Burning Down the House – Or How Not To

Photo courtesy of Vince Butler/BBC Builders

I don’t know about you, but I am not enamored of the bells and whistles on new stoves these days. Do I really need blower jets for crispier pizza or a new browning gizmo for crème brí»lée?

What I do need, however, is a stove that won’t burn down the house.

I’ve been interested in cooking safety ever since my mother began to have signs of Alzheimer’s. When she was living alone (and not yet diagnosed), I would lay awake at night worrying whether Mom could still safely use the stove.

But you don’t have to have Alzheimer’s to forget food cooking on the stove.  Stress or the effects of medication can play havoc with short-term memory.  And, sometimes, it is unsafe behaviors-such as leaving a pot of food cooking on the stove unattended-that’s the danger. Several years ago, I was cooking paella and ran out of onions.  No problem, I thought, I’ll just pop in on Mary, my neighbor (she’s also my sister), who always keeps a well-stocked pantry.  Well, Mary and I started chatting, and before I knew it, 45 minutes flew by.

I totally forgot that I had a pot of rice cooking on the stove! When I returned home and opened the door, thick black smoke billowed out into the hallway.  Fortunately, there was no fire or building damage, but if I had been cooking fried chicken, there would be a different ending to this story. Lesson learned:  Now, I NEVER leave the house with food cooking on the stove, even if I think it’ll only be for a few minutes.

Photo courtesy of Vince Butler/BBC Builders

I’ve also been researching some of the newer safe cooking technologies. Below are my favorites:

1. Lower temperature safety burners. These energy-efficient, stovetop burners prevent fires from occurring on electric stovetops. The system includes cast-iron plates that install over each burner; the burners get hot enough to cook a meal but not hot enough for most household items to ignite. Available on new electric ranges or as a retrofit.

2. Induction cooking. This radically different cooking method uses a magnetic field to heat the cookware (there is no gas, flame, or hot surface). Only the pan and its contents are heated – not the cooktop surface. Available as a range, a cooktop, or as a hot plate.

3. Stove turn-off timers. These devices, equipped with a timer and a sensor, automatically turn off the stove after a set period of time when no movement is detected.

4. Automatic fire extinguishers. Installed under the range hood, these devices (either small cans or nozzles) automatically dispense a fire-suppressing agent onto the fire. The more expensive models also turn the stove off.

In addition to new technologies, I always use a timer when I cook.  Some traditions are keepers, and timers are one of them.  Look for timers with large, easy-to-read numerals, and loud, varied (high and low) alarm tones, which are easier for older adults to hear.

Visit RosemaryBakker.com and ThisCaringHome.org, a website for caregivers of persons with dementia. You can also find out more about her book, AARP Guide to Revitalizing Your Home: Beautiful Living for the Second Half of Life.