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Washing Raw Poultry

Do you wash your chicken? Then read this.

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Each of us has certain topics we feel smugly superior about when in comparison to our friends, family and colleagues. For some it may be sports’ statistics. For others, it might be an aptitude for keen political astuteness. But I have always relished an insatiable arrogance for food safety knowledge. It all goes back to my high school home economics class (known today as Family and Consumer Sciences) where I was introduced to the kitchen and the concept of food safety. At home, the kitchen was forbidden territory for fear I’d either make an unforgivable mess or burn the house down. But, under the steadfast glare of the Catholic schoolmarm, I was given license to learn, explore and experiment so long as I practiced good food safety techniques. At school, the world of unseen microbes was the truer enemy compared to a massive mess. But, I still had to promise not to burn the building down.  

I was able to convince my mother to allow me to practice my assignments in our home kitchen, and she agreed so long as my older sister helped. I clearly remember one evening making a chicken parmesan recipe where you had to dredge the chicken breasts in a flour bowl, then in a bowl of beaten eggs and then finally into a mixture of bread crumbs, herbs and grated parmesan. It was a stressful evening because my sister had horrible food safety practices! After touching the raw chicken, she refused to wash her hands — a big food safety no-no. She also didn’t respect the rules of cross-contamination and used the same pair of tongs to move both the raw and cooked pieces of chicken. Inconceivable! I kept trying to tell her she was doing it wrong, but she just ignored me and said I was being a brat. To this day whenever I hear that one of her kids is sick (again) with a "stomach bug", I always think back to that ill-fated night full of food safety sins. Just saying…

USDA Recommendation: do NOT wash
One of the biggest lessons I learned those 20-odd years ago that still holds true today is to not wash your raw chicken — ever! Since I didn’t grow up cooking and since my mother, an anxious cook, was afraid to cook chicken for fear of the dreaded salmonella, this concept was a non-issue for me. Don’t wash your chickens? No problem! But since coming to this profession and teaching cooking skills to the public, this practice is held near and dear to so many.

A report from the USDA suggests 90% of home cooks wash their chickens. Why is this a problem? Because disease-causing microorganisms (like the salmonella bacteria) can contaminate your kitchen counters, hand towels, sink and anything else in range during a back-splash effect. (Watch this short video demonstrating this phenomenon: https://youtu.be/JZXDotD4p9c )

This is important because approximately 1 in 6 Americans (around 48 million) suffer from food bourne illnesses each year. And those are only the cases reported. If you wash your chicken and claim never to have gotten sick, how many times have you or your family had “the 24-hour stomach flu”?

When I ask the chicken washers why they wash their raw poultry, I get the following answers:

  • “I’m washing off the bacteria.”
    But, it’s not really possible to wash off bacteria. The only way to get rid of bacteria is to kill, and the only way to kill it is with heat.  Cooking your chicken to an internal temperature of 165F is the only way to get rid of the bacteria. Plus, bacteria live all over the chicken including inside out. So, washing chickens to get rid of the bacteria doesn’t make sense.

  • “I want to get the nasty chicken juice off.”
    I’m a texture person, so I somewhat understand this concept. Chickens exude juice while sitting in their package. This juice may solidify to a thick slime as it intermingles with the skin and other surface areas. It’s gross. I get it. But washing that off risks spraying the microbes living in that sliminess all over your kitchen sink, counter and other areas which isn’t good. Patting the chicken dry with paper towels is a better practice food safety wise and also cooking wise. A dry surface on the chicken promotes better browning which translates to wonderful flavor.

Note there is one thing you should ALWAYS wash when handling raw chicken — your hands. With soap and water for 15 to 20 seconds then dry completely with a clean towel or fresh paper towels.

For more information about handling raw meat, see the following link: https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/2ceaa425-0488-4e86-a397-e2d9c470fc4a/Washing_Food.pdf?MOD=AJPERES

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