Should You Rinse Chicken Before Cooking It?

Posted by Eric Troy on 10 Feb 2018 19:08

I was watching the latest episode of The Profit with Marcus Leomonis last night and one of the segments spurred me to write about something I was not going to bother writing about because I thought it was thoroughly covered: Should you rinse raw chicken in the sink before preparing and cooking it?

The episode featured a company called Southern Culture which makes pancake mixes, fried chicken mix, flavored grits, and other Southern-inspired products. This company had previously been seen on Shark Tank and was one of "Oprah's Favorite Things." To get a fresh take on the products, Lemonis took the owners to celebrity chef Art Ginsburg (there's another Oprah connection, sheesh).

Erica, Mama (Erica's mom), and Ginsburg worked in the chef's kitchen. Mama was rinsing the chicken in the sink and Erica asked what she was doing. When told, Erica said she never rinsed chicken before cooking it. Mama said people in the South always do that (not sure that is true). Chef Ginsburg got involved and said that you should always rinse chicken before preparing it because it "prevents cross-contamination" and that this fact was "widely known."

So, who is correct, Erica who doesn't believe in washing chicken or Ginsburg? The answer may surprise you. It's Erica. The truth is that Ginsburg is absolutely wrong in his assertion that rinsing chicken prevents cross-contamination. Whether this "fact" is "widely known" has nothing to do with whether it is actually a fact! Many things that are widely believed are myths.

The fact is that the USDA, CDC, nor any other body interested in food safety recommends rinsing your raw chicken in the sink before you prepare it. This is because rinsing chicken under running water, which is how cooks usually do it, is more likely to cause cross contamination of kitchen surfaces with pathogens like Salmonella or Campylobacter from the chicken. The water will splash around and tiny aerated drops will end up in the air, on your face, on your hands, and on the kitchen surfaces. This is called aerosolization. Now, you may not think this is happening but it is. In fact, you should close your toilet lid before flushing for the same reason. Yuck!

That Ginsburg repeated this incorrect food-safety advice is not surprising. I was irritated by it but not shocked. Chefs are just as prone to believing misinformation as the rest of us. The idea that a mere rinsing of chicken in cold water would render it free of germs and thus prevent any contamination of other foods or surfaces is quite absurd. The water may remove some of the "slime" from the chicken and even rinse away some bacteria, putting some of this bacteria into the air and then onto your skin, sink, countertop, utensils, etc. But some bacteria basically cling tightly to the surface of the chicken and you cannot easily rinse it away even if you rinsed, rinsed, and rinsed again.

So, rinsing is not effective and instead of preventing cross-contamination it causes it. And regardless of whether you rinse it or not, your chicken must be cooked to the proper internal temperature 165° F.

You may think that Ginsburg has just not discovered this new advice but to be clear, not rinsing your chicken is old advice. The USDA, for one, has been recommending it for years. Maybe Ginsburg got if from Julia Child who was always rinsing stuff in the sink. But as pointed out in this NPR article, her friend Jacques Pepin publicly questioned Child's chicken-rinsing habit on an episode of Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home.

It turns out Julia Child actually did something worse. She washed her chicken in hot water! While hotter water may well serve to wash away more bacteria, it also raises the temperature of the chicken so that any bacteria remaining will begin to multiply very quickly. If you cook your chicken quickly and properly this may not make much of a difference, but it's not a great idea. Here is the actual exchange between the two, which is more humorous and good-natured than it may seem in print:

CHILD: "I have washed this chicken with hot water." 

PEPIN: [looking at the camera] "I don't wash my chicken."

CHILD: HE doesn't wash his. I think in France they're not as worried about things as we are, are they?"

PEPIN: "Well, I live in Connecticut."

What about Chicken Slime?

If the surface of your chicken seems a little slimy you can wipe it carefully with a paper towel, throw away the paper towel, and thoroughly wash your hands. The pathogens that cause food-poisoning and the microbes responsible for food spoilage are different. Your chicken will have both. This still leaves open the question, then, of whether a little rinsing will result in a better-tasting chicken because it washes away some of the putrid juice from the surface of the chicken. I used to believe this to be true. However, if your chicken is so far gone it has a bad smell or bad taste, you probably shouldn't be cooking it. And any small taste difference is probably not worth the risk of cross-contamination.

Should You Rinse Meat Like Beef and Pork?

The same that is true of poultry is true of beef, pork, veal, lamb, etc. Rinsing it does not really clean it and certainly does not render it bacteria-free, but will likely cause cross-contamination of your kitchen, and your body.

Soaking in Brine Solutions

Sometimes cooks like to soak poultry or meat in a seasoned brine (salt water) solution. This does not make the food safer but it is perfectly acceptable from a culinary standpoint. Make sure you keep it sealed and inside the fridge and then carefully remove it to prevent, as much as possible, cross-contamination.

This article is not meant to be an in-depth overview of food-safety nor cross-contamination prevention. See more food safety information here on Culinary Lore.

More Resources

Washing Food: Does it Promote Food Safety? - USDA

Why you should never wash raw chicken - NHS

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