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The 'red badge' of cooking

Last updated 14:47 12/08/2014

FEEL THE BURN: If (and when) you do burn yourself, you should stop what you are doing and immediately fill a small bowl with ice and cold water.

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I am writing this with a small but painful welt on my left thumb.

A week or two ago, I had a somewhat larger but equally painful welt on the base of my palm. Both were burns suffered while doing my job as a food writer.

I didn't cry. I didn't whimper. I may have uttered a loud, bad word, but only in a manly way.

I'm not embarrassed about hurting myself. I consider it my red badge of cooking.

Cooking is inherently dangerous, even if you are not a world-class klutz like me. If you do it long enough, you are going to get hurt. You may as well get used to the idea and take the bitter with the sweet, the temporary pain with the fun of making great food. Take ownership of your injuries.

In professional kitchens, they work with open flames and insanely sharp knives. The pros relish the sense of danger, the thrill of living on the (insanely sharp) edge. It's why they often consider themselves pirates, renegades, outlaws.

We home cooks usually don't go to such extremes, but the idea is always there in the back of our minds: We can get hurt.

In this way, the life of a cook is similar to the life of an athlete - we know, at some point, we are going to be injured. And we also know, in the vast majority of cases, the injuries will heal quickly, without even leaving a mark.

Which brings us, momentarily, to bagels. Be extra careful when slicing bagels; whatever you do, don't hold a bagel in one hand and slice it toward your palm. And don't try to cut one on a counter with your palm pressing down on it, either. Both methods lead to a ridiculous number of emergency-room visits, and they often lead to scars _ or even a lessened ability to use your hand.

It is smart to be prepared when you're cooking. Think about what can happen, and do what you can to avoid it.

For instance, don't leave knives near the edge of a counter. You can carelessly knock something into them and then they can fall toward the floor, which is typically where your feet are. You can see where this might be a problem.

Or you can reach for one cool object and accidentally brush against something that is literally blisteringly hot. That is how I got both of my recent burns.

At least one company makes heat-resistant sleeves that fit around the outside edge of oven racks that help to prevent just such incidents. I had a set on my last stove, and I can't say whether they worked or not because I never burned myself while they were on. Then again, that is probably proof that they do work, and it is obviously time to get a new set.

If (and when) you do burn yourself, you should stop what you are doing and immediately fill a small bowl with ice and cold water.

Put the burned part of your skin in the ice-cold water for a few minutes; then remove it, to avoid frostbite. After a few more minutes, you can dunk it again, and repeat. Cooling the burn in this way will numb the pain, lessen your suffering and (I believe) shorten the time it will take you to heal.

As I said, that is what you should do, but it isn't what I do myself. I just utter a loud, bad word and press on. I'm a pirate, after all, a renegade. An outlaw.

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Unless it really hurts. Then I haul out the ice-water and try to get as much sympathy from as many people as I can. No sense in being all macho about it when there is sympathy to be had.

Update: Several days after I wrote this column, I cut my finger while slicing food for a photograph. Ow! Ow! Ow!



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