The most recent episode of Ina Garten’s Sunday night TV show, Cook Like a Pro, was all about chicken. Amidst a segment where she stuffed and prepped a bird for roasting, she touched, ever so lightly, on a decades-old debate: Should you or should you not wash your chicken before roasting it? What she mentioned in passing is actually a fraught history, one that’s caused many a panic, and pit two very famous, very great chefs against each other.
It all began on January 24, 1971, on the 14th episode of the seventh season of Julia Child’s show, The French Chef. During a segment called "To Roast a Chicken," Child advised users to run their uncooked birds under the faucet. “I just think it's a safer thing to do,” she reasons. It makes sense: We rinse our produce, so why not our poultry? Though her logic is cursory, at best, it’s Child we’re talking about—it's easy to take everything she says at face value. But should we? Jacques Pepin seemed to disagree. On an episode of their joint show, Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home, he countered his costar. Chickens, he asserted, don’t actually need a pre-roast rinse, the heat of the oven will take care of any lingering bacteria. Thus, a debate was born.
It wasn’t until Sunday night, however, that a new contender stepped into the ring. This time, Ina Garten weighed in. In this aforementioned episode, the Barefoot Contessa herself came down on the side of the unwashed. Chickens, she says, don’t require a bath. Feel free to roast one without rinsing. So there it is, three icons and their chicken-washing practices. But where does science weigh in on this? Does any of it actually matter?
As it turns out, yes! Jennifer Quinlan, a food safety researcher at Drexel University has pretty strong feelings on the matter. We shouldn’t be rinsing raw poultry, Quinlan contends. Not only is it unnecessary, but it’s also dangerous. Washing an uncooked chicken could spread germs, as water splatters carry the pathogens to other parts of your kitchen. This animation provides a salient visual:
There’s no need, however, to despair. One should always be careful when handling raw meat, says Quinlan, and be careful to keep your surfaces and utensils cleaned and rinsed. Plus, make sure you cook your chicken to the recommended 165° F, at the least. To educate home cooks on the dos and don’ts of chicken safety, she developed an entire campaign around the topic. Check out Don’t Wash Your Chicken for videos and explainers and everything else you ever wanted to know about chicken-washing safety.
So there it is, what started on TV ends with science. From Child to Pepin and back again, a decades-long debate seems to have the closure it needs. And, of course, Ina was right.
Do you wash your chicken prior to cooking? Tell us what you learned in the comments below.