How to avoid painful injuries while cooking over the holidays
I sliced off the tip of my pinky finger with a vegetable peeler this past Thanksgiving. I was peeling potatoes with an old, dull peeler, and I got a little impatient and raised the potato off the cutting board. Let me tell you what I learned.
- No one likes blood in their mashed potatoes, and no, you will not fool anyone into thinking it's cranberry sauce.
- You never realize how useful that pinky finger is until you put it out of commission.
- Even someone who has been cooking for (ahem) two decades can make stupid mistakes in the kitchen.
Everyone, not just beginners, but everyone could use a refresher on kitchen safety, especially around the holidays when we're cooking more and we're busier. Here's a few tips to keep in mind so you don't accidentally wind up with fake cranberry sauce on your potatoes.
1. Careful with the can opener
"Some of the most common cuts that send people to the emergency room are from opening cans and slicing open hands with knives," says Sarah Brown home safety expert for SafeWise, a home and community safety website. "The best way to prevent these kinds of accidents is to stay focused on the task you are performing. If you can help it, use a mechanical can opener with a magnet to hold the lid of the can so you don't have to pry it out yourself." Also, never try to open a can with a knife. Oh my God, do not do that.
2. Keep your knives sharp
Believe it or not, a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp knife. That's because a dull knife can slip or jump on you. Get your knives professionally sharpened every year if you can. At the least, hone the blade so it's straighter.
As for your peelers, you should replace those every couple of years. Mine was around six or seven years old, and for an ordinary, non-magical peeler, that's too old.
3. Use your claw
"When chopping with your chef’s knife, first slice any non-flat food to create a stable, flat base so that it won’t wobble on your cutting board," says Tsippora Shainhouse, a dermatologist and a culinary school graduate. "Then, make sure that you hold the food with a ‘clawed hand.’ This means holding with the tips of your fingers and thumb, so that you create a 90 degree/perpendicular angle to the food surface and parallel line with your knife motion."
Don't splay out your fingers like this. No! Use the hand position you see in the photo at the top of this article.
For extra security, keep a damp towel under your cutting board to keep it from slipping around on you.
4. Mandolin the food, not your knuckles
Shainhouse admits she sliced the skin off her knuckle last year when she ignored her own rules for using a mandolin. First, if yours comes with a prong that sticks into the vegetable while you slice, definitely use it.
"Also, don’t worry about wasting the last centimeter or so of the vegetable if it means keeping your digits intact," Shainhouse adds. "It is easy to get mesmerized when using the mandolin because it so simple to use and it really does produce beautiful, evenly sliced vegetables. Keep your eyes on your hand because once you near the end of the vegetable, the skin on your fingers will be next."
5. Use gloves when you grate
Shainhouse says she wears thick dishwashing gloves when she uses a box grater. "That way, I can see when my fingers are getting close, and I can feel when my fingers are touching the box, but can stop before my fingers or nails get grated."
Again, don't risk your fingers or knuckles just to grate that last tiny piece of cheese down to nothing. Just pop it in your mouth. I mean, it's cheese, and you kind of want to eat the last bit anyway, don't you?
6. Remember: A towel is not an oven mitt
"Always use oven mitts when removing things from the oven," Brown cautions. "Some people use a towel laying around and it results in a burn." Not only that, a towel can catch on fire if it gets too close to a stove flame.
Be careful about touching the stovetop around the burners since the surface can also get hot sometimes. And make sure you stand back a little when you open the oven or lift a lid from a pot so the steam doesn't burn you.
7. Mop it before you slip in it
If you spill a liquid or slippery foods like beans on the floor, clean them up right away. Brown says leaving the spill is dangerous because it can lead to falls. And it's not just about falling down — you can hit your head or your elbow on a table or chair on your way down and seriously injure yourself.
8. Watch your pot handles
This is so important: Watch where the handles of your pots and pans are when they're on the stove. "Keep the handles of your pots turned inward so that people don't accidentally bump what's cooking," Brown says.
9. Clean blades carefully
You know that S-blade for your food processor? Be so very careful when you clean it after using it. "My tip is to wash the S-blade separately," says Shainhouse. "Never place it in a basin of soapy water with other equipment. Then, do not place it on your drying rack because it can fall out and/or slice your finger when you reach for something else on the rack. Always dry it immediately and place it back inside the processor or in its specific blade box."
Let me tell you a sad story. Once I washed the S-blade of my food processor and I left it to dry on a rack near the sink. Later, my then-5-year-old son reached over it to get to a mango from a basket nearby. He sliced open his hand, we had to run to the ER and he got so many stitches.
10. You've got a fire extinguisher, right?
Hopefully, you'll never have to use it. But make sure you know where it is, you know how to use it, and you can grab it quickly without freaking out.
Now. Say you've broken one of your safety rules and you've got a nasty cut. What's the protocol?
Shainhouse says to apply direct pressure for 10 straight minutes. Then check if it's bleeding. If it is, hold for another 10 minutes. At that point, you can gently rinse it off, apply antibiotic ointment, and cover with a bandaid.
Otherwise, if it's still bleeding it's time to go to the ER. "If it is still bleeding, you may need a stitch and should have the wound evaluated at an urgent care or emergency room," she says.
Another important tip: "If you cannot bend the cut finger or if you have numbness of the finger, you must be evaluated in the emergency room to rule out a damaged tendon or nerve." This happened to one of my colleagues, and her wound was worse and took much longer to heal because she waited a day to see the doctor. So take this stuff seriously.
We're not here to scare you. We just want to make sure you get through the holidays safely, without any painful injuries disrupting you fun. So with that reminder, enjoy cooking and baking injury free.
Before you go, check out our slideshow below.