Why You Should *Never* Rinse Your Thanksgiving Turkey

published Nov 16, 2023
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Turkey beside kitchen sink.
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Good kitchen hygiene is always important. You should wash your hands before you start cooking and after handling raw meat. But washing your turkey on Thanksgiving morning? Not so fast. You can actually cause more harm than good. Here’s why you should never rinse your turkey — and how to safely prepare your raw bird.

The Problem with Washing Your Turkey

“There is no need to wash your turkey,” says Kali Kniel, professor of microbial food safety at the University of Delaware. “You risk splashing bacteria on other surfaces in the kitchen or spreading bacteria around onto your countertops,” Kniel says. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. federal agencies have recommended not washing raw turkey for nearly 20 years, and yet it’s still an incredibly common practice.

A turkey bath can also lead to cross-contamination with other foods. And raw turkey has no shortage of stuff you want to avoid: According to the CDC, it can contain Salmonella, Campylobacter, and other bacteria and germs, which could cause diarrhea, vomiting, and more. 

How to Practice Safe Turkey Prep

Thankfully, careful turkey preparations can help prevent unwanted problems from cramping your Thanksgiving style. First, always wash your hands before and after handling raw turkey — the CDC recommends at least a 20-second scrub. 

You also need to properly store your bird before the big day. “Keep a fresh turkey in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook it,” Kniel says. And keep a frozen turkey in your freezer until you’re ready to thaw it, according to the CDC. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends thawing a turkey in the refrigerator, as this environment provides a consistent, safe temperature,” Kniel says. She adds that it takes a long time to thaw — as in, multiple days — so you should prepare accordingly.

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If you didn’t put your main course in the fridge in time, the CDC says you can thaw turkey in the sink with cold water in a leak-proof plastic bag. The public health agency stresses that you must immediately cook a turkey thawed in cold water. “Carefully remove the turkey from the packaging and dispose of the packaging into the trash,” says Kniel. Then comes the cleanup! The USDA recommends washing any surfaces that come in contact with raw turkey or its juices, like your sink and countertops, with “hot, soapy water.” The federal agency also says you can sanitize surfaces “with a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water.” 

Other health and safety tidbits to remember as you cook include the CDC’s rec to use one cutting board for raw turkey and separate boards for other food. The agency also stresses immediately using hot, soapy water to wash all cutting boards, utensils, and surfaces touched by raw turkey. 

Finally, ensure your turkey is fully cooked before you dig in — your thermometer should register a temperature of 165°F at “the innermost part of the thigh and the thickest part of the breast,” Kniel says.