Why You Should Never Wash Chicken Before You Cook It

This age-old prep step is actually dangerous—it increases your risk of cross-contamination and foodborne illness.

Rinsing raw chicken inside and out before cooking is the norm for many home cooks. The step is often called for in recipes—and the technique for how to wash chicken has been passed down through generations. Here's the thing: It might be a time-old method, but this step actually increases the risk of the food-borne illnesses we're all trying to avoid. So, how did washing chicken become a ubiquitous part of food prep and why do so many of us still believe it's a good practice?

If you flick through old cookbooks, you'll find recipes that call for rinsing chicken as part of the prep process dating back to the 1960s. It was a step that home cooks felt kept their families safe from dangerous pathogens—when in fact, it was spreading them. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) started telling consumers not to wash raw poultry in the '90s, but the myth persists to this day.

Last fall, the non-profit Partnership for Food Safety Education (PFSE), Drexel University's College of Nursing and Health Professions, and New Mexico State University University collaborated on an education program that encouraged consumers to stop washing chicken. Along the way, they discovered that home cooks do this because they don't trust chicken processing and want to control the process of preparing food—but some wash chicken simply because they have always done so.


Why Chicken Shouldn't Be Washed Before Cooking

When you rinse raw chicken, you effectively spread bacteria—namely salmonella and campylobacter, the two leading causes of bacterial foodborne illness—all over your sink, and those can infect your sponge and dirty your workspace. Put simply, if you wash raw chicken, you are cross-contaminating your kitchen.

Yes, fresh fruit and vegetables should be washed with cold water before preparation, but raw poultry should not. Don't worry: Properly cooking chicken will destroy any pathogens. In fact, it is the only way to destroy those pathogens.

The Right Way to Prep Raw Chicken

Instead of washing raw chicken, here's how to prep chicken for cooking, beginning with the correct way to open the package:

  1. Start by slitting the chicken's plastic covering at one end and placing the chicken pieces on a clean plastic board designated for raw meat to avoid cross-contamination. (Then, carefully throw away the packaging and any liquid in it.)
  2. Pat the meat dry with paper towels before turning to step one of your prep. If your recipe calls for removing the skin, pat the chicken dry after you've done that. Blotting the excess moisture will ensure that your chicken cooks and turns an appetizing golden brown.

Safe Food Handling for Raw Chicken

To minimize cross-contamination, follow these steps when you shop, prep, and cook:

  • Keep poultry separate from fresh produce in your grocery bag, in the refrigerator, and during food preparation.
  • Use a designated plastic cutting board for raw meat. Do not prep raw chicken on the same board you use for vegetables.
  • Wash everything used in food preparation in hot, soapy water. This includes not just knives or other utensils and cutting boards, but also counters.
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