Cooking is part necessity, but it’s also partly cultural. The way we cook says a lot about the societies we live in and the traditions that influence our families.
I know that a lot of what I do in the kitchen is an echo of what my mother taught me. When I crack an egg into a mixing bowl, I scoop out that last little bit of raw egg white in the shell with my finger and scrape it off on the edge of the bowl. My mother grew up in the Great Depression and learned not to waste food. Some of her habits have been passed down to me even though I grew up a full generation later in relatively easy circumstances.
When I start to cook a chicken or turkey, I also do what my mother showed me. Step One for me is cutting open the plastic wrap the bird comes in and discarding it. Step Two is to reach inside the cavity of the fowl to remove the package of giblets. (I cook those pieces in a saucepan with a bit of water as a treat for my faithful mutt, Buster Brown, who deserves a bit of payback because he keeps me company in the kitchen while I labor there.) Finally, in Step Three, I hold the bird over the kitchen sink and rinse it inside and out in cool water running from the faucet.
It’s that last step that has now been called into question in my mind. According to a news piece that ran recently on NPR’s website, there’s no good reason to rinse poultry prior to cooking. Beyond that, there’s really every reason to refrain from rinsing birds because tiny droplets of water bouncing off the carcass spread microorganisms to everything around your sink for a distance up to 3 feet. Some of those droplets get on you, some on your kitchen counter, some on any dishes that may be in the vicinity of the sink.
The contaminants that arrive with poultry into our kitchen can be serious business. A microorganism called Campylobacter and our old friend salmonella combine to cause close to 2 million cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. each year. The way to reduce the threat they pose is not by rinsing raw poultry, but by thoroughly cooking the birds you prepare.
Yet many of us continue to rinse. In fact, according to the NPR piece, about 90 percent of cooks rinse raw poultry. We do it because our mothers taught us the technique, not because we’ve really thought about it. And rinsing is reinforced by some cookbooks and by reruns of Julia Child, the famous “French Chef” of public television who rinsed her birds as we all watched.
Habits can be tough to change. But now is the time to stop rinsing your chickens and turkeys. Just thoroughly cook your birds. It’s easier than rinsing, and safer as well.
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.