Allstate: Safe Holiday Frying and Decorating

Sautéing, frying, and deep fat frying, as well as lighting candles, are part of many holiday celebrations.

But festivities pose risks, especially when you become distracted or aren’t aware of potential dangers. You may light Hanukkah menorah or Christmas candles. Doing so can result in burns or fires if flickering candles are left alone, and drip hot wax. 

Preparing favorite fried recipes—potato pancakes, Swedish meatballs,  deep fried turkeys--presents potential danger when cooking oils are heated to high temperatures—400 degrees Fahrenheit and above. Hot grease may splatter and spread flames. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that frying poses the greatest fire risk in a kitchen. 

You needn’t be Scrooge-like and eat cold porridge. But be vigilant, and use the right oils, keep sleeves from flames, don’t step away when cooking, or if you must, turn off the heat and move the pan to a burner that’s off, and don’t let children work in the kitchen unsupervised, says  Monoj K. Gupta, owner of MG Edible Oil Consulting International Inc. in Seattle, WA, and member of American Oil Chemist Society (AOCS), a nonprofit organization. 

Here are more tips, from Gupta and other experts:

  • What’s the biggest danger when cooking with hot oils? When oil comes into contact with flames, it can spread. Water won’t help douse flames; it vaporizes, becomes steam that expands, and may spray hot water and oil. If flames occur, cover with a metal lid. Always have a fire extinguisher nearby, and use an exhaust when cooking.
  • Are some oils less of a risk? Yes, but it’s tough to know since it depends on the oil’s quality, which many consumers won’t be able to detect from reading a label. Expiration dates often won’t help if the oil is exotic and not produced properly, Gupta says. If you have five bottles of vegetable oil, they can reflect five levels, depending on how each was refined, how old the oil is, and how you store it. “Find oil you like and which works well,” Gupta says. He also advises avoiding unrefined oils such as olive oil when frying at high temperatures because it’s less stable since it hasn’t had impurities removed. Olive oil is better for light sautéing--less than 360 degrees Fahrenheit, says Kathy Heine, managing editor, at AOCS’ Inform publication.
  • Why does “smoke point” mean? All oils have a smoke point at which they exhibit smoke above the frying pan. Freshly refined oil typically has a smoke point of 450 to 460 degrees Fahrenheit. Most well-refined vegetable oils have a high smoke point, which makes them safer for deep fat frying than others like olive oil or improperly refined expeller- processed or pressed oil. Also, the smoke point doesn’t remain constant; it drops as oil is exposed to more heat, which makes it more hazardous.
  • What about recycling oil? Saving it for weeks or months poses a danger since it degrades over time, Gupta says. 
  • What do “flash” and “fire” points mean? If you heat vegetable oil as high as 700 degrees Fahrenheit, you can create a flash of a flame; a fire can start at 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A restaurant may raise flames high to flambé for drama (bananas Foster, for example), but amateur chefs beware!
  • Any signs that oil has reached a dangerous level? Smoke coming from a frying pan or wok, or food burning. Always use a thermometer.
  • What about deep fat frying a turkey? Use equipment that’s large and sturdy, don’t use too much oil, and cook outdoors, Gupta says.