Raw chicken is nasty is as [insert any expletive here]. All types of bacteria—Salmonella, Campylobacter, etc.— live on the surface of raw chicken. In fact, according to the CDC, it’s the food responsible for the most outbreak-associated illnesses. As a gastroenterologist, I commonly see people with food-borne infections. I’ve even heard people say they were surprised they had Salmonella because they rinsed their chicken.
Wait, does rinsing raw chicken before cooking it really make it safer?
Considering raw chicken’s nastiness, this is a 100% valid question. According to the FDA, 67% of people believe that rinsing raw chicken is helpful. I even conducted an informal Instagram survey to see how many people clean their raw chicken—58% rinse it, while 42% don’t.
I grew up rinsing raw chicken, but my experiences as a trained chef (also a certified food handler) and a gastroenterologist made me question this practice.
Do we REALLY have to clean our chicken before cooking it? Are the percent who don’t wash their chicken inviting salmonella into their lives? Or, does rinsing raw chicken ACTUALLY make you less safe
A random encounter with a medical student showed me that I need to answer these questions. Let’s dig in.
My raw chicken medical student story
Not too long ago, after one of my nutrition lectures, I had an odd feeling that someone was following me as I walked to my car. I turned and looked over my shoulder—all I saw was an empty dimly lit indoor garage. As I came closer to my car, a medical student popped up out of nowhere like a ninja. When he jumped up from behind a car and yelled, “Dr. McDonald”—I learned three things:
1. Men can benefit from Kegel exercises.
2. My soprano range is flawless.
3. The panic button on my car’s remote starter is worthless.
After my heart started beating again, he told me that he was impressed by me being a nutrition-focused doctor with training as a chef. I then realized he was a student who just wanted to talk.
He mentioned that he had a burning question for someone who knows about nutrition, gastrointestinal diseases, and cooking. A little bead of sweat when down my forehead because I never know what to expect in these situations. He then asked, “So as a chef and a gastroenterologist, what do you use to clean your raw chicken?” Wait, what?
I thought he was going to ask about my recipes or the dangers of sugary foods. Nope, none of the above, he was only interested in cleaning raw chicken.
I never judge questions, but I honestly wasn’t expecting that one. Asking that question is like finding a genie’s lamp, rubbing it, and then asking the genie for a book of stamps when the genie offers to grant you wishes. It was undoubtedly a random question.
I quickly told him my answer—one backed by experience and evidence. He then immediately turned an ashy gray color— like my response instantly dried out every ounce of respect he had for me. Next, he shook his head and walked away mumbling something. I suddenly realized I was just chicken shamed.
I told him that I don’t wash my chicken [insert gasps here].Ed McDonald
Here are five reasons why I don’t rinse raw chicken.
1. Rinsing raw chicken can aerosolize bacteria.
Again, until I took a food safety class in culinary school, I religiously cleaned my raw chicken before cooking it. My food sanitation class made me re-think this practice. The course emphasized that rinsing chicken raises the risk of spreading germs like Salmonella and Campylobacter due to a process called ‘aerosolization.’
Aerosolization in this context means that when you wash off raw chicken, the rinsing splashes microbes from the surface of the chicken all over your kitchen.
I was familiar with the concept of aerosolizing bacteria through my experience treating patients infected with a bacteria called C. difficile. C. difficile is a bacteria that causes severe diarrhea. Studies demonstrate that people infected with C. difficile can spread bacterial spores through the air whenever they flush a toilet with the lid raised.
Researchers argue that the same process occurs with rinsing raw chicken (see the video below with Dr. Jennifer Quinlan).
2. A raw chicken rinse may increase the risk of cross-contamination
As above, rinsing raw chicken may facilitate cross-contamination. No disrespect to Julia Child, but watch her video closely.
She starts off talking about how rinsing raw chicken may make food safer. Then, she grabs her glasses after rinsing the raw chicken without first cleaning her hands. I know Julia Child is a food icon, but this is an #epicfail.
This video shows how cross-contamination easily happens. Every time Julia Child touches her glasses, she can potentially pass on bacteria from the chicken she rinsed off. What if she touched those glasses right before making a salad? Eww!
3. I cook chicken to the proper internal temperature
I always cook chicken to a proper internal temperature of 165 °F (73.9 °C). Check out the USDA’s for the safe minimum internal temperature for various foods.
It’s the heat that really kills the bacteria. The rinsing may only clean off some of the bacteria on the surface.
4. Multiple food safety organizations advise against rinsing raw chicken
Almost every government agency involved in food safety recommends against rinsing raw chicken. Here are a few quotes with links.
The USDA: “Washing raw poultry, beef, pork, lamb, or veal before cooking it is not recommended. Bacteria in raw meat and poultry juices can be spread to other foods, utensils, and surfaces. We call this cross-contamination.
Some consumers think they are removing bacteria and making their meat or poultry safe. However, some of the bacteria are so tightly attached that you could not remove them no matter how many times you washed.”
5. Marinating chicken may slightly decrease bacteria on the surface of raw chicken
A study published in 2005 demonstrated that various marinades may decrease bacterial counts in raw chicken. These marinades included red wine, vinegar, white wine, lemon juice, cranberry juice, etc. Distilled white vinegar was the most effective marinade.
It’s worth noting that none of the marinades decreased the bacteria counts to zero. In other words, you still have to cook your chicken thoroughly even in you marinade it. Also, NEVER reuse marinades that have come in contact with raw chicken.
For people who insist on continuing to rinse raw chicken, here are a few tips.
1. After touching raw chicken, make sure you wash your hands and any item that came in contact with the chicken (i.e., cutting boards, knives, et cetera).
2. Clean your sink and surrounding kitchen top with bleach after rinsing the chicken.
In case you are aerosolizing bacteria during the rinsing process, make sure you clean the sink (especially the drain and faucet handles) and the area surrounding the sink. Also, I don’t recommend having clean dishes rest next to the sink in a dish rack when rinsing off raw chicken.
3. Sanitize your sponges.
Commercial soaps are ineffective for removing bacteria from your sponges. If you are going to rinse your chicken, you should recognize the possibility that you may contaminate your sponges with bacteria. Definitely consider sanitizing your sponges by soaking them in a diluted bleach solution, microwaving them, boiling them, or cleaning them in the dishwasher.
4. Fully cook your chicken
Whether you rinse your raw chicken or not, eating raw or undercooked chicken raises the risk of infection.
5. Use a separate cutting board for cleaning raw chicken.
6. Treat frozen raw chicken the same way as thawed raw chicken.
7. Try wiping of chicken with a clean paper towel. Make sure you discard of the sheet because it can be a source of cross-contamination.
What’s the bottom line?
- Be careful with rinsing raw chicken. I recommend against it altogether.
- If you don’t cook your chicken completely, washing it won’t help you.
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I am a physician and trained chef. I specialize in gastroenterology and nutrition. Currently I work as the Associate Director of Adult Nutrition at the University of Chicago.