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.”