I remember the Brazilian dish washer screaming, “Don’t take off your clothes!!! For God’s sake keep your pants on!” before he turned away and started muttering to himself in Portuguese. He was horrified because I was standing in the middle of the restaurant’s kitchen doing a strip tease. It wasn’t to entice the kitchen staff with what was under my apron, rather I was desperately trying to remove my polyester work pants, which I’d just spilled two gallons of boiling chicken stock onto, so that they wouldn’t melt into the flesh of my thighs. I kept shucking my clothes while I yelled for my sous chef to get some ice water – and fast. I could already feel the beginnings of a really bad burn. Fortunately for me most of the kitchen accidents I’ve had were not major enough to warrant more than soap and a band-aid, but the chicken stock spill landed me in the ER.
Burns and cuts are often part of working in a professional kitchen. In my experience they are usually caused by carelessness, stupidity or simply from being rushed. Many culinary accidents, in my opinion, can be avoided. That said sometimes bad stuff just happens so you need to be able to perform instant triage (that hopefully does not include a trip to the hospital). After all the meal must go on.
Let me start by saying I am not a doctor, I am a cook. So what I am about to tell you is not medical advice, rather wisdom from forty years behind the stove. If you have a truly horrific burn (third degree or some second degree ones) by all means get yourself to a hospital. Click here to read about the different levels of burns and what the professionals think you should do.
When it comes to first and second-degree kitchen burns I am a big believer in two things – ice water and aloe vera. In my experience Aloe vera, when applied immediately, seems to reduce the burn by a degree or two. When I was first learning to make jam I poured boiling hot kumquat jam on my hand. Note to jam makers – do not hold the jar as you fill it, place it on the counter, even if you don’t have a funnel and are worried some jam may spill, trust me on this. My screams brought my Dad into the kitchen where we proceeded to have a heated discussion about the merits of him taking me to the doctor vs. me sending him to the gardening store to buy an aloe plant. My hand was submerged in a sink full of ice water while we went back and forth but finally he zoomed off to the gardening store. Between the ice water bath and slathering aloe all over my hand the moment Dad returned I didn’t have a mark from where the boiling hot liquid had landed on my skin, which is amazing when you consider the temperature of cooked jam is a whopping 220ºF.
It’s easier to have an aloe plant on hand then to send someone out to buy one. They’re pretty easy to care for (says she of the not-very-green-thumb). A lot of sun, a bit of water every so often, then as they get bigger a new pot. Despite Obama care they are also probably cheaper than a trip to the doctor or emergency room. If you’ve never used aloe before just cut or pull off a leaf and slit it open. The gooey, slimy stuff on the inside is what you want to slather all over a burn. Don’t wash it off, just keep reapplying every so often.
Part of knowing how to cook is knowing what to do when things go wrong, and I’m not just taking about if you over salt the soup. Pay attention and know that those extra few minutes of being careful to prevent an accident will be much less time in the long run than if you have to take care for yourself because you do get hurt.