How to Cook Without Setting Off the Smoke Alarm

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You've just about finished preparations for that big dinner party and the smoke alarm in the hall begins screaming. Pretty soon, the one in the basement staircase starts. Smoke alarms are wonderful inventions but can be a trial when you're down to the wire and they start blaring like it's an evening during the London Blitz. Try a few strategies to teach your smoke alarm the difference between time to call the gang for supper and time to do its real job.

  • If you think your cooking has set off the smoke alarm, first be sure that there's no other source for the smoke. Turn the heat off under what you're cooking and check the house. A fire started by a short on the fish tank in the basement rec room could have vented up the laundry chute and set off the alarm on the second floor.

  • Check your exhaust fan (or install one) to be sure your cooking area is properly vented. Clean or replace dirty screens and vent to the outside of the house, never into the kitchen or attic. The fan will work more efficiently and the risk of spreading a stove top fire will be minimized. If you're still using the exhaust fan that came with your house, you might consider upgrading to a more efficient or higher capacity fan. The Home Ventilating Institute recommends replacing the air in your kitchen fifteen times an hour to remove odors, moisture and pollutants from the air and most basic equipment or older fans will not accomplish that goal.

  • Ventilate, ventilate, ventilate. In addition to the exhaust fan, allow some outside air to cross-ventilate your area before starting to cook. Open windows a bit on either side of the house or one on the first floor and one on the opposite side of the house on the second floor.

  • Check the placement of your smoke alarms. These little things are sensitive for a reason--to give you early warning--and there are specific places they should be installed. If, however, one has been installed too close to the range or too close to a doorway, any heat from cooking will smell like a fire to it. Check with your local fire department. There's generally a fire safety officer or fire inspector who will be happy to consult on smoke alarm choices and placement. Ceiling mounted sensors should be at least four inches away from walls and wall mounted units should be at least a foot from the ceiling to avoid false alarms.

  • Turn down the heat. If you're scorching food or heating oil so high that it smokes, your food won't taste like it should. Make sure that utensils used to fry or broil foods are clean before using with high heat--the burned on food continues to scorch when you turn the heat or broiler on again. Different oils begin to smoke at slightly different temperatures--find one you can use to fry catfish without spreading the alarm. Haste and too much heat are bad practices for cooks. Relax, slow down and do it right.

Tips & Warnings

  • Some models of smoke alarms have "hush" buttons so that you can silence the screaming meanies.
  • Perhaps a carbon monoxide detector is a better choice for the kitchen, particularly if you use natural gas to cook.
  • Never disconnect or take the batteries out of a smoke alarm because it's going off when you cook. Replace or reposition an offending alarm.

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