Science Changed My Mind…About Chicken

NPR posted an interesting piece recently regarding the washing of poultry in the kitchen. It turns out I have been doing things wrong in the kitchen – as well as some of the chefs on various cooking shows. The inside of a chicken or turkey should not be washed before cooking. It is OK to pat dry with paper towels. Washing only spreads germs throughout your kitchen while leaving plenty inside to still get you sick if not cooked to the proper temperature.

What was also interesting is the backlash the piece brought about on social media. Although a food safety scientist showed evidence of the germs being spread, no one wanted to doubt the wisdom of Julia Child. This is a classic case of Appeal to Authority. I often talk about this in my blog posts. A person’s credentials should absolutely be a factor in trusting what they are communicating. But no matter the expertise of a person, when presented with good evidence which goes against that person, it is important to trust the evidence. Just because Julia Child said to cook something a certain way doesn’t mean it is the best way. Such is the case of washing a chicken.

I am not surprised my this revelation, but I am a bit surprised it didn’t occur to me sooner. On the show “Mythbusters,” Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage placed toothbrushes in a bathroom for a month, and it turned out fecal matter water is ejected from a flushing toilet, which shows moving water is indeed chaotic. In a 2012 study, researchers recommending putting the lid down before flushing as the water was indeed found to spread bacteria. When water is running, droplets are getting spread in a pretty wide area. Something that should have been obvious – I missed it. (Note: I edited the paragraph slightly to make the results of the studies clearer.)

Going forward, no more washing my chickens and turkeys – because I trust the science.

About Eric Hall

My day job is teaching physics at the University of Minnesota, Rochester. I write about physics, other sciences, politics, education, and whatever else interests or concerns me. I am always working to be rational and reasonable, and I am always willing to improve my knowledge and change my mind when presented with new evidence.
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21 Responses to Science Changed My Mind…About Chicken

  1. Michael says:

    There is a similar bogus belief about mussels. Ever since British chef Sophie Grigson told her readers to throw out any mussels that failed to open during cooking, cookery writers have been slavishly repeating this furphy without ever questioning the reason for it.

    Ms.Grigson was in fact only writing about the appearance of the finished dish. Mussels were cheap and plentiful and if some refused to co-operate, tant pis! out they go. However somehow this relatively harmless remark came to be interpreted as “shellfish that fail to open are unfit for consumption”.

    In fact, French trained chefs (of which I am one) are well aware that the only reason some mussels fail to behave as expected is because they have not been cooked long enough, and the muscle that holds the shell together is still elastic enough to do just that. Give them a few more minutes and they will open up, just like all the others, and provide exactly the same amount of nourishment. It’s extraordinary to ponder just how many tonnes of perfectly edible protein have been wasted in the fifty or more years since that advice first appeared due to nothing more than a misunderstanding.

    • Interesting! I have always been under the assumption that those mussels who do not close when you knock on them prior to the cooking are dead, or unfit for consumption. And those already closed should open during cooking unless they were dead or otherwise unfit for consumption. In other words, this double check would get rid of those unfit for consumption before, and those after as well… are you telling me that those prior to the cooking are also ok if already open (and don’t close if you knock on them), or is this technique still sensible?

      • Jon Richfield says:

        Mussel shells, unless glued or taped shut, spring open under the elastic force of the fibres in their hinge. They are held shut by muscular power. (Muscles and many other molluscs have special muscles that lock shut and hold the grip at effectively no energy cost, exactly for this purpose.)
        So: an open mussel that shuts reluctantly shuts is likely to be moribund and stale. Seafood may be dangerous when fresh (red tides etc) but they certainly are not safe when they are stale. If you want to risk your well-being on stale mussels, fine, but don’t take chances with guests and family.
        Mussels that don’t close at all are likely to be dead. I wouldn’t even think of eating them knowingly, but suit yourself, with the reservations that I mentioned.
        Mussels that don’t soon open when cooked are likely to be the strongest and (erstwhile) healthiest; just go on cooking till they do open. If they don’t, you might wish to open them to see what is wrong inside. When they die their muscles generally relax and the springy fibres force them open unless the fibres have been damaged.

        • Jon Richfield says:

          Incidentally, my spelling muscles must have twitched in the previous note; I see that I said “muscles” in at least one spot where I meant “mussels”. Sorry ’bout that! Oh well, sooner or later SOMEONE had to make that mistake! ;-(

      • No, I’m not saying that Jon, I didn’t even mention it. Mussels that fail to close prior to cooking should still be discarded. Jon Richfield has very kindly explained why and what the difference is between those and the ones that fail to open.

        • Jon Richfield says:

          Sorry Michael, I didn’t mean to pick on you (or anyone else!) I was just trying to complete the perspective. No offense!

          • I didn’t think that you had picked on me Jon (Richfield). I was delighted by your intervention and my comment was sincere. Certainly i took no offense. Equally Jon (Therikson) I’m not at all upset with you. If only there was a way of conveying expression in these brief online encounters 🙂

        • I see and thank you to Jon also for the clarification. I am ashamed of the many many times I have sent back mussels in a restaurant claiming they were bad because they had not opened, or had not opened enough. Great news, as my next attempt of cooking mussels will give me at least 10% more than usual

          PS: @ Jon, Michael seems upset with me (also named Jon) for putting words in his mouth. Michael, this was not my intention and I apologise, I just wanted to be sure and learn something as I am a big seafood fan… in both eating and cooking 🙂

          • You have nothing to be ashamed of, Jon. You were mistaken in your reasoning, but no chef should be sending out uncooked mussels to a customer. I would have sent them back as well. My reasons would have been different, but the couldn’t care less attitude of the chef remains the same.

        • Jon Richfield says:

          Jon and Michael!
          Pardon my hysterical cackling; it is all my fault for my pathological egocentricity. Would you believe that I actually had noticed Jon’s name and yet was so obtuse that it did not occur to me that Michael was referring to Jon Therkildsen, even though he specifically added my surname for clarity.
          Apologies to both!

  2. Craig Good says:

    My favorite authority on food, Cook’s Illustrated, said back in 2004 not to wash chicken. Both the USDA and the British authorities recommend against it for the reasons you state. Further, they found no impact on flavor. They did say that if you can’t help yourself to just pat it with some paper towel and try to keep down the cross-contamination.

    In 2010 they added this, to include all meat:

    “Avoid rinsing raw meat and poultry. Rinsing is more likely to spread contaminants around the sink than to send them down the drain. Since brined meats do need to be rinsed before cooking, make sure to thoroughly clean the sink and surrounding areas after rinsing.”

    BTW, another tip is to run your kitchen sponges through the dishwasher. Those things get nasty.

  3. Jon Richfield says:

    I wasn’t aware that there was a controversy about this sort of thing. Many of the domestic sources of microbial contamination are harmless unless someone in the house is sick. Most of the germs are harmlessly present anyway, and if not, then they should be, so that all family members are immunised. Can anyone get sick that way? Certainly, occasionally anyway. Maybe an attack of the runs or the like. Dangerously? Not so certainly, but it happens. Can people get sick from infections in a house that maintains near-hospital sterility in the home? Definitely. Not so commonly maybe, but when it happens, it can be very ugly. (And anyway, nosocomial infections can be deadly and frequently are.)
    There is more to this than just killing dangerous germs. There is suggestive evidence that excessive hygiene has led to a high incidence of serious allergic problems in first-world countries.
    As for washing food, routine rinsing makes sense only when there is visible dirt to remove, and almost always only on the outside. It will never render veggies etc sterile. If you are seriously concerned about a possibly high local incidence of say, Shigella infections, then give them a soak in hypochlorite or the like BEFORE cutting them.
    Washing meat and fish etc unless there is visible evidence (not just a bit of visible blood or tissue fluid) simply adds or spreads infection and removes much of the flavour and spoils the texture. Totally nutty. And if you must wash it for some reason, then consume or cook it immediately. Lord only knows how many people have died of botulism or Salmonellosis, eating food at fairs and fetes, that had been washed and prepared the previous day. Those who just got the trots were lucky.
    And if you cook it, cook it hot. None of this uninformed “raw is healthy” rubbish.

  4. Actually (I guess I am ‘that guy’) the mythbusters discovered that even their control toothbrushes, outside of the bathroom, had just as much fecal matter as the toothbrushes in the bathroom. Their conclusion was that fecal matter was not “ejected from a flushing toilet” so much as fecal matter is just the cost of doing business on planet earth… However, according to your ABC News link, putting the lid down probably produces less fecal matter in the air.

    • Eric Hall says:

      Writing late – my mistake! I will correct it.

    • Jon Richfield says:

      I think one of my deathless remarks went walkabout. It doesn’t seem to be visible. I’ll try to replace it and risk a duplication. While I still stand by what I said, I agree with the ABC News link about the lid, though I have little faith in the quantitative assay protocols of the Mythbusters. Microbiology is a tricky subject, and quantitative microbiology is mercilessly tricky and littered with the good intentions of amateurs. But the general principle that we live in a faecal miasma is fairly sound.
      Incidentally, interested parties might like to look up “f(a)ecal” transplants in some of the more reliable sources, such as “Fecal bacteriotherapy” in Wikipedia.

      • Moral Dolphin says:

        Ah yes that august journal…

        Waste of a whole paragraph there Jon..

        • Keovar says:

          So tell me, is there a conspiracy to only put false things on Wikipedia or does the act of posting something there actually change reality to make it false?
          It’s not a primary source, it’s an overview to give one a starting point. If you find things which you can show to be wrong or incomplete, put in edits. Like every human endeavour, it’s only as good as the time and effort people put into it. Sitting there bashing is just cheap and lazy posturing.

  5. …and, never prepare your chicken in the bathroom!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Apparently mussels are much more interesting then chickens are. By washing, what do you mean? Tide? Bleach? Car wash? I soak chicken twenty minutes in salt water. I don’t splash it all over my kitchen. The bird stays fresher in the the fridge much longer. Tastes clean too.

    • Jon Richfield says:

      Can’t speak for others, but I thought of simple water, not too much soap. Definitely no sodium lauryl sulphate.
      Your salt water idea sounds worth a try though.

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