It’s almost muscle memory for many home cooks: remove raw chicken from its wrapping and rinse under water. This step is included in so many older chicken recipes in cookbooks, magazines, and online sources that it rivals “preheat oven.”
But, really, should you wash your chicken? And how did we even come up with this once-ubiquitous instruction?
The answer to the first question is much simpler than the second. “All public agencies say ‘Do not wash your chicken,’” says Bill Marler, a managing partner at the Food Safety Law Firm, who has litigated foodborne illness cases for 30 years. The risk of washing chicken is that by doing so, you are most likely splashing dangerous bacteria—salmonella and campylobacter, the two leading causes of bacterial foodborne illness—around your kitchen, your clothes, and ultimately all over your home.
And the payoff for all that risk? It’s nonexistent. The only way to kill the pathogens in your poultry is to cook it fully.
This is basic food-handling 101, as advised by the CDC. Yet a number of studies—including this 2019 report from the USDA—have shown how pervasive chicken-washing has become. Among a control group of participants studied, 39% washed their chicken before cooking it. Among that group, 30% reported doing so because they believed it removed blood or slime, and 19% did so because it was what a family member did.
So how did so many people come up with the idea to wash, rinse, or splash our chickens around in the sink before getting down to the business of preparing it for dinner?
Some of the blame for the idea’s popularity may fall on the grande dame of American recipes: Julia Child. On page 236 of her massively influential 1961 tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she writes, “Because commercially raised chickens, on the whole, are packed in a communal tub of ice during at least part of their processing, it is probably wise to give them a thorough washing and drying before storing or cooking—just to be on the safe side.”
She later updated her recommendation, noting harmful bacteria, in her 1989 cookbook The Way to Cook, directing readers to wash raw chicken in hot water: “Then unwrap the chicken at the sink, let hot water run over it inside and out, washing the giblets as well. Dry it in paper towels, set it on the cutting board, and go to work.”
How hot is not described. But unless the water is hot enough to fully cook the chicken, this amendment doesn’t check out.
Jacques Pépin even challenged Child on their PBS cooking show, Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home, when Child explains that she has washed her chicken with hot water to reduce the risk of salmonella. Pépin says that he doesn’t wash his chicken, arguing that “if it’s going to go in a 400-degree oven for an hour or so, if the bacteria are still living, then they deserve to live.”
Child’s instructions were at least well-intentioned—salmonella is indeed a leading cause of severe foodborne illness, even resulting in death. It sickens approximately 1.3 million Americans per year, while campylobacter sickens 1.5 million. This is a preventable problem, according to Marler. For instance, when the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) declared E. coli to be an adulterant in ground beef in 1994, any commercial products that tested positive for the bacteria were banned from sale, and the number of E. coli cases dropped to nearly zero. Conversely, consumer groups and lawyers have called on food safety services to declare salmonella an adulterant for decades, but to no avail. Furthermore, from as far back as the 1960s, the American Public Health Association (APHA) petitioned the USDA to apply labels on chicken products advising consumers on safe handling to protect against salmonella, which the chicken industry strongly opposed, believing it would hamper sales. In a 1974 decision, APHA v. Butz, the USDA Secretary Earl Butz buckled to industry pressure by determining that it was, effectively, the consumer’s responsibility to handle poultry safely to reduce the risk of salmonella. That stance hasn’t changed since.
“Companies can knowingly sell contaminated products, and they do,” Marler says. “So my advice to anybody handling poultry is to handle it like you know it’s contaminated. Because it probably is.”
So how do you handle chicken like it’s contaminated? It’s a lot easier than it sounds. Throw your chicken wrappings in the garbage and minimize contact with the raw chicken on any surface, including your hands, because hands are harder to sanitize and more likely to contaminate other surfaces. Marler prefers using tongs over hands when possible—such as when transferring chicken pieces from the package to a bowl. When you do touch raw chicken, he advises washing your hands under hot, soapy water—the hottest you can tolerate—for a full 30 seconds. Sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to be sure. It’s not a hassle, but it does require you to think about it a little more.
And whatever you do, don’t wipe your hands on your pants, apron, or kitchen towels: “Those are environments where bacteria are quite happy to be,” Marler says.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious