Should You Actually Wash Chicken Before Cooking It?

published Dec 24, 2018
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

When it comes to home cooking, few people have imparted more wisdom to the masses than the late Julia Child. She taught us to relax and have fun in the kitchen, extolled the endless virtues of butter, and shopped local way before it was cool.

Child also famously washed raw chicken before cooking it, explaining that it was probably safer because it would get rid of germs. As well-meaning as this seems, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Turns out, washing raw poultry is not only useless, but can also have a whole lot of negative consequences when it comes to food safety. Here’s everything you need to know about it.

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

According to the experts, washing raw poultry is a serious no-no.

“Never wash your raw poultry,” says Donald Schaffner, Ph.D., a professor of food science at Rutgers University. “It doesn’t do much to remove bacteria. What it will do is take the bacteria from that bird and spread it around your kitchen.” Water from your faucet will splatter as it hits the bird, spreading tiny and often imperceptible specs of those raw chicken juices all over your sink and the surrounding countertops.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Cooking chicken to the proper temperature will kill any harmful bacteria.

The best way to make sure your chicken is safe to eat, according to Schaffner and the USDA, is to cook it to an internal temperature of 165°F, at which point the juices will run clear and the meat will be entirely opaque, with no bits of translucent pink. I love ThermoWorks ThermoPop Thermometer ($34), which is easy to use and small enough to fit in any drawer. Stick it into the thickest part of whatever piece of chicken you’re working with — the center of a chicken breast or thigh if you’re cooking chicken in pieces, or the meaty area right where the breast and thigh meet if you’re cooking a whole bird — after cooking, to make sure your meat is done.

One precaution worth taking? Get a special plastic cutting board for raw meat.

“I suggest using a plastic cutting board,” Schaffner says. “There’s some controversy over the safety of wooden boards, because they can potentially harbor bacteria and cause cross-contamination even after being washed.” For what it’s worth, he says that he only uses a wood cutting board for slicing bread; everything else is done on plastic cutting boards, and he has a specific board designated to nothing but raw meat.

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

Use your dishwasher’s sanitize cycle to kill every last raw chicken germ.

After you’re done working with raw poultry, your cutting board and every tool you’ve used needs to be washed before it’s used again. “I recommend using a dishwasher, and running the sanitize cycle if you have one,” Schaffner says. “This cycle boosts the water temperature up to levels that will kill bacteria.” He explains that home water heaters can’t heat tap water to these temperatures, because it would scald you coming out of a faucet or showerhead.

If you don’t have a dishwasher, very hot water and antibacterial dish soap should do the trick, but you need to be vigilant and make sure to scrub every bit of your equipment.

And don’t pour raw chicken juices down the sink.

“Sometimes when you open a package of raw meat, there are these pink juices in there,” explains Schaffner. “You may be compelled to pour it down the drain, but you shouldn’t. Put the packaging in your trash instead, and take out the trash as soon as possible.” He explains that those raw juices can contain pathogenic microorganisms that are harmful. They might splatter if you pour them into your sink, which leads to the same problems as washing raw meat. Or, if you don’t scrub your sink with soap immediately after, you may cross-contaminate dishes or other ingredients, like vegetables, that you wash in the sink later.

If you won’t be taking out the trash for a while and must pour the juices down the sink drain, Schaffer advises that you “pour as carefully as you can, and run hot, soapy water down the drain behind the juices.” Then scrub your sink with some more hot, soapy water.

(Image credit: Andrea D’Agosto)

Washing chicken is bad from a cooking perspective, too.

In case you need another reason to skip that pre-cook rinse: Washing your chicken with water before cooking will keep the skin from getting crispy and delicious. “The goal of chicken cooking is typically golden brown and crisp skin,” says James Briscione, author of The Flavor Matrix: The Art and Science of Pairing Common Ingredients to Create Extraordinary Dishes and chef and owner of Angelena’s in Pensacola, Florida. “Wetting the skin immediately before cooking will prevent the skin or surface of chicken from getting brown and crisp.”

To get rid of any moisture, dry your meat thoroughly with paper towels before cooking — then throw those paper towels right into the trash. Remember: moisture creates steam, which prevents skin from crisping and ruins any chance of delicious browning on your meat.

Bottom line: Heat kills bacteria — it’s why humans started cooking things in the first place! — so don’t bother rinsing your raw meat.