Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Is your smoke alarm driving you crazy?

I had it all under control. Sure, the oven was set to 500F, but I had my windows open, and some chopped up veggies ready to go around the chicken the moment the fat starts to splatter and burn. "Have you noticed how I haven't set off the smoke alarms on either Friday or Saturday?" I asked Jason. "Yeah! You are getting good at this. Weren't both of those Tender at the Bone classes?" he said appreciatively. My meat class was the worse smoke alarm offender. Try searing a porterhouse, a rack of lamb, and a pork roast in a row with NO vent. It's not pretty. What was worse was that it usually happened right after Jason put Sammy to bed. But I am a reformed cook now. I have finally figured out how to deal with the smoke and am no longer dreading teaching my meat class.

"Maybe I should blog about this. I bet other people have smoke alarm issues," I said. "You definitely should. By the way, what's that smell," said Jason. I opened the oven door and... Oh no!!! I put the skillet in the oven right with the handle mitt and there goes the smoke alarm.

Ok, so maybe I am not the smoke alarm master I thought I was. But as long as I don't cook my oven mitts at 500F, my smoke alarm prevention system really works. Really.

Here are some tips on how to keep your alarms at bay.

With hood that vents outside
If only we all were this lucky. If your hood vents outside, your job is easy. Turn it on low at least a few minutes before doing something smoky. It will create air flow that will suck that smoke right up. If you turn it on after the smoke is starting to build up, it will not catch up effectively.

No hood that vents outside, but there are windows in the kitchen
Let's get real -- that thing above my stove is useless. I stopped turning it on, and try to create air flow in other ways. Opening the windows in the kitchen and on the opposite side of the house works well for me. Just make sure to do it before you start searing. Opening the windows after the smoke starts to build is not effective. In winter, it might get chilly. You didn't think you'd get something for nothing, did you? If I could find a way to vent the smoke outside without effecting the temperature of your room, I'd be a rich woman.

No hood that vents outside, and no windows in the kitchen
This one is tough. You'll need a fan. Set it up so that it blows the air out of your kitchen and open as many windows as possible in the adjacent room. This is a trick my brilliant husband Jason came up with. Blowing air into your kitchen seems more intuitive to me, but it doesn't get rid of the smoke. Just like with the above two cases, you have to get your fan blowing and windows opened before searing.

Now that we got some air flowing, let's talk about the smoke itself. Believe it or not, some of it can be avoided. Not only will your house be more peaceful because the smoke alarms stay quiet, but your dish will taste better because you won't burn your fond (those lovely brown bits at the bottom of you skillet).

Use Canola Oil
I love olive oil as much as anyone, but it's not for searing. Its smoke temperature is too low. Use canola oil, and you'll create less smoke.

Fill in the gaps
Choosing the right size and shape of skillet for searing and high heat roasting (over 450F) is very important. If it's too small, the food will steam rather than brown. If it's too large, the exposed parts of the skillet will overheat resulting in burnt brown bits and smoke alarms. In an ideal world, you'd have a perfect batterie de cuisine that includes a pan in every size and shape (even those really cute oval roasters that fit a pork roast and chicken perfectly). But this is not an ideal world, so we have to learn to cook with what we have.

Most roasts are oval, but most skillets are round. Don't get hung up on keeping that roast in one piece. If necessary, cut it into smaller roasts that will fit into your skillet better. I always end up cutting a rack of lamb and pork tenderloins in half to better fit them into my 10 inch round skillet. If there are still empty areas on the bottom of the pan, I fill them with chunks of carrot to absorb the heat. If done correctly, this method won't compromise the quality of the sear. Here are some tips on how to do this:
  • Use veggies that are low in moisture to avoid creating steam. Large carrots work the best (make sure to dry them very thoroughly before using, and don't use the overly moist baby carrots). If you don't have any carrots on hand, there are always celery and onions, but they tend to create more steam making it more difficult for your protein to brown.
  • Cut the carrots into 1/2 inch thick planks or 1/2 inch thick slices on the bias. You want the pieces to be rather large. This will help you to keep them from under the protein you are searing or roasting. Your protein needs to be in direct contact with the skillet, so don't let those carrots sneak under.
  • Let the protein sear as long as possible without adding the carrots. I usually sear on the first size, then flip and add the carrots, but you'll have to use your judgement based on how much empty space you have in the skillet and how much smoke is created. Keep in mind that it's good to have some space between your pieces of protein (1/2 - 1 inch) to keep them from steaming. But if you have lots of empty space in your skillet, you'll need to fill it in.
What do you do with carrots afterwards? Most of the time, you discard them (but I much rather sacrifice a carrot than ruin the brown bits and set off smoke alarms). When this technique is used for searing proteins on the stove top, the vegetables end up too browned on the outside, but raw inside. When surrounding a roast with them, there is a possibility that they'll be cooked at the same time as the protein and become delicious, but there are no guarantees.

Chose the right type of smoke alarm
Even with the best of intentions, sometimes the smoke alarms go off anyway, so it's good to get ones with a button that you can press to shut them up. Keep a broom handy, so that you don't have to climb up on a chair.

When all else fails
If your smoke alarm goes off no matter what you put on your stove (even a pot of water for pasta), it might be time to get new smoke alarms. With use, alarms accumulate a layer of gunk on their sensor and the slightest whiff can send them over the edge. If you cook a lot, it can happen faster than the manufactures indicate. I had to replace mine after 6 years of use.

Do you have any other strategies for dealing with smoke alarms? I'd love to hear them.


Vicki said...

I can't do the blow the air with a fan thing, because I would end up blowing right at the smoke alarm. Honestly, I usually remove the battery, then put it back when the smoke clears.

Anonymous said...

If you have a fan which vents outside, it ALSO helps to crack a window in the kitchen if you can. The fan will create a (very weak) vacuum in your kitchen, and the cracked window will help relieve that vacuum and improve airflow.

Kake said...

We replaced the smoke alarm in our kitchen with a heat alarm.

Helen said...

Hi Kake,

The idea of a heat alarm sounds very appealing. Does it meet all the fire department / home insurance company regulations?


Kake said...

You'd have to check your own local regulations, but it certainly meets the regulations here (London, England) — we rent, and the council inspector specifically told our landlord that there should be a heat alarm in the kitchen, not a smoke alarm.

adele said...

Great post. The fan trick sounds useful - I'll have to keep it in mind.

I've cooked in many kitchens with sensitive smoke alarms, and frankly, at this point, I've learned to turn them off while I cook. :)

Unknown said...

Hi Helen,

My favorite technique is don't have a smoke detector in, or too close to, your kitchen.

In Massachusetts, you are only required to have smoke detectors, such that:
1) you have one on each level of your home.
2) you have one in every stairwell that leads to another level.
3) you have one outside of each separate sleeping area

You definitely do not need one in the kitchen, per any regulations. For extra safety you could install a heat detector in the kitchen if you want, as Kake mentioned. These only go off if the temperature in the kitchen reaches 140 degrees, or something like that.


Helen said...

Hi Tarken,

We don't have a smoke detector in the kitchen. It's the one in the hallway that always gives me trouble :)


cheek said...

I have a smoke detector that is extremely sensitive, and vaulted ceilings. On top of the thing going off too frequently, there is no real way to turn it off. I actually got a tall bar stool, my 6'4" self, AND a broom; despite being able to reach it and its button, the thing STILL wouldn't turn off. I believe that with the high ceilings any smoke that escapes floats up and lingers around until it sets it off.

I have found that pointing a box fan on high directly UP at the smoke detector is as good a preventative measure as it is to make the detector STOP chirping.

Blasting air at the detector seems to flush it with 'clean' air and reliably stops the alarm within about a minute. It used to take at least 5 to stop on its own.

It also seems to make it harder for smoke to get in the detector and set it off--kinda like those fans designed to keep flies out; they blow straight down when you open the door at some public places (like costco, i believe)

Unknown said...

I stay miles away from canola oil, I beleive it's one of the oils that have contributed to the rise in heart disease. Read what the fat experts at Weston-Price HERE

Jen said...

I need to open the front door, turn on a ceiling fan and the vent fan---quite a process :) Thanks for the useful tips about carrots vs. onions & celery as well as the oil preference. I usually use baby carrots but will try it your way from now on.

pyatachok said...

Have a door (if you can) between kitchen and smoke alarm, and close it tight when you cook on high heat.:)

sudu said...

OH! the troubles of the smoke alarm....the embarrasment of your neighbors inquiring......come winter I give up all sear and browning jobs. We eat Indian fod a lot (its just food for us) so our probs r manifold! My kitchen is this small hole in the wall kinda place with just a teeny-tiny window and I do cook/burn a lot curries (while on the phone!). The window on the other side of the room works great but I do not like to get the smell of curry everywhere in the apt! So we came up with this idea (kudos to my hubby)- we have a fan facing out of the window kitchen which acts like an exhaust and pulls most of the smoke and smell away from the kitchen, hallway (smoke detector) and the other rooms. Also peanut oil/safflower oil has a higher smoke point and works best in avoiding smoke.
Nice post! BTW love reading your archives- lots of helpful tips.

Unknown said...

Remove / disable the alarm. Don't tell your insurance company.

I really hate those things. My apartment is MORE likely to burn down if I have to leave the kitchen in the middle of searing something and run around like a headless chicken opening doors and windows.

And while we're on alarms - I had a carbon monoxide detector in one of my rentals. One night the thing started beeping because the batteries were low, and there's NO WAY to shut this thing up - it somehow keeps going even when you remove the batteries, or mine did. So I had to go out, in the middle of the night, to an 24h CVS. UGH.

Ken said...

Get the optical kind (slightly more expensive and roughly $25 at Amazon). I've never seen them at local Home Depot/Lowes. They work a lot better than the kind that tries to detect smoke particles...

Anya said...

What a great post! I am unlucky enough to have no windows and no vent to the outside PLUS 3 uber sensitive smoke alarms. Searing a steak drives me insane!

My hubby finally just pulls the batteries if it's a night I'll be smoking up the place.

Heather said...

I had no hood and useless windows in an old house and alarms in teeny hallways near the kitchen (also in MA). Everytime I cooked (every night) the thing would go off. First the 1st floor, then the 2nd floor...

I finally invested in a smoke and heat detector that shuts off with the tv remote (from Amazon). All I had to do is press the volume button and it shut off. So I didn't have to worry about the alarm not going off if I really needed it and I didn't have to break my neck trying to shut it off everytime I cooked.

Eliza said...

A great alternative to Canola Oil is Rice Bran Oil. High smoke point. Balances in fatty acids. Does not spoil or break down. Nice neutral flavor. Works like Grape Seed Oil -- but much better flavor and lighter.
Eliza (owner of ChefShop.com)

Cameron said...

My girlfriend is lucky enough to have smoke alarms tied into her house alarm and are not battery operated. When I cook in her kitchen it ALWAYS goes off, sending us scampering around the house opening windows, turning fans on, etc. The problem is, it goes off from the heat of oven, not just smoke. You can not turn on the oven above 400 without risking your eardrums future!

To fix this, we had no choice but to surgically remove it from the ceiling...just don't tell the insurance company!

Unknown said...

zip tie a small plastic sandwich bag over smoke detector while cooking.......