Pan catching on fire [kitchen]
June 4, 2009 6:36 AM   Subscribe

When will the pan catch on fire? (kitchen)

I was just watching hell's kitchen and in one of the episode, a chef was cooking meat in a pan and the pan caught on fire.

So i am just wondering when or how will the pan catch fire in case I will be cooking in the future, I could avoid the flames.
posted by red_rika to Food & Drink (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The pan itself doesn't catch on fire; fat, however, burns very well. So, if you are using a gas stove (necessary condition) and directly expose fat or fat drippings to it (another necessary condition), be prepared for a pan on fire. Don't panic, just put a lid on it and starve the fire of oxygen. Eat food at your own discretion.
posted by halogen at 6:39 AM on June 4, 2009

And by "gas stove" I meant to say, any open flame.
posted by halogen at 6:40 AM on June 4, 2009

Well, did the pan really catch fire? Or did the oil in the pan catch fire? What were they cooking?

All this affects the likelihood and point at which the contents catch fire - it is unlikely the actual pan itself was burning.
posted by Brockles at 6:41 AM on June 4, 2009

What generally happens (at least in my experience) is that when you're cooking in a frying pan (skillet) or wok, it's good to use a vigorous forward-and-back motion to agitate the food and cook it evenly. This causes droplets of oil from the pan to fly about; some of the droplets are ignited by the gas flame. This can look quite dramatic (big shoosh of flame shooting skyward), but usually this doesn't result in the contents of the pan catching fire.

But if you're using a lot of oil/fat, and you shake the pan too much, oil will slop over the edge of the pan and the oil in the pan may ignite.

Usually covering the pan right away will stop the fire without doing any damage to the food.

Where the contents of a pan spontaneously ignite, it's because you've heated the oil past its flash point.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:54 AM on June 4, 2009

shoosh? sorry, whoosh.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:55 AM on June 4, 2009

The pan itself doesn't catch on fire; fat, however, burns very well. So, if you are using a gas stove (necessary condition) and directly expose fat or fat drippings to it (another necessary condition), be prepared for a pan on fire.

You don't actually need to be using a gas stove to get a grease fire; if you heat grease above a certain temperature known as the flame point it'll burst into flames without actually coming into contact with a flame.

Oh, and don't throw water on a grease fire.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:57 AM on June 4, 2009

I am not sure what caught on fire. The chef was cooking meat. Probably its like what halogen said... the fat drippings got burnt and thus there's a fire. Will keep this in mind when i cook next time . thanks guys.
posted by red_rika at 6:57 AM on June 4, 2009

The pan itself doesn't catch on fire.

Correct. This is why cookware is not made out of magnesium.
posted by alms at 7:23 AM on June 4, 2009

The pan will never catch on fire. Flare ups are usually caused by either the fat in the pan or alcohol used in a sauce. Things in the pan will burn and smoke but without an open flame or something to come in contact with the burner under the pan, eg fat splashes out of the pan there will not be any fire.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 7:24 AM on June 4, 2009

fat splashes out of the pan there will not be any fire.

Hmm.. i am not too sure about this as I saw one of the hell's kitchen episode where a chef took a pan up which has hot oil in them (there was no fire from the stove). She picked the pan up and accidentally spilled some hot oil on her hands and she threw the pan down on another stove and somehow flame came out from the pan. You can see the video here Its around the 12 sec mark
posted by red_rika at 7:34 AM on June 4, 2009

...without an open flame or something to come in contact with the burner under the pan, eg fat splashes out of the pan there will not be any fire.

Not true. All you have to do is heat the oil past it's flash point, as Johnny Assay mentions. I caused a fire when heating up oil for popcorn on my magnetic induction stove once - when it was new & I had no idea how powerful and efficient that thing was.
posted by torquemaniac at 9:03 AM on June 4, 2009

Just chiming in to repeat that you do NOT need an open flame to start a grease fire on your stove top. It happens on regular old electric ranges, also. -Voice of experience
posted by specialagentwebb at 9:18 AM on June 4, 2009

And, just in case you're wondering now that you know how easy it is to get a grease fire going outside the pan, never ever throw water on it to put it out as that will only spread the grease and the fire. Throw a big box of baking soda or keep a kitchen fire extinguisher where you can reach it easily when the stove is on fire, i.e., to one side of, not over, the stove.
posted by x46 at 10:00 AM on June 4, 2009

Iron, aluminum and steel, the three most common metals pans are made of, cannot burn at temperatures achievable with a stoptop. It's not the pan itself, it's what's in it. As other have said, this is almost always the cooking oil.

There's actually three temperatures that are interesting in this discussion, the smoke point, the flash point and the flame point of an oil.

The smoke point is that temperature at which the oil begins to react rapidly with the oxygen in the air. You don't want to take an oil above it's smoke point when cooking. This isn't true combustion, just the point at which it begins to break-down by oxidation. For most cooking oils, this is in the range from 320 F to 400 F, but this varies a lot by oil type. There's a good list of smoke points here. This is entirely related to the length of the fatty acids in the oil and the degree of saturation they have.

The smoke point is the number you need to keep in mind for cooking.

The flash point is the temperature at which an oil can burn---if you light a match, the oil will burn. Flash points vary from not that far above the smoke point, 350F, to 600 F. Again, exactly what this number is depends on the oil chemistry and purity.

In practice, the flash point is the number you're looking for, that's generally when things catch fire.

The flame point is the temperature at which an oil will burn, the spontaneous auto-ignition temperature. This number is the least important of the three: firstly, it's quite hard to achieve on a stove element, secondly the oil will be boiling at that point anyway and thirdly, because once above it's flash point, the oil will ignite with even the smallest spark. Things tend to catch fire at or above their flash point.
posted by bonehead at 11:27 AM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I looked at the video; it looks like the chef in question moved a pan over a lit burner, burned her hand, then spilled the grease. WHOOSH! D'oh! Turn off a range before you move something off & over it.

Speaking as one who has started a grease fire... this is how it's befallen me: when there's a line of grease/oil/butter that has leaked down the side of the pan and is dripping into an open flame (gas range) or a high heat source (electric range) this provides a very ready conduit from the flame right into the pan, and at that point the entire greased surface of your pan can catch on fire. Think of all those action movies where a stream of gasoline is lit on fire and the fire races down the stream of gasoline. Same concept.

While it's very dramatic, it's really not as scary as it looks, and it's inevitable that you will have a grease fire at some point if you cook regularly.

To avoid -- be careful not to let grease drip down the side of the pan. Don't pour out grease from a pan (this will leave a trail of grease down the side) and then put that pan back on the heating element without wiping off the side. Don't let oil begin smoking.

To treat
1. Turn off the gas or heat: Do this before you do anything else, including any attempt to put out the fire
2. Hit the flame repeatedly and quickly with a cloth hand towel. (This has worked for me on 100% of the grease fires I have met with) As long as you do this quickly and there is no grease or flammable substance on the towel the towel will not catch fire. This will put out most small grease fires immediately. No water, because water hitting hot grease will splatter and probably leaving tiny second degree burns all over your arms.
3. If the fire does not go out then (and only then, because this next step is a bitch to clean up): douse the flame with a box of baking soda. This will put out the flame.

In short, always keep a clean towel and a box of baking soda within an arm's reach of your stovetop.
posted by MaddyRex at 12:23 PM on June 4, 2009

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