How to cook when you can’t stand the heat

OPINION: I’ve measured temperatures as high as 58 C near restaurant stoves — but it can get pretty hot in the backyard, too. Follow these steps to beat the heat when you’re at the grill
By Corey Mintz - Published on Aug 01, 2019
Food being grilled on a barbecue
Though it might be tempting to fire up the grill for some 3 p.m. hot dogs, avoid the hottest times of the day. (iStock.com/Giang Nguyen)

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For the past five years, my wife and I lived in an apartment, with no outdoor space. So this year, when we moved into a home with a little yard, we discovered what most Canadians know: the joy of cooking outside when it’s really hot. Grilling burgers and corn outdoors is nature’s alternative to running the oven and filling your home with greasy fumes.

But recently, on a day that felt too hot to turn on the stove, I was out back, clothes sticking to my body as I assembled charcoal for the barbecue, and I realized it was also too hot to stand outside.

They say that if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. That has long been a deeply flawed aphorism, weaponized to exploit employees in many fields, primarily in restaurants. But with temperatures rising outside the kitchen, the phrase falls apart on a literal level.

As predicted, climate change is radically reshaping our world, triggering extreme weather for which we are unprepared.

Last summer, there were 90 heat-related deaths in Quebec. This year, a heatwave in Europe continues unabated. Paris just reached a historic 42.6 C. Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands have also recorded historically high temperatures.

There is no real spring in Ontario anymore. This year, after a long winter that felt as if it would never end, a torrent of rain ushered in brutally hot summer weather and extreme-heat warnings.

Can you imagine how hot it gets in a professional kitchen, where stoves run for 12 hours?

You don’t have to. I’ve measured it. A few summers ago, I took a directional thermometer, the kind that Public Health uses to inspect chafing dishes at street-food festivals, and used it to gauge the ambient temperature inside professional kitchens. Think of a restaurant with a tandoori oven that could singe off your arm hair, or a bakery with eight bread ovens stacked on top of one another. Or a Neapolitan pizza restaurant with a wood-burning oven that can cook a pizza in 90 seconds. Or a fancy steakhouse with an oven that can reach an internal temperature of 815 C. Consider standing in front of those during dinner service from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Aiming the thermometer at where the cooks stand, I measured temperatures as high as 58 C.

Legally, workplaces in Ontario have to maintain a minimum of 18 C. But there is no maximum. I have heard of cooks passing out and getting heat rashes on their stomachs. I know a barbecue restaurant where the cooks are ordered to take a cooling shower mid-shift.

So, as temperatures keep rising, we need to give some serious thought to the once-simple pastime of grilling.

According to Edward Xie, an emergency physician at the University Health Network, there’s no universal measure of “too hot” for humans. It can vary depending on a number of factors, including the health of the person, whether they are acclimatized to heat (someone from a hot country will respond differently than someone from a colder region), how long they are exposed to heat, how they are exposed (air, fluid, solid, radiation), their levels of exertion and hydration, and how much of their body is exposed.

“If the body temperature rises above about 40 to 42 C, critical organ functions can stop working properly,” says Xie. “Above 42 C, important enzymes that are sensitive to heat will no longer function.”

In the short term, our bodies cool themselves by pushing hotter blood to the skin. Sweat evaporates from the skin, helping to cool the blood and releasing heat from the body. Over a week or two, the body can adapt to sustained high temperatures by producing more sweat, higher blood flow, and greater blood volume.

While that sounds neat, we don’t have an infinite supply of blood.

“There’s only so much blood to go around,” Xie says. “So the more blood that circulates to the skin, the less there is for other organs, such as the brain.”

And, friend, we need our brains for flushing toilets and remembering where our cars are parked.

So if you are cooking outside on a hot day or night, drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids. You should be going to the bathroom more than every three hours. Take breaks in the shade. Though it might be tempting to fire up the grill for some 3 p.m. hot dogs, avoid the hottest times of the day. Wear loose, light-coloured, breathable clothing that lets sweat evaporate. Remember that, as hot as it is outside, you’ve created a hotter space in front of the grill. And your body can adapt only so much and so fast.

If you’re feeling lightheaded — a sign that not enough blood is getting to the brain — you may be on the cusp of fainting. Sit or lie down slowly, drink some fluids, and call someone for help.

When it is too hot to turn on your oven, or even to flame on the grill, you can always go out to eat. And if you go to a restaurant on a super-hot night, bring a box of Freezies as a gift for the kitchen — it’s the least you can do. It’s a cheap extra tip. And you have no idea how much it will be appreciated.

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