The One Thing You Need to Wash—But Probably Aren't—When Prepping Raw Chicken

But *please* don’t wash your chicken.

Woman seasoning chicken in kitchen
Photo: Getty Images / Cavan Images

Let's say you're making a delicious chicken salad, like maybe our Popcorn Chicken Salad. You'd want to get started on cooking the chicken first, so maybe you'll trim the thighs you picked out at the grocery store or cut your chicken tenders into bite-size pieces. Once your chicken is air-frying, baking or sizzling on the stovetop, you'll put your cutting board in the sink and give your hands a good scrub before getting out your favorite salad ingredients. Sounds simple enough, but a new study from North Carolina State University found that 25% of home cooks end up contaminating their salad with raw poultry.

The study, published in the Journal of Food Protection, was conceived as a way to assess the impact of washing raw chicken on contamination in the kitchen. But in the end, the researchers found that 25% of the 300 participating cooks contaminated their food, including cooks who didn't wash their chicken before cooking.

It's worth noting that washing your chicken is not a good idea. Raw chicken can have bacteria on its surface, including Salmonella, which running water can send flying into your sink, on your dishes or even onto nearby food. If you really want to give your chicken a quick tidying up, just use paper towels to blot the chicken instead—you'll probably get better browning on the outside as a result.

Since both groups—those who washed the chicken and those who didn't—ended up with similar levels of contamination in their salads, researchers suggest that how people clean up between preparing the chicken and preparing the salad could be the real culprit.

"We think the salad contamination stems from people doing a poor job of washing their hands after handling the raw chicken, and/or doing a poor job of sanitizing the sink and surrounding surfaces before rinsing or handling the salad," study author Ellen Shumaker, Ph.D., said in a media release.

To measure the contamination, researchers inoculated the chicken with a traceable but harmless strain of bacteria. While they expected to find traces of the bacteria on the surfaces surrounding the sink—at least after some cooks washed their chicken—they instead mostly found the bacteria in the sink itself.

It's no secret that your kitchen sink can get pretty filthy—one cleaning expert told us it's "by far one of the dirtiest places in the home." So next time you tidy up after dinner, don't forget to scrub down the sink. When we chatted with cleaning experts back in 2020, they gave us a few easy ways to make your sink sparkle, from letting disinfectant sit on the surface for a few minutes to using baking soda and bleach to get rid of stains and germs.

It may sound like a headache to disinfect your sink after cooking raw meat every time, but keeping your kitchen nice and clean will help you avoid foodborne illnesses in the long run. Just be sure to correctly wash up your cutting board and take care of your kitchen sponges, too.

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