Cooking yields the best results when your food comes into sudden contact with something hot.
Whether you’re browning steak in your cast iron skillet, dipping battered chicken in a pot filled with oil, or plunging tagliatelle in a pentola of boiling water, the exposure to heat is what makes your food come out crispy, aromatic, and outright delicious.
Every now and then, even if you’re the most careful cook on earth, it’s not just your food that gets exposed to the scorching-hot heat of your pans, pots, and baking sheets: you also get to burn your hand.
To treat a first-degree scald from grilling or cooking, hold your hand under cool (not cold) running water until it eases the pain, then cover with a sterile bandage (not fluffy and linty cotton). See a doctor or call 911 if you suspect a second- or third-degree burn.
Don’t use cold water or, worse, ice water, as, according to a guide by WebMD on the topic, it could amplify the pain and cause damage to your hand’s skin.
Don’t apply butter, cooking oil, or lotions to the burnt area of your hand. Especially if the latter contains fragrance, which can easily irritate your skin and potentially cause complications.
The Different Kinds of Burns
When you burn your hand on the handle of a hot pan or pot, it’s critically important that you know what to do and that you’re able to identify if it’s a first-, second-, or third-degree burn. Doing so will help you determine whether you must call 911 and/or be taken to the nearest ER.
As with most injuries, the most severe burns look really concerning yet don’t really hurt all that much. Here’s how to tell the difference between a first-, second-, or third-degree burn sustained on your hand in the kitchen or on the outside grill:
- First-degree burns, which look and feel like a painful sunburn, are the most common type of burns in daily cooking—and the least serious;
- Second-degree burns, intensely painful and with blisters forming, are more severe burns that can quickly get infected unless treated properly and should be treated with Bacitracin or Neosporin;
- Third-degree burns will make your skin whitish and leathery or, in extreme cases, charred-looking, with black patches. They are the most severe type of burn and may not be painful at all as they damage nerves; you must get emergency-room treatment for them immediately.
As a general rule of thumb, if you suspect that you have a second-degree or third-degree burn, the right thing to do for your healing and recovery is to call 911 and/or be taken by someone to the nearest ER, preferably with a burn center, to get the medical care and treatment you need.
How to Prevent Burns in the Kitchen
Hot handles on pans and pots are the most common culprit for burns sustained by home cooks in the kitchen.
While easier said than done, especially if you’re distracted by other things going on in your house or when you’re whipping up supper in a hurry, it’s essential to remain grounded and mindful when cooking.
Take a deep breath, eliminate distractions (as much as your environment allows you to), and try to remain focused on the things that you need to do to make delicious food for yourself and your family.
Whenever you find yourself moving too fast and stressing out over time or outcomes, use that as a cue to slow down and recalibrate. Cooking is an act of creation, and creation happens best when you stay present.
Mindfulness practices for home cooks aside, here are a few practical things to do when handling hot pans and pots, no matter what cooking method the recipe calls for.
When you bake bread or make pizza in your cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven, which requires relatively high heat, the handles on it will get really, really hot. Grab them only with mittened hands or with the help of a thick kitchen towel that won’t easily transfer heat to your palm.
As someone who, for better or worse, tends to be very forgetful, I’ve found turning the handles on my pots and pots pointing away from me and toward the rear of the stove or oven to be the most useful reminder for this.
Carbon steel, cast iron, and stainless steel hold on to heat for a long time, so don’t be quick to grab a pan or pot by the handles shortly after you’ve pulled it out of the oven. Here’s a helpful tip from a reader of Cook’s Illustrated that the magazine published in its 7/2021 issue:
“After pulling a hot skillet out of the oven, Candice Watters of Louisville, KY, slides an oven mitt onto the pan’s handle. This way, she won’t accidentally touch the hot handle when she serves the dish.”
Another, just as common, cause of burns is splattering oil on the stove.
To avoid oil splatter when frying, make sure your pans and pots are completely dry before using them. Before dipping wet foods in hot fat, consider drying those foods off with a fragrance-free paper towel or a clean, lint-free cloth.
Home cooks who like kitchen gear can also consider getting a splatter screen that’s placed on top of a frying pan, which can protect them from oil splatter (as an extra benefit, it also makes clean-up after cooking easier).