The debate has plagued both home and professional cooks for decades: Should we be washing poultry before cooking it? It’s covered in slime and bacteria that should be removed, right?
Well, according to both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the answer is a clear and resounding no.
Both agencies mention the potential spread of campylobacter and salmonella ― bacteria found in raw chicken and turkey that are known to cause food poisoning ― as primary reasons not to rinse poultry.
“During washing, chicken juices can spread in the kitchen and contaminate other foods, utensils and countertops,” reads the official CDC guidelines. In a semi-ironic twist, folks rinse chicken in an effort to get rid of the bacteria, but in doing so they end up spreading the unwanted organisms more widely.
“Some of the bacteria are so tightly attached that you could not remove them no matter how many times you washed,” the USDA points out.
By placing our meats under a faucet and turning on the water, experts say, we’re causing the splattering and cross-contamination that we’re looking to avoid in the first place.
A dive into the CDC and USDA recommendations shows there has been relatively little research that confirms rinsing poultry will cause cross-contamination.
The USDA cites a 2019 study that found 60% of people who washed raw poultry had bacteria in their sink afterward, and 14% still had sink bacteria after they cleaned the sink. It would seem to follow that washing germs off a chicken is a difficult task and it might cause the unwanted spread of bacteria.
Patrick McNiff, owner of Pat’s Pastured, a farm in Rhode Island, abides by the safety standards.
“There are some things we disagree on with the USDA, but in this case we tend to agree,” McNiff told HuffPost. “The USDA has done that kind of research, they are the ones who have the multimillion-dollar budget.”
Not everyone shares McNiff’s opinion, including the late, great Julia Child. The chef famously rinsed all her poultry before preparing a meal, to the chagrin of her very own “Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home” co-host Jacques Pepin, who refused to wash chicken.
Michael Ruhlman, the American author of food-related books, including “Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America,” follows Child’s method, placing his meat underwater before cooking it ― albeit not necessarily to get rid of bacteria.
“I prefer no gunk on my chicken,” Ruhlman said. “I don’t believe there’s much risk gently rinsing a chicken” and “patting it dry and washing your hands afterwards.”
Ruhlman and others in his camp don’t doubt the existence of salmonella and campylobacter. They are, however, more concerned with what he called gunk on meat after purchase.
So, how do you get rid of unwanted and harmful bacteria on raw poultry if washing does more harm than good?
According to the USDA and the CDC ― and just about all experts in the wash vs. don’t-wash discussion ― cooking chicken to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius) will kill all bacteria. Experts advise the use of a food thermometer to make sure that temperature is reached.
Other expert tips to avoid cross-contamination include deep cleans of utensils and cutting boards after they’ve come into contact with raw meat, and the use of a plastic cutting board instead of a wooden one when dealing with poultry so the surface doesn’t retain unwanted juices.
Some folks even go as far as advising against pouring raw chicken juices found in packages down the drain. They should be sealed and tossed into the garbage to further minimise the possibility of kitchen contamination.
Just remember: The more you mess with it, the greater the risk you’re spreading bacteria.