Should you wash meat before cooking or freezing it?
It can be so tempting when you yank your glistening T-bone from its sealed plastic package with a snap, or unwrap that drippy lamb chop from the butcher paper like it’s a gift.
But no. Just no. Do not rinse your raw beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, or veal before cooking it, says the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
In fact, though you might (understandably) rinse meat to clean it, doing so can lead to the opposite-of-desired effect. According to the USDA, cooks who rinse raw animal proteins increase the risk of cross-contamination in their kitchens, boosting the likelihood of food-borne illness.
You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers. Here are the deets on why washing meat isn’t a good idea.
Julia Child and other well-respected chefs were historically in favor of washing meat (especially poultry). But while the queen of French cooking may have been right about a lot of things (like mixing oil and butter for sautéing or squeezing the water out of cooked spinach), science shows that certain best practices have evolved since Julia’s time.
Though some folks throughout history — and even some cultures today — may consider washing meat an important step in sanitary food prep, it’s not considered necessary in the 21st-century U.S.
Washing packaged raw meat isn’t an effective way to reduce bacteria. It could even make you more likely to get food poisoning.
Wondering how washing something can make it more likely to make you sick? Here’s the quick version:
- Raw meat may contain bad bacteria (aka food-borne pathogens). Think: big baddies like Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter, and E. coli.
- Anything meat touches while it’s still raw (like other foods, surfaces, or kitchen tools) could become contaminated with these bacteria.
- If you’re washing your meat under the faucet, the water can carry pathogens to your sink basin too.
Proper cooking will kill any bad bacteria in the meat and make it safe for you to eat. Sadly, you can’t say the same for your sink, counters, utensils, or cutting board. Any surfaces that came into contact with the raw meat could still contain bacteria and should be washed with hot, soapy water, rinsed, and then air- or paper-towel-dried.
Another reason not to rinse: Excess moisture on meat’s surface thwarts the Maillard reaction. That’s the intricate chemical process that occurs when carbohydrate molecules react with amino acids, yielding the coveted sear on steak or other meats.
The interchange between carbs and amino acids produces hundreds of different chemicals, explains Harold McGee in his book On Food and Cooking — “pyrroles, pyridines, pyrazines, thiophenes, thiazoles, and oxazoles,” to name a few. These give a brown color to the meat along with rich, complex flavors.
The Maillard reaction begins at approximately 285°F (140°C). Water, which turns to vapor at 212°F, simply won’t get hot enough to allow the Maillard reaction to occur. That means a watery piece of meat won’t start browning until all the water is cooked off — but by that time your T-bone might already be well done.
Soaking meat in a highly seasoned brine is one thing (and is mostly all about adding flavor), but there are some who like soaking poultry, pork, and beef in salted or plain water for various other reasons. “This is a personal preference and serves no purpose for food safety,” the USDA says.
If you do choose to give your meat a bath as part of a recipe, keep it in the refrigerator until cooking time. This will help prevent cross-contamination when soaking and removing the meat from the water.
For people on a sodium-restricted diet, there isn’t any benefit to washing or soaking country ham, bacon, or salt pork, either. Very little salt is removed by washing, rinsing, or soaking a meat product. The USDA does not recommend it.
Another FYI: Some studies suggest that acidic solutions like vinegar or lemon juice may help reduce the number of bacteria on raw meat, but it’s not clear if they can kill food-borne viruses. Cooking your meat to the proper internal temperature is still the best way to kill harmful bacteria.
Cross contamination is bad news, folks. And washing meat isn’t the only way it happens. Here are our best tips to prepare meat safely.
Wash your hands and kitchen tools
If you’re preparing meat, wash your hands really well after handling it. According to the CDC, this looks like 20 seconds of washing with soap and warm water.
Why is this so important? Because unwanted germs can survive and thrive on your hands, kitchen tools, and countertops.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can all use a hand-washing tutorial. So if you’re still puzzled about how to properly wash your hands, check out our cheat sheet. And again, remember to wash cutting boards, cutlery, and any other utensils you’ve used with hot, soapy water.
Keep ’em separated
Another helpful way to prevent cross contamination is to separate raw meat from other foods you’re storing or preparing. Here’s what that looks like:
- When grocery shopping, when storing meat in the fridge, and while meal preppin’, keep raw meat (and its juices) away from foods that won’t be cooked.
- If possible, use different cutting boards for raw and cooked foods (like one for veggies and fruit and another for meat and poultry).
- Never put cooked foods back on an unwashed plate that held raw meat.
Chill or freeze leftovers within 2 hours
Saving food for later? Make sure you put it in the fridge or freezer within 2 hours. Bacteria that causes food poisoning usually multiplies quicker at temps between 40°F and 140°F.
This means that to chill or freeze leftovers, you should keep your fridge at 40°F or below and your freezer at a max temperature of 0°F. While your freezer at home isn’t powerful enough to kill harmful germs, it can maintain that food’s safety until you cook it or heat it up.
Hit the right temp
Cooking your meat and poultry at the right temp is super important to kill harmful bacteria. According to the USDA, meat and seafood are safe to eat only once they reach the following internal temps:
- Beef steaks, pork, and lamb: 145°F
- Fish and seafood: 145°F
- Ground beef: 160°F
- Poultry: 165°F
Pro tip: A food thermometer is worth the investment. It’ll help you measure the temp as accurately as possible so you don’t risk undercooking (or excessively overcooking) your supper.
Wash your veggies
You should def wash fruit and vegetables before eating them.
Raw fruits and veggies can carry dangerous bacteria (like Salmonella, E. coli, or Listeria) that might make you sick. Produce can pick up these bacteria as a result of animal contact, toxins in the soil, contaminated water, or poor hygiene during handling.
Replace that dirty kitchen sponge
Sponges are hands down one of the germiest items in your kitchen. Bacteria can easily grow in the moist and dark crannies of a sponge — and research shows that even sanitized sponges can harbor scary amounts of potentially harmful bugs. Aim to replace your scrubbers approximately every week.
So in summation, nope, don’t rinse meat. In fact, once you lift it out of the butcher paper or wrench it from the shrink-wrap, simply dry off any existing moisture carefully with paper towels before putting it in the pan to brown. Then throw the towels away. And wash your hands really, really well, for a full 20 seconds.
Now that you know what not to do, meat it up with some of these recipes.
1. Vietnamese shaking beef with filet mignon
Diversify your steak handling techniques. This tender meat gets a shake-up with just a few ingredients that aren’t hard to find.
Get our Vietnamese shaking beef with filet mignon recipe.
2. Adobo-marinated chicken tacos
With chicken, it’s often all about the marinade. For these tacos, chicken thighs sit in a smoky, flavor-packed sauce made in a blender before being grilled and stuffed into corn tortillas.
Get our adobo-marinated chicken taco recipe.
3. Grace Young’s stir-fried ginger beef with sugar snaps and carrots
Remember, don’t rinse the 12 ounces of flank steak you’re going to use for this gingery, deliciously crunchy meal that’s quick enough for a weeknight dinner.
Get Grace Young’s stir-fried ginger beef with sugar snaps and carrots recipe.
4. Baked cracker-crusted chicken tenders
Children love ’em, and admit it, so do you. These chicken nugget-like tenders are healthier (and much more delicious) than freezer and fast-food versions. Whip up some ranch dressing and you’re good to go for dipping.
Get our baked cracker-crusted chicken tenders recipe.
5. Slow cooker pork ramen
If there’s still a nip in the air — heck, even if it’s sweltering outdoors — you gotta try this ramen. Making its authentic flavor at home will save you the cash you would have dropped on a pricey restaurant bowl.