Cooking is the leading cause of home fire in the U.S. and the leading cause of fire-related injury. Even with greater awareness and education, the rate these fires occur has been steadfast for many years.
On average, fire departments respond to 166,100 structure fires per year, which claim approximately 480 lives and result in more than 5,000 injuries and $1.1 billion in direct property damage, reports the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
With the holidays just around the corner, the Pennsylvania personal injury attorneys at Hagelgans & Veronis thought it would be helpful to recap what we know about home fire safety and particularly how to manage deep frying.
Deep Frying: A Leading Cause of Home Fires
Two-thirds (66 percent) of home structure fires involving cooking began with the ignition of cooking materials. Fat, grease, and cooking oil caught fire in 52 percent of home fires that began with cooking materials. Electric ranges have a higher risk of cooking fire compared to gas ranges.
Deep frying involves submerging foods in fat (usually oil) and cooking at very high temperatures. Industrial kitchens and restaurants use special equipment for this popular cooking method, but home cooks can heat oil in a pot on the stove to achieve similar results.
Deep frying without proper equipment or practice can lead to quick combustion. Unattended cooking is the primary contributing factor in home fires and fire-related deaths.
In some cases, fires ignited because cooking materials, like oil, were discarded carelessly or placed too close to a heat source.
Deep frying may seem like a “set it and forget it” cooking method, but it’s extremely dangerous to leave a deep fryer unattended, even for a minute, and especially when deep frying inside a house.
Deep Frying: A Brief Chemistry Review
The chemical makeup of vegetable oil is similar to petroleum oil in that when cooking oils reach their specific smoke point they’ll ignite. This is why some diesel engines can run on cooking oils.
The smoke point of cooking oil is commonly distinguished by type (i.e., canola, peanut, olive, sunflower, etc.), but there are other factors that contribute to a smoke point and the overall safety of deep frying at home.
For example: the amount of oil used; the size and shape of the heating receptacle; and the presence of circulated air flow can increase or decrease the smoke point of various cooking oils.
Popular deep-frying oils such as peanut and vegetable oil have high smoke points (approximately 450°F), which are well above the heat requirements to successfully deep fry a variety of foods.
This is where many home cooks run into trouble…
Home cooks may not have an actual deep fryer, which almost always includes a built-in thermometer to monitor oil temperatures accurately. Without a thermometer, it’s difficult to tell how hot the oil is before submerging foods.
The bubbles or “boil” observed while deep frying isn’t actually boiling oil: it’s water evaporating from inside the food to the outside. This tricks novice fryers who instinctively turn the heat up to achieve a “boil” while frying. The result is often an accelerated smoke point and subsequent fire.
So, why do we cook with such a volatile compound in the kitchen? Well, because it makes food taste delicious. With a little extra care and preparation, deep frying doesn’t have to be a dangerous endeavor.
Home Safety Tips for Deep Frying
Deep-fried foods are a tradition in many families, and when done properly, there’s very little danger involved. Follow the tips below to ensure safety while deep frying at home:
- If using a pot to deep fry, make sure to have the following equipment ready: metal tongs, thermometer with pot clip, a large, heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid; baking soda or all-purpose flour
- If using a purchased deep fryer, read the manufacturer’s instructions carefully
- Never leave a deep fryer unattended
- Use a thermometer to regulate oil temperature properly
- Don’t overfill a fryer or pot with oil; foods will displace oil and may cause spillage
- Wear long-sleeves while frying in case of splatter
- If frying a turkey or other large foods, it’s best to deep fry outside
- Foods dropped into hot oil should be dry(ish) and free of excess water, marinades, etc.
- Always allow oil to fully cool before handling or discarding
In case of fire:
- Do not use water to put out the fire
- Do not attempt to move the pan, pot, or fryer
- Cover pot or pan with a heavy lid
- Douse fire with baking soda or all-purpose flour to smother flames
- Do not attempt to fight the fire if it spreads
- Call 911
Don’t become a statistic in the National Fire Protection Association’s next report. With practice and safe handling of proper equipment, deep frying can be enjoyed at home during the holidays and beyond.