Do you need to rinse your chicken before you cook it? Here's the verdict

Stock image of raw chicken
Photo credit: Getty Images

Despite what your elders may have told you, you don't need to rinse raw chicken or any other poultry or meat before prepping and cooking it. In fact, the US Department of Agriculture and other food safety experts recommend against this practice. Here's why.

When rinsing chicken, bacteria such as salmonella can be transferred via the water to your kitchen surfaces, leading to potential cross contamination of other ingredients. Bacteria was found in the sinks of 60 percent of cooks who rinsed raw chicken as part of a 2019 USDA study.

"You don't realise how much stuff you're spraying all over the place," said Shawn Matijevich, a chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. "It only takes a small amount to get on everything."

Because "bacteria doesn't propagate through the air," Matijevich said, only through surface contact, it's smartest to minimise the times you touch raw poultry or put it in contact with dishes, utensils or countertops.

The "internet wisdom" of rinsing a chicken with vinegar, lemon juice or salt water to kill germs has been debunked by scientific studies as well. These methods will apply a quick brine to the chicken, but they do not have any effect on bacteria.

Cooking poultry to the recommended internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit is the foolproof way to make sure you're meeting food safety standards.

What can you do instead of rinsing chicken?

"Use paper towels, even more than you think you need," Matijevich said, and pat the chicken dry or let the paper towels soak up the excess liquid. Even if you're the type who tries to minimise single-use goods in the kitchen, paper towels will minimise the chance of spreading bacteria through additional surface contact.

Throw the paper towels away immediately after use. "Patting a chicken dry with paper towels reduces the splash but remember those paper towels may now be contaminated with pathogens and should be promptly disposed of in the trash," said Donald Schaffner, distinguished professor and chair of the department of food science at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Drying chicken - whether skin-on or skinless - before cooking also helps the pieces brown in the pan or in the oven. "Especially if you're roasting a chicken, you want the crispy skin," Matijevich said, and moisture is the enemy of crispness. The paper towel method also works for chicken that's been marinated or brined before cooking.

(Need a foolproof way to roast a chicken? Try these tips.)

Here are some additional best practices for food prep to minimise cross contamination in your kitchen.

  • Use a dedicated cutting board for poultry and meat and another cutting board for ingredients such as produce and cheese. "If a cutting board is used to prepare poultry and then fresh vegetables that will not be cooked, the chicken may transfer bacteria to the cutting board, which will then cross contaminate any fresh vegetables," Schaffner said. "Using separate cutting boards eliminates this risk."

  • Wait to handle raw poultry and meat as the final step in your meal prep process. Rinse, chop and prep all produce first. "Even if you use separate cutting boards and you prep the chicken first, depending upon exactly how the chicken is being handled, this may still spread bacteria around the kitchen or to your hands, which may eventually contact fresh vegetables or other items that will not be cooked," Schaffner said.

  • Wash your hands with hot, soapy water immediately after handling raw poultry. I do this in an empty sink so I won't splash on to any other kitchen implements that might then need to be washed.

  • Wash any items that have come into contact with raw poultry or its juices in the dishwasher or with hot, soapy water. "Using the sanitise cycle on the dishwasher is probably the most reliable way of managing the risk from any bacteria," Schaffner said.

  • Don't reuse a sponge or dishcloth that has been used to wash dishes and utensils that have come into contact with raw poultry juices. "Kitchen sponges can be a source of cross contamination. If they are used to clean up raw poultry juice, they should also go in the dishwasher on the sanitise cycle," Schaffner said. "Remember that sponges should be kept clean and dry when not in use. If food debris is allowed to accumulate in or on sponges and the sponges remain moist, the sponges can serve as a breeding ground for bacteria."

How to clean and sanitise your sink

While hot, soapy water will clean your dishes and surfaces, it won't sanitise them. To make sure you're not leaving any bacteria in your kitchen, sanitise the sink, faucet and countertops after working with poultry or meat.

Make your own sanitising solution by combining ½ teaspoon liquid bleach with 2⅔ cups water in a spray bottle, and wipe with paper towels or a clean towel that can be laundered in hot water. If using store-bought sanitising spray or wipes, follow the manufacturer's instructions.

With the risk of foodborne illnesses on the rise since the pandemic, putting best practices in place in your kitchen is one of the easiest and smartest ways to protect yourself while still eating well.

Casey Barber is a food writer, artist and editor of the website Good Food Stories.