Friday, May 20, 2011
Health and Safety in the Kitchen
My coworker came in my office the other day and started talking about her garbage disposal. It was jammed so she put her hand in there, and my boss said she also had recently stuck her hand in her garbage disposal since she had a nail stuck in there (somehow). I said "What? Didn't you guys see every horror film in the 1990s? The ghost is going to flip the switch!!", which was, of course, ridiculous on my part. But the point remains that the modern kitchen contains many possible hazards. There are sharp knives, and duller knives (which could be even more dangerous because they they are more likely to slip while in use and cut the cook). There are raw eggs, raw chickens, food processors, 500 degree pizza stones, toasters, long haired women (possibly even dog or cat hair in the air), and hand held mixers that could accidentally turn on while you are pushing the chocolate chip cookie dough out of the beaters (unless you unplugged it first of course).
One example of the importance of kitchen safety is a recipe we really enjoy. It is the Vermouth and Sage Chicken from Cook's Illustrated. As with probably thousands of other weeknight appropriate recipes, you brown the chicken, put the chicken in the oven for a while, take out the chicken, let it rest while you make a sauce, and pour in vermouth, chicken broth, probably salt and pepper, sage, and finish with butter. Here is the important thing about this: the recipe says "pan is hot, do not grab it by the handle as you make the sauce". Ha! Of course this is obvious. But both of us made this recipe multiple times and got really painful burns. Silly, amateur cooks! It was almost as if the fact that the recipe mentioned it made it more likely we would do that thing - of course we wouldn't do that, meanwhile too busy being snarky about it to not do that thing, while grabbing the handle to swirl the sauce.
Also, when I first started making bread, I would always grab at what was in the food processor without remembering the little fact that there is a huge, sharp blade in there! There was not much more disappointing to be in the middle of making bread (which may require kneading) and have to go wash a large cut, put on a bandaid and wait for the bleeding to stop.
My conclusion on this issue is that the kitchen can be a very dangerous place. It is very important to be aware of one's surroundings and also timing too (such as that oil is one second away from splattering everywhere, and it needs to be turned down a tad). I think what is important in avoiding injury is actually experience. The more you cook the less you are likely to burn your wrist/slash your thumb/ get your knuckle caught on a zester. I definetely got hurt a lot more in the beginning, and maybe I am proud of the burn scars on my wrist as they prove I learned how to make pizza from scratch.
One other tip I might have is in working with raw meats and eggs. I think if you use a plastic grocery bag on the counter next to you to put your waste in as you go, that saves you touching the cabinet where the trash can might be over and over again. The more you can have next to you while you work with raw meats, the less likely you are to spread potential bacteria all over the kitchen. This is also why I believe it is important to have everything chopped up and right in front of you before you start cooking. If your garlic is chopped up in a little bowl on the counter, you don't have to look for it after you just touched the raw chicken and hope you remember to wash your hands in between.
I will also say though that somehow the more you work with food the more you feel comfortable with it, for better or worse. Maybe in the beginning I thought raw eggs were gross, but now that I think of uncooked eggs in mayonnaise recipes and some cocktails, and I just don't feel as guilty licking the cookie batter bowl (for better or worse).
Obviously though it is important to keep everything really clean, follow expiration dates, and give it your best effort. But I really think as far as personal injury goes, trial and error is the best way to learn. Some times it is difficult when several things in your kitchen are happening simultaneously, but I am sure actually paying attention to your surroundings is probably a good thing.