National BBQ Month: Should You Wash Chicken and Steak Before Cooking?
May is National BBQ Month. Before we celebrate with a delicious feast of brisket and ribs, let's make sure we know to cook meat safely.
There's no arguing that raw meat is viscerally…gross.
It's not just a knee-jerk reaction, either. Anyone who pays attention to the news knows that the bacteria on raw meat can make you very sick. The result can be anything from a rumbly tummy to hospitalization, and, for the most vulnerable groups, even death.
We know that cooking meat helps, but…we wash veggies. We wash fruits.
Are you supposed to wash meat, too?
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Are You Supposed to Wash Meat Before Cooking?
This question occurs to most of us at some point, as we tear open a package of slippery salmonella-marinated raw chicken.
It seems deceivingly logical – if washing makes fruits and veggies safe, and if cooking makes meat safe, shouldn't washing meat before cooking make it even safer?
But the answer is no. Washing meat actually contradicts best food safety practices.
Washing meat will do nothing to reduce bacteria to a safe level. They're not just on the juicy surface, they're inside, too. Cooking raw meat to the recommended temperature will always make it safe to eat.
At best, washing steak, chicken, or any other meat does nothing.
At worst, it actually increases your risk of food poisoning.
Why Soap Shouldn't Come Near Raw Chicken or Steak
Most people know better than to use soap or detergent when they "wash" meat, but just to set the record straight: washing raw chicken or any other meat with soap or any other chemical is the worst possible option.
On top of the other problems with washing meat, you'll be contaminating your food with chemicals that could make you ill. In fact, you shouldn't use soap on fruits or vegetables, either, for the same reason.
Surely Just Rinsing Meat Can't Hurt?
It really can.
Whenever you wash anything by hand in the sink, a microscopic mist of water splashes all over everything, even if you don't leave a visible mess.
By rinsing meat, you're giving bacteria a free ride to anywhere the water goes.
That includes your face, your clothes, and your skin. It also contaminates your sink, your kitchen surface, and your utensils.
Then, your hands or clothes or utensils transfer bacteria to anything they touch, as well. You won't even realize it's happening.
This is called cross-contamination, and it's a big risk for foodborne illness, even if you're following the rules with your actual food.
Any Other Reasons For Not Rinsing Meat?
A lesser concern is that your meat won't taste as good, especially in the case of washing steak.
When meat is waterlogged before cooking, it can't start browning until all the water is cooked off. Since water vaporizes at 212°F and the Maillard reaction (which causes browning and creates complex flavor) doesn't start until 230°F, your steak may be overcooked before the Maillard reaction can even begin.
How Do We Know That Rinsing Meat Is Dangerous?
The USDA actually conducted a study on washing raw chicken, specifically.
They solicited participants who reported washing or rinsing poultry as a part of their routine. Then they set up an observational study.
They asked participants to cook chicken thighs and prepare a mixed green salad. But first, they added harmless tracer bacteria to the chicken so they could see the extent of cross-contamination.
Here were their findings:
- 60% of participants had high levels of bacteria in their sink after washing poultry
- 14% still had bacteria in the sink even after they tried to clean or sanitize it
- 26% transferred bacteria from the raw poultry to their lettuce (which would be eaten raw) because they washed it after the raw chicken
What About Soaking Meat In Water, Vinegar, Or Lemon Juice?
None of these options kill any germs. They're also ineffective at reducing sodium content.
On top of serving no health-related purpose, soaking meat introduces all the problems we talked about before.
Wait, Does That Mean I Can't Marinate Meat?
Not at all! But when you're marinating for flavor, you can make the process safer with a few precautions.
Marinate the meat in the refrigerator – leaving it out at room temperature gives bacteria the chance to grow.
When you're done marinating, never reuse the liquid, which is now chock full of bacteria. If you intend to use it as in a gravy or sauce, you need to boil it first. Otherwise, pour it down the sink.
Afterward, you should wash the container and/or sanitize it in the dishwasher. Also sanitize your inner sink and any other surface that touched the meat or used marinating liquid.
You can reduce the number of contaminated items by using a leak-proof plastic bag for marinating, then throwing it out.
What Should You Do Instead of Washing Meat?
If your concern is to remove skin, juice, or blood, there are better options that don't present a health risk.
Lay the meat on a clean cutting board and use a knife to cut away undesired tissue. If you want to reduce juice or blood, pat the raw meat with a paper towel and then immediately throw it away.
Immediately wash and sanitize the cutting board and any other utensils that touched raw meat, then wash your hands thoroughly with soap for 20 seconds.
If you're worried about pathogens, skip washing meat and cook it properly instead. The only sure-fire way to do this is to use a meat thermometer inserted into the meat's center.
Then cook to the necessary temperature which is:
- 160°F for ground meat
- 165°F for any cut of poultry, including chicken and turkey
- 145°F for any cut of other meat, including beef, pork, lamb, veal, fish, and seafood
No need to memorize these temperatures. You can keep a cheat sheet on the fridge or use a digital thermometer with preprogrammed meat settings.
The USDA also recommends you wash and prepare any foods that won't be cooked before handling raw meat, to minimize the chance of eating raw contaminated food. That includes salads and any raw veggies.
Want to Learn More?
Food safety is a big topic – there's so much to learn. That's why professionals frequently invest in food safety training and continuing education to make sure their working knowledge of best practices stays sharp.
Not a pro? Some food safety knowledge is still useful for preventing a bad night of food poisoning. Live more on takeout instead? Check out our free consumer course on how to tell if a business is taking proper food safety precautions.