Day Fifteen (or, hazardous kitchen habits)

Safety matters. Discuss.

(Stop yawning down the back.)

Seriously, safety does matter (as our talk at the end of Week Three from Eileen Morgan of Food Safety Solutions reminded us). And there’s no surer way to remember a few rules of thumb on matters of kitchen safety than to lose a thumb or two. Of course, you might have your own method of jogging the memory. However you get them into your head, the following rules are worth remembering. There’s ten of them, one for every digit – so try holding on to all of them eh?

1. A knife is like a relationship. The best are made to last a lifetime, but the duller you allow it become, the more likely to lead to a nasty slip which may not be fatal but sure won’t be pretty for anyone to witness, never mind experience the fallout from. (See more on Day Seventeen for how best to keep ‘em keen. Knives, that is.)

2. Every chopping board likes a little security. This can be achieved by placing a damp J-cloth under said board, hence discouraging it from trying to slide off in one direction as you slice, dice, chop, crush, mince, cleaver or julienne your way towards some other direction – say, the nearest hospital, thumb in hand.

3. Metal handles that have been in ovens tend to get a little hot. As do those sticking out over naked flames. Sure it sounds obvious, but it’s really easy to forget unless you pay attention to what’s been where. And remember that a damp tea-towel will conduct heat in a way that you wouldn’t expect a dry one to, so pay attention to where that’s been too, and what it’s been up to. Murphy’s Law says that handle won’t begin to show its slow fury until you are halfway from oven to table – which could mean dealing with dinner ruined as well as a nasty burn. Double mare.

4. Never let raw meat get overly friendly with cooked meat. It’s only asking for trouble. Think of it like inviting toast into a freshly made bed, only with more serious consequences. (No matter how careful you are, there’s always a few crumbs/bacteria that escape and contaminate the pristine scene, and they multiply at a ferocious rate – doubling every 20 minutes in the case of bacteria.) Always store uncooked meat in the base of a fridge so it can’t drip onto cooked meat, and always wash hands, boards and knives after handling raw meat.

5. Communication is crucial in a multi-user kitchen. This goes for everything, from colour-coding which boards are for what (red for raw meat, blue for fish, green for veg etc) to shouting the word ‘backs!’* at any given opportunity, but particularly when moving a hot casserole through a crowded kitchen with a damp tea towel. Oh and never run in a kitchen. And never with a knife in hand. And if you do, make sure it’s pointed down at the floor and not towards your co-worker, no matter how much you hate that they won’t stop whistling that song.

*As in, ‘watch your…’

6. Remember that high-risk meats need to be cooked to above 75º to kill all potential bacteria. Poultry who have had their insides pulled outside before being roasted whole can be considered high risk. A hunk of red meat such as beef or lamb which has had all its outer bits seared is low risk. There is some controversy over whether every burger should be served cooked through, but certainly the greater surface area of mince means more opportunity for bacteria to be lurking. If you’re eating it yourself in the full of your health, you may choose to take your chances. If you’re cooking for your pregnant sister, her frail father in law, and all his treasured grandchildren, best not to.

7. Bacteria are most comfortable between 5ºC and 63ºC. If you want to make them feel right at home, that’s the zone. Below 5ºC they get, well, chilled and don’t bother with that reproducing lark. They not mad on over 63ºC either, knowing they’re headed for THE END. If you’re keeping food warm, keep it over 63ºC warm. And if you want to be super safe reheating food, check that the core temperature is 75ºC or over (a meat probe will help in this endeavour).

8. Only reheat or freeze food once. And remember that freezing is strictly defined as below -18ºC. And that it is not a license to forget about said food for years, and nor is the microwave a time travel machine in which you can zap Spring 2008′s frozen lamb shoulder back to the future. Pay attention to the guidelines inside most freezers. And only use your microwave to defrost small items; better done in the fridge.

9. Never stare into a mortar and pestle full of chillies being pounded. The oils contain the heat, and particles can be airborne into those rather sensitive not to mention useful instruments that are your eyes. We had lengthy discussions in class with Matthew Albert from London’s Nahm – who has pounded a few chillies in his time – about the merits of Heston Blumenthal-style goggles, but he prefers to just keep the eye-drops handy.

10. Always use a mandolin with the finger guard on. No, not the lute-like instrument. The mean-machine super-fast slicer. Works wonders on fennel, potatoes, index fingers and the likes. Also, take care when working with caramel which can produce particularly nasty burns. And pay attention when moving bain maries of boiling water in and out of ovens. It’s probably best to fill up once installed. (Okay, that last rule of thumb was three in one, but I had run out of fingers, and toes seemed a stretch too far from thumbs.)

And should you – lord forbid – forget some of these rules of thumbs, I guess just try and remember that some people find scars really attractive. And that thumbs are probably over-rated.

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