For many people, washing chicken is an essential step that must take place before they get to the fun of actually cooking the bird. In a 2015 Journal of Food Protection study based on a nationally representative sample of 1,504 people, 69 percent of respondents reported rinsing or washing raw poultry. But plenty of other people haven’t even considered washing chicken before cooking it.
Some food safety experts understand the chicken-washing urge in theory. “I believe that those who [wash chicken] are doing so because they think that this is part of safe preparation—mostly because of long-standing messages and images of people washing a turkey for Thanksgiving,” Darin Detwiler, Ph.D., a professor of food policy at Northeastern University and a food safety expert, tells SELF.
Understanding the impulse to wash chicken doesn’t mean food safety experts sanction it, though. Here’s why you can go ahead and skip this step.
What happens when you wash chicken?
Raw chicken (and other poultry or meat) is often contaminated with bacteria that can cause foodborne illness, such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Clostridium perfringens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Unfortunately, washing chicken does you no favors in the pathogen department. “The act of washing a raw chicken will only spread [these bacteria],” says Detwiler.
Whether or not you use soap, scrubbing chicken splashes its juices around onto surrounding countertops, foods, and utensils, the CDC explains. In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that this water can spread bacteria up to three feet around your sink. If you touch those contaminated surfaces then ingest that lurking bacteria, you can wind up with a nasty case of food poisoning.
The only real time it might make sense to wash chicken before cooking it is if you’re, say, on a farm, and washing the chicken far from where you prepare food. Londa Nwadike, Ph.D., an assistant professor and extension food safety specialist at Kansas State University, says that she grew up on a farm and remembers slaughtering chickens for food in her backyard when she was younger. That might then require washing feathers or blood away from the meat. “But the meat from the chicken you buy at [the] grocery store should be clean,” she tells SELF. “Washing will not help it to be any cleaner.”
Instead, you want to make sure to cook the chicken properly.
Beyond the potentially harmful effects of washing chicken in your kitchen, there’s also no real need to do it in the first place.
“The heat from cooking handles most of the pathogens on raw chicken. Washing will not help this at all,” says Detwiler. “The only real ‘kill step’ is to cook the bird to the appropriate temperature throughout.”
That appropriate temperature is 165 degrees Fahrenheit for all poultry, according to FoodSafety.gov. While you may think you can tell when food is cooked properly by analyzing its color or texture, the only way to know for sure is to use a food thermometer. Be sure the thermometer reaches the innermost part of the meat, Nwadike says: “That’s the area that will take the longest to heat.”
In that 2015 Journal of Food Protection study, about 62 percent of people reported owning a food thermometer, and of these, 26 percent or less reported using it to check the internal temperature of smaller cuts of poultry or ground poultry. Be the change you food safety experts want to see.
Don’t make these other poultry mistakes, either.
The experts SELF spoke to say that people make many other missteps when it comes to preparing poultry safely. These slip-ups could contribute to foodborne illness as well. Here are a few common poultry mistakes food safety experts want you to stop making:
You store raw chicken above other things in the fridge. “This can cause any dripping juices to contaminate other foods, which may result in illness if they are not cooked properly,” says Detwiler. The USDA recommends keeping poultry in a sealed container or making sure that it’s wrapped up and can’t leak any juices. Even then, you might want to store it on the bottom shelf just to be safe.
You keep your refrigerator too warm. Check the temperature of your refrigerator to make sure it’s at or cooler than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, says Nwadike. This ensures an environment where it’s much harder for bacteria to proliferate (though it’s still not impossible).
You leave chicken unrefrigerated for too long. Food that sits in the “danger zone” between 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit can grow bacteria much more rapidly, according to the USDA. Bacteria in the danger zone can double in as little as 20 minutes.
To avoid the danger zone with your chicken, don’t leave it out for over two hours at 40 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, or over one hour above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. That means you shouldn’t defrost chicken on the counter—here are safer ways to defrost it instead, including in the refrigerator and in a bowl of cold water. Put your chicken in the fridge or freezer ASAP after cooking it, too.
You cross-contaminate galore. Do you not wash your hands after touching raw chicken but before reaching for the spices? Do you place grilled chicken back onto the same plate you used when it was raw? Detwiler notes that these kinds of errors increase your risk for cross-contamination. To avoid this, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after handling chicken. You should also always use different plates and utensils for raw and cooked meat, says Detwiler.
You don’t reheat your leftovers to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Realistically, you might dig into cold chicken leftovers because there are days when you just don’t have time for a microwave. As long as the meat hasn’t been stored above 40 degrees for more than two hours, that’s likely fine, says Detwiler. But if you want to be a stickler for the rules, the USDA recommends always reheating leftovers to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit—or until it’s tantalizingly hot and steaming—to kill stubborn bacteria.
You don’t use separate cutting boards for poultry and produce. According to the USDA, it’s fine to put raw chicken on either wood or non-porous cutting boards made of materials like plastic, marble, glass, and glass/ceramic blends.
However, Nwadike notes that wood boards tend to have more grooves from knife use where bacteria can hide and thrive. If you’re going to use wood, the USDA says that bamboo cutting boards are harder, less porous (read: fewer nooks and crannies for bacteria), and absorb less moisture than other wood options.
No matter which material you choose, the USDA recommends using separate cutting boards for raw poultry and other items to avoid cross-contamination.
You don’t clean your cutting boards correctly. Doing this the right way is pretty simple. Wash your board with hot, soapy water, rinse it with plain water, and let it air dry or pat it dry with clean paper towels, the USDA recommends. You can also throw acrylic, plastic, glass, and unlaminated solid wood boards into the dishwasher, per the USDA.
Then there’s the option of sanitizing wooden and plastic cutting boards with a mix of 1 tablespoon of liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water, letting it soak for a few minutes, then rinsing the board with water and patting dry.
Sure, cleaning your cutting boards so thoroughly might feel over the top. But when it comes to avoiding the vomitous hellscape that is food poisoning, it’s totally worth it.