Burning the Hand That Feeds Us

By Robert L. Wolke
Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Why is it possible to put one's hand into a 350-degree oven without harm, whereas touching a 350-degree casserole dish can produce a painful burn?

It's a matter of thermal conductivity: the speed of transmission of heat.

The air in the oven, though hot, is a poor conductor of heat. That is, it will not easily transmit its heat energy into an object with which it may come in contact: in this case, our reach-in hand. The reason is that, in order for a hot substance to pass its heat energy on to another substance, its molecules must actually bang against those in the second substance.

If you could see the air's molecules with a super microscope, you'd notice that they are far apart, relatively speaking, so their collisions with our "skin molecules" are few and far between. Thus, very little energy is transmitted into the hand.

By contrast, the molecules of a hot metal or ceramic utensil are very close together. When you touch them, your skin is bombarded instantly and furiously by zillions of hot molecules.

Note, though, that in either case, the longer your hand is in contact with the heat source, the more heat will enter your skin and the hotter it will get. So time of contact comes into the equation. You can't keep your hand in the oven too long, and conversely, you can sometimes get away with a fleeting brush against a hot griddle.

But don't tempt fate.


It gave me great pleasure to throw away my oven mitt the other day. It was a thick and clumsy terry-cloth one, and made me feel like a pianist in boxing gloves.

With one of these giant mittens on my hand, I find it virtually impossible to remove a sheet of cookies from the oven without squashing one of them with my big fat thumb. And trying to lift a hot, heavy Dutch oven using the mitt on one hand and a potholder in the other was an unvarying flirt with disaster. That's not to mention the mitt's being scorched while I was manipulating a hot pan over a gas burner. Admit it; your oven mitt has, on occasion, been flamed, hasn't it?

There are other choices on the market for handling hot stuff. I haven't actually used one of those long, silicone Orka gloves (it looks like a gaping-jawed killer whale), but I tried one on in a store and decided that it was even clumsier and much less flexible than my padded mitts. Nor do those square silicone or leather (?!) potholders really solve the flexibility problem.

I have recently stumbled upon a product called the 'Ove' (rhymes with) Glove, which I am told has been around for some time. It is perhaps the most liberating kitchen tool since the can opener. This five-fingered glove is thin and flexible, and according to the manufacturer, can withstand temperatures up to 480 degrees. It's like having heatproof hands.

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