If you're like most people, you've seen and heard messages on fire prevention and safety since you were a kid. Who doesn't remember Smokey the Bear? Chances are pretty good that you've retained a lot of it. But it's pretty easy to get lax about things, especially when life gets busy.
We won't give you any Smokey lectures here. You know you shouldn't play with matches. You know smoke detectors are an essential element in home decor. (You do, right? If you don't, get this wisdom, and fast. If your home doesn't have hard-wired detectors, buy and install battery-powered ones, and make sure you keep them in proper working order.)
But we will say this: The best way to deal with kitchen fires is to keep them from happening in the first place. You, and everyone else who uses the kitchen in your home, are the biggest players in this equation.
Home Economics Redux
If you're a woman and a baby boomer, you probably received cooking lessons as part of your home economics education in junior high. If you're not or you didn't, you may not have learned the basics of food preparation.
Even if you did, your skills may have become a bit sloppy over the years. So, let's review the basics. This isn't everything you need to know, but it will go a long way toward keeping you and yours safe when you're practicing kitchen alchemy:
Always match food and pan size. Don't use a pan that's too big or small for what you're cooking. A big pan can boil dry too quickly. Food can slop over the sides of a small pan and cause grease spatters.
Use the minimum amount of heat and oil necessary to create the desired results. Sure, turning a burner too high will heat things up faster, but it also increases scorching and spattering risks.
Don't heat oil to its smoking point. Not only will it make food taste bad, smoking is what happens right before oils ignite. If oil gets to this point, immediately remove it from the heat source and let it cool down.
Always use cookware as intended by the manufacturer. If something isn't labeled as safe for stovetop use, don't put it on a burner. The same thing goes for any-thing you put in an oven or microwave. If in doubt, don't use it.
Don't use anything other than a deep fryer to deep-fry food. If your family loves French fries, do the right thing and invest in one of these devices. Using any-thing else is simply too risky.
If food has been washed or is damp, drain or pat dry before placing in cooking oil to avoid spattering.
Use a spatter guard when cooking. This is a screen-like device that you place right over pots and pans. They come in lots of different sizes. Having two is a good idea.
Never wear loose-fitting clothing when cooking. Long-sleeved garments, and especially sleeves with some fullness to them, can catch fire in a flash.
Don't use towels when handling pots and pans. They can easily ignite if brushed against a heating element. Use potholders or hot pads instead. Even better are fireproof gloves, which you can buy at a hardware store. They aren't pretty, but they're much safer.
Turn pot and pan handles inward when cooking. Depending on what the handles are made of, this could make them very hot if other burners are on, so be sure to keep hot pads on hand.
Finally, turn the burners off if you have to leave the kitchen for any reason.