To wash your chicken or not wash your chicken: that is the question that has plagued home cooks for decades.
Slimy, covered in pink and red specks — or even feathers, some claim — it may seem like common sense to wash off your chicken before dousing it in spices and marinades.
But Jennifer Quinlan, a professor and interim chair of food and nutrition sciences at Drexel University, tells Inverse that washing your chicken is actually doing more harm than good. It could even land you in the hospital if you’re not careful.
“The minute you introduce water, you give those pathogens the ability to move from the chicken to elsewhere in your kitchen,” Quinlan says.
TV chefs and chicken
Whether or not you wash your chicken is a habit very likely inherited from your parents and grandparents, explains Quinlan. If your grandmother’s roast chicken recipe has always called for rinsing the bird before cooking then odds are that is what you’ll be doing decades later.
“You don't necessarily see everywhere those microparticles might be... it might’ve gone further than you realize.”
But where did this myth of needing to wash chicken originate?
“Fifty to 75 years ago, chicken was processed differently,” Quinlan explains. “Maybe you did need to wash something off — maybe there were still feathers there or something.”
“The way food is processed has changed, such that we don’t generally need to wash off your chicken now,” she says. “[Processing] really changed drastically in the mid-1990s... and I don’t think most people are aware of that.”
While she gave home cooks a lot of good tips and tricks, Julia Child also spread some misinformation.
Just like it might’ve been difficult to stop disinfecting your groceries after the initial panic of surface transmission during the Covid-19 pandemic subsided, Quinlan suggests it may simply be difficult for some consumers to accept that they really don’t need to wash their chicken anymore.
“Your chicken has been washed multiple times.”
When this belief is passed down through generations or throughout different cultures, it can be especially difficult to debunk, she explains.
“We've found people who say ‘Well, I don't wash it in this case but if I'm using my grandmother's recipe I always wash it,’ and then they realize maybe that doesn't make sense,” Quinlan says.
Should you wash your chicken?
Despite what advice your grandmother might’ve passed down, Quinlan says washing your chicken is an unnecessary — and even dangerous — part of the cooking process in the United States, where poultry processing regulations have become increasingly strict.
This includes washing it in anti-microbial agents to reduce the overall pathogen load, Quinlan adds.
“If you're buying chicken the way most of us buy chicken — from a regulated facility in the U.S. — your chicken has been washed multiple times,” she says.
While the sometimes slimy coating dripping of your chicken breasts may look unappealing, Quinlan says it’s actually just a mix of chicken proteins, water, and myoglobin (a red-colored protein responsible for carrying and storing oxygen in muscle cells.)
This “purge,” as it is unfortunately named, is a harmless and natural part of the butchering process, she says.
Why washing chicken is actually dangerous
Washing or rinsing off chicken won’t eradicate any germs or pathogens on it. Instead, this step will fling loose pathogens and bacteria from the chicken onto other surfaces in your kitchen, potentially infecting other foods you eat, Quinlan says.
Raw chicken is a carrier of pathogens like Salmonella and Campylobacter, which can give you nausea, chills, or even put you in the hospital if you’re not lucky. Together, these bacteria cause 1.8 million foodborne infections annually in the U.S. alone.
Heating your chicken thoroughly in the oven, however, is enough to do these pesky bacteria in. For safety, the chicken should reach an internal temperature of 165 Fahrenheit before you eat it.
Quinlan says that she often hears the argument that a consumer can simply disinfect their sink or kitchen counter after rinsing off their chicken, but she says that it’s simply not a foolproof strategy.
“One of the things we hear people say, ‘Oh, well I just clean up well,’ but the point is, first of all, you don't even have to clean up — you can just skip all that,” Quinlan says. “You don't necessarily see everywhere those microparticles might be... it might’ve gone further than you realize.”
These bacteria that fly under the radar of your disinfecting spray could easily end up on your vegetables or fruit next time you use your sink, Quinlan warns.
How to change your ways
Scientists have known washing chicken is unnecessary for years, so why are so many people still doing it?
A 2013 study that Quinlan contributed to found as much as 90 percent of consumers admitted to washing their chicken. Another study, this one published in 2015 in the Journal of Food Protection, found this number was still as high as 70 percent.
While part of the problem is stubborn consumers who struggle or refuse to change their ways, another issue is that critical public health messaging hasn’t reached consumers, Quinlan says. In new ongoing research on the subject, Quinlan estimates that approximately 50 percent of consumers still haven’t even heard it’s dangerous to wash chicken.
As for stubborn consumers who may simply shrug off this advice in favor of sticking to their culinary habits, Quinlan advises that they take it slow and try not washing their chicken just once to see what happens.
“Just try it once,” says Quinlan. “And see if you notice a difference in the taste — because as long as you cook it thoroughly there certainly won't be a difference in the taste.”
CHECK, PLEASE is an Inverse series that uses biology, chemistry, and physics to debunk the biggest food myths and assumptions.